Mystery of the Secret Room is lots of the most important thing a Choose Your Own Adventure book should be: fun! But it’s also exceptionally well-written, with interesting characters, unusual situations and an exceptionally engaging writing style that draws the reader in as if under a spell. This is a very popular book–some readers of this blog series have mentioned it as being one of their all time favorites–and now I know why.
Mystery of the Secret Room by Ellen Kushner (illustrated by Judith Mitchell)
Published: December 1986
Number in the CYOA Series: 63
This is the first book by Ellen Kushner I’ve reviewed in this series, though it was the fourth one she wrote. Ms. Kushner is one of the most interesting and well-accomplished writers in the series, going on to be a groundbreaking fantasy/SF author with several prestigious awards to her credit. She was also the host of the radio program Sound & Spirit. She’s actually a really fascinating lady; here is her website.
Anyway, on to the book! In Mystery of the Secret Room, “you” are a fairly ordinary kid who’s been entrusted to house-sit for your Aunt Celia, a rather eccentric lady with a collection of strange plants, pets and mysterious artifacts. She’s left you a note saying that, if she’s not back by the 31st, you should use an oddly-shaped key to open a particular door. You have no idea what door the key opens, but the 31st comes and goes, and suddenly a strange door appears under the stairs. You open it to find, no, not Harry Potter, but a table with three boxes, one marked PAST, one marked FUTURE, and one marked NEVER. A note from Celia says you can open only one. Which one do you choose? This straightforward and well-defined choice propels us right into the story, which we already know will involve magic and fantasy elements.
Ellen Kushner has gone on to a wonderful career beyond her initial forays in the Choose Your Own Adventure books. This picture of her was taken in 2013 (photo by Delia Sherman).
All three boxes lead to very interesting plots. In each one something or someone jumps out of the box and into your world, and in most of them you eventually have the ability to go into the world the visitor came from. The Future box unleashes an oddly-dressed hipster girl from the future, Woody, whose plot involves preventing an assassination, a la Franz Ferdinand, that will trigger a catastrophic world war. The Never box (as in, something that never existed in your world) unleashes a griffin, a fantasy creature with a taste for raw meat, who might help you work for a messenger service (the griffin can fly) or who might eat you out of house and home if you’re not careful. The Past box involves a teenage boy from the early Middle Ages, Ingeld, who runs around trying to kill cars with his sword and, in one amusing plot, disputes your English teacher’s interpretation of Beowulf. My description makes the book sound chaotic, but it doesn’t really come off that way. It’s just an interesting, fast-paced pastiche of fantasy elements.
Ellen Kushner’s writing is unusually rich and evocative for a CYOA book, unusual for a series whose writing styles tend to be almost excessively matter-of-fact. She’s great with word economy but even greater at drawing compelling characters in a limited amount of page space. I especially like Ingeld, probably the most-explored of the fantasy characters, who has a quirky but endearing personality, but who you must also watch carefully lest his twitchy warrior nature and misunderstanding of the future cause him to run embarrassingly amok. Even Aunt Celia, who makes only cameo appearances in a few plots, is endearing and interesting; a magician (of course), she could have come off as a caricature, but actually she’s pretty three-dimensional. Ms. Kushner pays much more attention to character than many CYOA authors do, and it certainly shows.
Is Beowulf boring? A character in Mystery of the Secret Room would definitely dispute that.
This book is just terrific. It’s easy to see why kids loved it in the 80s, and why adult fans of the CYOA series, even if you missed it the first time around, will love it just as much three decades later. The last dozen or so books I’ve reviewed for the series have been hit or miss, but Mystery of the Secret Room is an obvious stand-out. It’s just pure magic. The CYOA books don’t get much better than this.
Grade: A plus
Next up: Oh no. I’ve got to do another round with Louise Munro Foley, for the next book on my shelf is Mardi Gras Mystery. Will I finally give her a good review? I really, really hope I can.