11 Books Featuring Secret Passages, Hidden Rooms, and Mysterious Tunnels

11 Books Featuring Secret Passages, Hidden Rooms, and Mysterious Tunnels

Wednesday, 21 September, 2022

If you’ve ever wished that by pulling a particular leather-bound tome from a shelf, you could open a magic portal, this list of escapist reads is for you.

It may not be evident at first — we wouldn’t want to spoil the fun of a big reveal — but the action (and adventure) in all of these books pivots on a secret passage, a trick door, a hidden tunnel, or some other mysterious place meant to be kept from prying eyes.

So light a candelabra or grab a flashlight, summon your curiosity, screw up your courage, and step inside…

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Secret Passages: Down the Rabbit Hole.


The Ten Thousand Doors of January - Alix E. Harrow

This fairy tale and romance, set in the early 20th century, features a book within a book, hidden doors that move between worlds, villains with world-changing plans, and a wise, solitary, bookish girl. Do you really need to know more than that?

If yes, then how about this: It has a modern sensibility that goes after the patriarchy and has a few things to say about colonization, too.

January, our heroine and narrator, is a mixed-race girl living in a vast estate crowded with items from around the world. She is the ward of William Cornelius Locke, a wealthy industrialist and amateur archaeologist. The privileged Locke sends his employees worldwide to acquire treasures to bolster his expansive cabinet of curiosities — and January’s father works for Locke as an Indiana-Jones-type. Later, we find that January discovered a magical door when she was just seven, and — happily — adventures ensue.

Heads-up: The audiobook version — narrated by January LaVoy, a Broadway, TV, film, and voice actor — is lovely and engaging. This is just the kind of book you might want someone to read to you, perhaps with a cup of cocoa. {more}

When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden-or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.

When I was seven, I found a Door. There — look how tall and proud the word stands on the page now, the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing. When you see that word, I imagine a little prickle of familiarity makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You don’t know a thing about me; you can’t see me sitting at this yellow-wood desk, the salt-sweet breeze riffling these pages like a reader looking for her bookmark. You can’t see the scars that twist and knot across my skin. You don’t even know my name (it’s January Scaller; so now I suppose you do know a little something about me and I’ve ruined my point). — Alix E. Harrow


Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson

> Neal Stephenson

This Dickensian novel weaves two timelines — one in WWII, the other in the 1990s — to tell a tale of adventure, intrigue, the Enigma code, technology, and the search for lost gold.

The story opens with a haiku-writing U.S. Marine and continues to blast preconceptions and clichés for the following 900+ pages. In the WWII storyline, a determined group of cryptographers is desperate to break Germany’s enigma code without letting the Germans find out. In the ’90s thread, the descendants of those WWII heroes are at work on an underground data haven to protect encrypted data and, ultimately, to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from ever being repeated.

But that’s only partially what this expansive story is about.

At its core, it’s a high-stakes adventure and a tale of family, both biological and found. It fluidly incorporates intrigue and double-crosses; bracing battle scenes; jungle adventure; tenderly and humorously wrought romance; a hidden cache of war gold; and a whiz-bang ending. {more}

I had been planning to get rid of that revolver – not only because I find weapons hideously ugly, but because this particular one had killed people whose bodies had been buried on The Estate. After all, if one day somebody stumbled upon those remains, it would inevitably lead back to me; and then if they were to find the weapon that had been used to bump off all those people, I would find myself having to offer all sorts of exhausting explanations. But getting rid of a gun is the sort of job you never get around to doing, always putting it off to tomorrow. — Hannelore Cayre


A Dangerous Collaboration - Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous Collaboration
> Deanna Raybourn

Sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, and armed with a hatpin, lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell is attracted to trouble like a moth to a flame — and can’t resist the siren call of crimes that need solving. There’s not a 19th-century convention she won’t flout, and we love her for it.

She’s also admired (and bedeviled, as it turns out) by the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, a.k.a., Stoker, her partner-in-crime-solving. He’s an aristocratic bad boy with the true heart of a raging feminist. The third son of a Viscount, he’s had to make his own way in the world, earning his keep as a taxidermist and working with Veronica to turn a collection of curiosities into a museum.

Or that’s what they’re meant to be doing with their time.

In reality, they’re more often bickering, flirting, and galavanting off into adventures. A charmingly antagonistic couple like Bogie and Bacall or Nick and Nora, they’re also a bit clueless when it comes to romance, which lends a delicious will-they-or-won’t-they energy to their escapades.

This particular caper — their fourth together — is a Gothic-tinged doozy.

