March 7, 2024

By Meadow Rue Merrill

In the dusky Oregon evenings of my childhood, after penning the sheep and goats and chickens, my mom often gathered my brother, Sunny, and me beside her on our gray Salvation Army couch to read aloud the Chronicles of Narnia. In C.S. Lewis’s classic fantasy, four children stumble through a wardrobe into another world where they battle an evil witch and discover their true place as kings and queens.

In her just-released debut YA novel Once a Queen (WaterBrook, 2024), Michigan author Sarah Arthur, spins a similarly familiar fantasy. However, the hidden world in Arthur’s tale lies not through the back of a wardrobe, but in the pages of a well-loved fairy tale. Set in a sprawling English manor, the story is told through the eyes of 14-year-old American Eva Joyce who discovers that her grandmother, from whom she’s been estranged, holds a secret past.

Over the course of the summer, Eva grows close to Frankie, whose family lives and works at her grandmother’s estate. From Frankie, Eva begins to suspect that the stories she grew up hearing about the fantasy kingdom of Ternival might just be true. “Of course they’re true!” Frankie tells Eva, after one particular discovery. “Nothing truer!”

“Does that mean portals for getting into other worlds are real too?” Eva asks. “Like tunnels. And magic paintings. And doors that open that didn’t open before?”

“Exactly!” Frankie responds.

Given a glimmer of what might lie beyond such a door, Eva makes it her mission to find such a portal while piecing together her grandmother’s past, which is filled with loss. But Eva’s discoveries unearth a trove of secrets, threatening her friendship with Frankie.

A thoughtful and engaging read, Arthur’s tale caused me to examine my own painful losses and the role faith plays in how we determine what is true. In her essay “Is it Good Enough for Children?” the late fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle quotes Aristotle, proposing that “what is plausible and impossible is better than what is possible and implausible. That means that story must be true, not necessarily factual. but true.”

As Arthur gently reminds readers, what is lost is not truly gone, merely hidden. This is the impossible truth woven within Arthur’s plausible story. Or, as Eva discovers, those we consider lost are, “In that fair country beyond the door … Safe and whole and waiting.”

With my own mother long since gone to that fair country, it is a comforting image to hold onto – one that fills me with hope. The first book in a trilogy, with a sequel, Once a Castle, scheduled for publication in 2025 and the trilogy’s final book, Once a Crown, scheduled for 2026, readers who embark on Eva and Frankie’s quest of discovery will have more adventures to look forward to. While written for teens, Arthur’s fantasy is one that I expect many families will enjoy reading together, as mine once did.

For more information on Sarah Arthur and her writing, check out this interview in Publishers Weekly.

Meadow Rue Merrill is the author of the Christopher award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores, and recently contributed to Rivers of Ink, a Maine anthology celebrating the Penobscot River watershed. She writes and reads in a little house in the big woods of Midcoast Maine. Connect at: meadowrue.com