The Secret of Dreadwillow is a middle grade novel by Brian Farrey. In the center of the verdant Monarchy lies Dreadwillow Carse, a black and desolate bog that the happy people of the land do their best to ignore. Little is known about it, except for one dire warning: If any monarch enters Dreadwillow Carse, then the Monarchy will fall. Twelve-year-old Princess Jeniah yearns to know what the marsh could possibly conceal that might topple her family’s thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Emberfell, where everyone lives with unending joy, a girl named Aon hides a sorrow she can never reveal. She knows that something in the carse holds the cure for her sadness. Yet no matter how many times she tries to enter, the terror-inducing dreadwillow trees keep her away. After a chance meeting, Princess Jeniah and Aon hatch a plan to send Aon into the heart of the carse to unlock its darkest secret. But when Aon doesn’t return, a guilt-stricken Jeniah must enter the carse to try and rescue her friend, even if it means risking the entire Monarchy.
The Secret of Dreadwillow is a solid dark fantasy for the middle grade set. Aon is a normal village girl trying to hide the range of emotions that she feels. She wants to be happy like everyone else, but it is only by visiting the forbidden Dreadwillow Carse that she gets some relief. Jeniah is a princess, dreading the coming loss of her mother and trying to figure out who she is, and how to be a good queen. She is desperately trying to find her way, and the harder she looks for answers the more troubling the results and her concerns grow. The point of view goes back and forth between the two characters, which might be a little confusing or off putting for some readers, but I thought getting to see the inner thoughts of both characters was important here. They each have secrets, inner doubts, and questions about the world. They are each multidimensional and likable. I like that the struggles of both girls is very different because of who they are, but still very much the same because there are aspects of growing up and self discovery that are fairly universal. I think the big themes of coming of age, and the social commentary that are included blend well with the adventure and gothic feel. No one aspect overcomes the other, leaving the book accessible and relatable to a wide audience.