It’s 1888, and Veronica has been lured to St. Maddern’s Isle — a moody island off the coast of Cornwall — for a glamorous weekend house party. But once she’s on the island, it becomes abundantly clear that this will not be a posh tea-drinking, card-playing weekend with polite conversation. During a very awkward dinner party (and accompanying violent storm), it’s revealed that everyone there has a connection to the host’s wife, who mysteriously disappeared on her wedding day three years ago.

As Veronica and Stoker poke into relationships and secrets best left unrevealed, they find themselves in grave danger. {more}

A mist had risen, shrouding the island and its castle from sight until we were quite close, and then, without preamble, a soft sigh of wind blew the shreds of fog away, and there it was, looming above us, black and forbidding and utterly enormous from the vantage point of the tiny boat in the open sea.

‘There she be,’ the Cornishman said proudly. ‘The Isle.’ — Deanna Raybourn


Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone
> Laini Taylor

This fantasy adventure story will take you from Prague to Marrakech, and some magical places found in the unknown in-between.

Our heroine Karou is 17 and multi-lingual, though not all of the languages she speaks are human. She has blue hair — it grows out of her head that way — and she fills her sketchbook with drawings of monsters that may or may not be real. Much to the chagrin of her best friend Zuzana, Karou also has a very unusual job that requires her to take off on mysterious errands through magical portals to other countries.

When the story begins, mysterious winged creatures are scorching their palm prints into doorways in cities around the world. On a mission in Marrakech, Karou becomes entangled with Akiva, an angel-demon. Once he turns his fire-colored eyes on her, nothing will ever be the same. This novel deftly weaves elements we love: suspense and danger, atmospheric settings, a touch of romance, and a gut-punch ending. As Kerou goes on her mystical quest, she’s also on the hunt to understand her past and know herself. {more}

The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century… It was a city of alchemists and dreamers, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies. Tall houses glowed goldenrod and carmine and eggshell blue, embellished with Rococo plasterwork and capped in roofs of uniform red. Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels. The wind carried the memory of magic, revolution, violins, and the cobbled lanes meandered like creeks. — Laini Taylor


The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

In 1942, in Nazi-occupied Holland, a 13-year-old girl named Anne Frank left her childhood home in Amsterdam to go into hiding with her family. They spent the next two years in their ‘Secret Annex,’ in relative safety but near-constant fear of discovery by the Gestapo. This diary is the remarkable documentation of Anne’s experience.

On her 13th-birthday, 12 June 1942, Anne received a red checkered diary as a gift and promptly named it Kitty, promising to share all her secrets with her new friend. ‘I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.’

Anne’s diary recounts her life in hiding with her parents and her sister Margot. The cramped space eventually took on more refugees: a neighborhood dentist and her father’s business partner, including his wife and teenage son Peter.

By turns moving, sad, and thoughtful, the prose pops with life and a commitment to living. It’s extraordinary and comforting that amid the horror of the Holocaust, this young girl read books, sassed her parents, fell in love, held tight to her dreams of the future, and documented all of it so we can understand what she and the others in the Secret Annex endured.

Heads-up: Actress Selma Blair delivers a moving performance of the audiobook of Anne’s diary; highly recommended. {more}

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. — Anne Frank


The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
> Elizabeth Kostova

‘Vampire librarian.’ If those two words have sold you on this book, feel free to stop reading this and get your hands on a copy of the book immediately. If you want more, try this: It’s a spine-tingling page-turner and a celebration of the unbreakable bonds we form with people in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Or this: Most of the action takes place in historical libraries, dusty archives, and mountaintop monasteries — or around tables loaded with endless cups of tea, pastries, and Balkan food.

The story begins in 1970s Amsterdam: Late one night, while exploring her father’s library, a teenage girl finds a collection of old letters and a mysterious book. She reads the letters and is suddenly more frightened than she’s ever been. When her father disappears, she sets out on a quest to find him and to resolve letters’ secrets.

Equal parts Gothic thriller, detective story, travelogue, historical fiction, and a love letter to libraries, this epic effortlessly keeps track of a large cast of unforgettable characters as they fight for light in the face of an unspeakable evil. {more}

My favorite bench in the nave of the old university library was still being warmed by the last sun of a spring afternoon. Around me three or four students read or talked in low voices, and I felt the familiar calm of that scholar’s heaven soak through my bones. The great hall of the library was pierced by colored windows, some of which looked into its reading rooms and cloister-like corridors and courtyards, so that I could see people moving around inside or outside, or studying at big oak tables. — Elizabeth Kostova


The Kingdoms - Natasha Pulley

The Kingdoms
> Natasha Pulley

Forget everything you think you know about historical fiction and time-travel stories. Natasha Pulley is a gifted illusionist, conjuring rich new worlds from the ether of the familiar. Although fantastic events drive the events of this novel, the story is really about its stalwart characters and their abiding devotion.

