The Secret of the Key: Premise is fabulous, execution falls short

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone children's fantasy book reviewsThe Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone

The Secret of the Key appears to be the final book in Marianne Malone’s SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS adventures. This children’s series has been a bit of a disappointment for me and the only reason I have continued with it is that I requested a review copy of the audiobook edition of this final book and so I felt obligated to read it. As three of us have previously mentioned, the premise is fabulous, but the execution falls short.

The stories follow Ruthie and Jack, two sixth graders who find a way to shrink and explore the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago. The two likable kids discover that the rooms open up to the worlds of the time periods they represent. In each installment they go into those worlds and interact with the children they find there, always learning a little history and solving some problem or addressing some injustice.

In The Secret of the Key, Ruthie and Jack find a modern mood ring in a room that portrays an English house that’s at least a couple of hundred years older than ring is. How did it get there? As they start investigating, they travel to China, New York, and San Francisco, and they find a woman who has been trapped back in time after visiting the Thorne Rooms when she was a child. They learn about the secret of the key that causes them to shrink and they solve a cold missing person case.

There are several problems with this series and they are present again here. Most importantly, there is relatively little time spent exploring the worlds beyond the rooms, which is what I was expecting when I heard about the premise. The plots tend to rely on a series of coincidences and Jack’s implausible knowledge (such as, in this book, the publication date of Gulliver’s Travels) and inattentive or even negligent adults (some of them know the kids are going back in time, but don’t stop them, though one finally expresses concern in this book). The problems are too easily solved, the morality lessons are trite, and there’s a general lack of tension. The stories are sweet and mildly entertaining, but don’t challenge or surprise the reader in any way.

There is always a little bit of a history lesson but the plot jumps around so much in time and place that I doubt much of it sticks. For example, Ruthie and Jack visit the technology exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair, hear Winston Churchill on the radio on the eve of World War II, visit China during the Boxer Rebellion, and see a newspaper ad for the travelling King Tut exhibition that I saw when I was a kid. But each of these experiences only lasts a few moments and can hardly leave much impression.

I listened to the SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS stories in audio format. They’re published by Listening Library and read by Cassandra Campbell. I enjoyed her narration more than I enjoyed the stories. Fans of the series will be pleased with the audio versions.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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