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Once a Queen

Once a Queen book cover


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Book Review

American Eva Joyce has never met her English grandmother. But when she spends the summer at the family’s mysterious manor house, she finds hidden secrets of a fantastic world behind magic portals.

Plot Summary

Fourteen-year-old Eva Joyce’s life has been anything but typical. Because of her parents’ research and reassignments at various colleges, she’s been always on the move. But the summer of 1995 proves to be more atypical than Eva could ever imagine. For this is the summer that she gets to meet her rich, English grandmother.

As the estate’s chauffer, Paxton, drove Eva and her mother from the airport in her grandmother’s Bentley, Eva gaped out the windows. Gray suburbs gave way to crooked villages and muddy farms, and then the road opened up to a range of mist-bound hills that looked moody and mysterious. It was like they’d fallen into something out of a fairy tale.

Her mother sits rigidly in the backseat next to her, and one of the only things she says is: “Whatever you do, don’t mention your father.”

Of course, Eva isn’t one to normally not mention things. She likes mentioning things and likes asking questions. She likes to find out about things that she isn’t supposed to find out about. For instance, why is her dad a prohibited subject? And why hasn’t she ever heard of this grandmother who lives out here in this grim but thoroughly enchanting part of the world?

“Actually, pause, in general, before you speak,” Mom clarifies. “Blathering is a habit your grandmother never could stand.”

Does she blather, Eva wonders? How can you blather about something you don’t know anything about?

That not knowing part, however, is going to change. Eva is certain of that. Her mom told her they would spend the whole summer at the manor. And as Carrick Hall rises from the valley like an old gray dragon, surrounded by high walls, peaked roofs and enormous green topiaries of beasts and fantastical figures, Eva determines that there are things she will certainly explore and answers she will definitely find.

Little does she know, however, that she’ll find out much more than a few secrets about her mom’s and grandmother’s past. She’ll also see odd things happening in the gardens at night. And she’ll find locked and hidden portals to … who knows where.

And with time she’ll also begin to believe that her favorite childhood fairy tales—stories her mother told her each night before bed—might just be … true.

Christian Beliefs

Eva, her mom and her grandmother go to services in a small church near her grandmother’s estate. The priest delivers Sunday messages and presides over the funeral of someone who works for Eva’s grandmother. (Delivering words that are a “strange combination of grim and exultant.”)

Other Belief Systems

[Spoiler Warning] Most of the supernatural element, however, is tied up in a magical fantasy world called Ternival. Eva heard stories about this fairytale place as a child, and she discovers that they were all written by the former owner of her grandmother’s estate (a woman who is actually the central subject of Eva’s dad’s research).

As she explores her grandmother’s estate, she sees tapestries and other symbols that are tied to Ternival. She also finds a box of glowing gems with magical properties. In addition, she spots her grandmother walking the gardens at night and, upon approaching her, her grandmother acts as if she were a different person. The trees move and topiaries come to life as well. (Grandmother doesn’t remember her walks or anything about those strange happenings. In fact, the daytime version of Eva’s grandmother has turned her back angrily on anything to do with magic.)

With time, Eva comes to realize that her grandmother was once a queen in Ternival. And there are indeed portals and connection points to this Narnia-like place. And like Narnia’s lion, Aslan, there is a great glowing stag that presides over Ternival. There are also animals and fantasy creatures that speak in a human language. Eva meets people in this fantastical place who are connected to her family.

There’s also a distinct sense that an evil unknown creature had a hand in past disastrous tragedies.

Authority Roles

Eva’s mom, Gwendolyn, has obviously had a strained relationship with her mother, Lady Torstane. And the two are often prickly around each other. They both make an effort, however, to show their love for Eva.

That said, Eva’s grandmother is a tortured soul whose mood can quickly shift in bitter directions. Eva learns that the woman is grieving over a tragic event that happened many years ago, and to this day that grief weighs on her heavily. On the other hand, Eva’s encounters with Grandmother’s alternate persona (whom she meets in the garden at night) gives her a variety of insights into Grandmother’s past (among other things), and Eva strives to help heal her grandmother’s brokenness. By the story’s end, Eva and her grandmother are close and loving.

Eva’s mom is carrying her own hurt. And while we don’t see that repaired, we do see Eva come to understand it more. And their mother/daughter bond is solid. We never directly meet Eva’s dad.

There are several other adults who work on or around Lady Torstane’s estate. And while it’s evident that they carry the weight of English class distinctions, they’re all consistently neutral or kind to Eva.

The stag is a mysterious figure whose full impact on Ternival isn’t clear, but he does encourage Eva to make good choices and make reparations with anyone she has wronged. “It’s never too late to make wrong things right—or to try,” he tells her later in the story. And Eva does that, to a positive effect.

Profanity & Violence

Eva stumbles and falls several times as she ventures out at night. She scrapes her knees and hands. She later falls on a steep rocky hillside and gashes open her brow, which requires several stitches.

During an intense thunderstorm, Eva overhears her grandmother talking to the topiaries about giants attacking from the forest. Eva pleads for help from the stag in the garden and then hears him battling the giants in the distance.

Someone dies of a heart attack. Someone is magically transported to a “Night Wood” and then almost attacked by an unseen, hissing creature. We hear of tragic accidents in the past, including a massive trainwreck, that took many lives.

Sexual Content

Eva makes a friendly connection with a young boy her age named Frankie, who helps around her grandmother’s estate. It’s obvious that the two like each other (Eva’s heart rate is affected when they hold hands at one point), but they remain simply friends.

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Additional Comments

Once a Queen is an immersive tale that weaves together elements of mystery, fairy tale-like fantasy and real-world family drama. The book also deals with coming-of-age angst and the debilitating aspect of grief.

This is the first book in author Sarah Arthur’s new series, and she appears to be, at least, tipping her hat to the works of C.S. Lewis and his fantastic world of Narnia.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Bob Hoose