When we meet our hero Joe Tournier, he’s in a muddle of confusion, enshrouded in case of amnesia — and our footing is equally shaky. It’s 1898 in England, but street signs are written in French, and the English language is outlawed. We’ve stepped off a train, not in London, but Londres, and the Tube is now the Métro. Alongside Joe, we’ve somehow arrived in an alternate version of the capital of what’s now a French colony. (The ‘somehow’ is revealed in a timely fashion.)

Joe’s only clue to his past is a 100-year old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. The words ‘Come home, if you remember’ are written in careful script on the postcard; it’s signed with only the letter M.

A combination of caper and quest, this is the story of Joe’s mission to figure out who he is and where he belongs. His adventure takes him from French-ruled London (and a confounding dinner with a secret society) to the rebellious wilds of Scotland, and that intimidating, isolated, atmospheric lighthouse.

All of the spectacle — the time jumps, the plot twists, the action scenes, the political intrigue — is in service to a sweeping love story that slowly reveals itself. {more}

Eilean Mor was the largest of the islands, and high on its flat top was the lighthouse. He could only just make it out through the mist. Nearer to them, talons of rock ploughed down into the water. The trawler crept further around. Beyond a spar was a miniature cove, hardly anything but a bite in the cliffside. A set of steep steps cut an uneven zigzag into the stone. There was a jetty and a winch to take supplies up the cliff. The tower windows weren’t broken. There were no birds in the lamp room, and no greenish gauge of the storm tides on the walls. The lighthouse was as whole as the morning it was finished. Something under his liver turned over. He had been sure, yesterday, that it was in ruins. He climbed over some lobster pots and a clutter of fishing floats to lean into the cabin. — Natasha Pulley


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

This is an exuberant story of a secret society, code-breaking, friendship, young love, new technology, and, perhaps, the secret to eternal life — all told through the people that circulate through an unconventional bookshop in San Francisco. Our hero Clay, a victim of San Francisco’s tech implosion, somewhat reluctantly takes a job in the bookstore of the title to lick his career wounds and begin to rebuild his life.

But it’s not long before he realizes there’s something unusual going on in the stacks of the shop. It seems to be more a lending library, with quirky customers appearing at all hours of the day and night. Plus, kindly Mr. Penumbra is keeping troubling and potentially lethal secrets. When he disappears, it’s up to Clay to figure out just what the devil is going on.

Author Robin Sloan’s prose captures the energy of both San Francisco and New York City, as well as the sinister allure of a secret library. Delivering plenty of big ideas to chew on while it takes us for a thrilling ride, this novel is an ode to books and bookishness, friends and loyalty, and the legacy we leave behind when we write our own stories.

Heads-up: The audiobook is awesome. With his flexible, energetic performance, narrator Ari Fliakos — Audible’s narrator of the year for 2017 — imbues Clay with just the right tone of optimism and anxiety. His dynamic voice acting brings all of the characters to vivid life — Mr. Penumbra, in particular, is equal parts charm and mystery. {more}

Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this: 1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley. 2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it — those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches. 3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.) 4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific. 5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. — Robin Sloan


Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall - Helena Merriman

Tunnel 29
> Helena Merriman

You’ve surely heard of the Cold War-era tunnels built under the Berlin Wall to help East Germans escape to freedom in the West. But in this gripping nonfiction account, you’ll learn the extraordinary story of a student who got out, then found a way back in to rescue other innocent people.

In 1961, a young man named Joachim Rudolph escaped from East Berlin while the Berlin Wall was being built. In a feat of remarkable timing, he was able to slip across the wall after the concrete had been poured, but before it was topped with barbed wire. Free and safe on the other side, he decided to tunnel back in — from West to East — to help others escape.

Well researched and well told by author Helena Merriman, this story is filled with riveting details that make an almost unbelievable story feel intimate and all too real. A nail-biting page-turner, it reads like a thriller even though we know it ends in triumph. The not-really-a-spoiler-spoiler: Twenty-nine people used Joachim’s tunnel to reach safety.

But before that exhilarating moment, there are terrifying and confounding ones; so many reasons the plan should have failed and so many times when it almost did. {more}

It’s dusk in East Berlin. The streets are covered in streamers and pastel splodges of ice cream after the annual children’s fair. High on sugar, children have been allowed to stay out late, and they crane their necks to the sky, watching fireworks… In the People’s Army headquarters, the country’s most senior military commanders are gorging on a luxurious buffet. It’s all the food you can’t usually get in East Germany – sausage, veal, smoked salmon, caviar. The commanders have no idea what’s brought this on… All they’ve heard is that there’s a secret operation happening that night.

At 8 p.m. exactly, the commanders open sealed envelopes and read detailed instructions, setting out what must happen every hour of the night ahead.

Meanwhile, the mastermind of all this, Walter Ulbricht, is hosting a garden party. It’s out of character – he’s serious, terrible at small talk and doesn’t have friends, but here he is, surrounded by his ministers in his woodland retreat… After supper, at around 10 p.m., as hundreds of tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumble towards East Berlin, ready to catch anyone who might escape, Walter Ulbricht directs his guests into a room, and that’s when he tells them: He’s about to close the border between East and West Berlin. If anyone wanted to stop him, warn friends or even escape, it’s too late. — Helena Merriman


The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep - H.G. Parry

For as long as he can remember, Charley Sutherland has had a magical ability he’s tried to hide: He can bring fictional characters from books into the real world. As you might expect, this gift has unintended consequences, not least of which is the resentment harbored by Charley’s beloved older brother Rob.

As an adult, Charley has mostly curbed his powers, but one day, a conjured character slips out of his control with unsettling and perilous results. Soon, he and the reluctantly recruited Rob learn of a Victorian-era street that exists in the shadows of Wellington. A big, life-changing adventure is afoot.

The story is a magic portal to the streets of Wellington and the Victorian era. Along the way, you get to hobnob with characters from literary classics, including Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, David Copperfield, characters from Dicken’s Great Expectations, and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

Seamlessly weaving whimsy with a dark side and plenty of suspense, this is a quirky love letter to great literature and loving bonds that can’t be broken. {more}

When I first came to Wellington to study law, I came because it was the cultural and creative capital of the country. It was where laws were made, and where art was made. It was where governments rose and fell in the House of Parliament named the Beehive, where lively discussions sparked over coffee in quirky cafés, where students drank to flashing strobe lights in the small hours of the morning. I had been there only once or twice, on school visits. I knew its inhabitants always complained about the weather and the hills: it was famous for winds that tore through the city at up to 250 kilometers an hour, rain that lashed its coast to ribbons, and steep slopes, dark with ancient bush, on which wooden colonial houses perched like roosting wood pigeons. I didn’t have feelings about that. I was eighteen and ambitious, and I wanted to build a life in the city. I didn’t need, or expect, to fall in love with it. — H.G. Parry


Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet - Will Hunt

> Will Hunt

This collection of essays about the world beneath our feet is nonfiction fireworks, packed with one remarkable revelation after another. With infectious enthusiasm and a voice that deftly juggles science and wonder, author Will Hunt will take you underground into sacred caves, derelict subway stations, nuclear bunkers, and ancient underground cities.

The book opens with his origin story, an anecdote that shows how he became so attuned to what mysterious underground spaces mean to us, physically and emotionally.

As a kid in Providence, Rhode Island, Hunt learned from a teacher about an abandoned underground tunnel nearby. He went looking for that tunnel and just never stopped. In subsequent chapters, he shares the story of a group that traversed Paris entirely underground. He explores how some cultures deify the spaces underground; in the Bolivian Andes, we learn about what the locals call ‘the mountain that eats men.’ He examines the significance of 14,000-year-old cave drawings and tells a story that proves Pythagoras was more than his geometry theorem.

If you’re not intrigued and entertained by a book that’s filled with fantastic photos and celebrates illegal parties in Paris and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, perhaps you need to reexamine your priorities. {more}

The doors on the underworld kingdom blew open in 1994, when a young biologist from New Mexico named Penny Boston climbed down to the very bottom of Lechuguilla Cave, two thousand feet underground. It was an environment, she said, ‘as close as you can get to traveling to another planet without actually leaving earth’ — far too remote to support even the hardiest troglobite, or any other living creature. But at one point, Boston was scrutinizing a furry, brown geological growth on the ceiling of a cave passage, when a drip of water plopped directly into her eye. Boston was amazed to find that her eye puffed up and swelled shut. It could only have meant one thing: she had been infected by bacteria, by tiny microorganisms living in the cave’s depths, far deeper underground than anyone imagined possible. — Will Hunt

Top image courtesy of Mariia Korneeva/Shutterstock.

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Would you rather... lean on a bookcase, then feel it swivel you into a previously unknown secret room — or pry open a small hidden door, grab a brass candelabra, and step into a secret passage to who knows where?
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An engaging story that's well-told is one of life's great pleasures. And a story that meanders with good intentions into backstories and side stories and related stories? Well, that's the very best kind of word sorcery.
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