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Crown Duel (Sherwood Smith)

Meliara Astiar and her brother Branaric are the Countess and Count of Tlanth, a small, rural province of a not-very-large kingdom named Remalna, which is ruled by king who's a nasty piece of work. The siblings and their supporters start a guerilla revolution. They are hopelessly outnumbered but wilderness-crafty, and they cause the king considerable grief before Meliara ends up in one of her side's own booby traps, gets badly injured, and is captured by the Marquise of Shevraeth, known as a wealthy fop but a cool head in battle. She eventually escapes but is recaptured - and then discovers that her current captor has also decided to overthrow the king.

At the end of what was originally the first book (this was first published as two volumes), Mel and her brother are awarded a considerable part of the king's ill-gotten gains. As the second book opens, Mel has used these funds to reverse some of Tlanth's general dilapidation and is refusing all invitations to court in the capitol because she distrusts and despises courtiers. Branaric arrives from his own court sojourn with an irrefutable reason for Mel to accompany him back, and she is soon involved in a much more civilized form of warfare. Her actions in the war against the hated king have made her something of a folk heroine (which, as Diana Wynne Jones observes, is something very different from a hero), and various factions court her with the idea of using her as a tool. At the end, she find her place and her love.

I liked this - well enough that I plan to look for some more of the author's work - but I didn't love it. Head-shaky things happened for Important Plot Reasons, and I didn't get along with Mel - who is the first-person narrator - very well. She seemed to me to be a different person than various characters and she herself wanted me to believe she was. There are also stereotypes at work: Mel is in many ways a red-haired Spirited Princess straight out of Tough Guide to Fantasyland, for example, and bad people are much more likely to be overweight than good people are.


Crown Duel (review)

The story seemed to want me to believe that Mel was a straightforward, generous, loyal, egalitarian girl with a strong sense of honor. But she came across as a prickly person with easily wounded pride, and her reaction to having her pride bruised was to become angry. There's nothing wrong with that, but there was a dissonance with what was being presented about her. When Nimiar (Bran's noble fiancee) notes that although Bran doesn't care about what other people think, "You care - terribly," somehow I found myself squirming. Mel doesn't spend an awful lot of time wondering what anybody thinks of her, actually, unless they seem to be mocking her. Being conscious of your position relative to others isn't the same as caring what people think. And for a girl from a small rural place, Mel doesn't spend much time missing home or being awed once she gets to court.

Likewise, although she spends a little time fussing about how repetitious and tedious the duties of the servants at court must be, she never seems to make any effort to get to know any of them, Even her personal maid quickly becomes a mechanism who gets her in and out of finery quickly and knows how to handle a secret correspondence. Mel's confidantes at court are Nimiar and Shevraeth's old friend Elenet - both noblewomen. And Mel doesn't spend an awful lot of time missing her old friend and near-sister, common-born Oria (who's back in Tlanth), either

Mel and others make much about her sense of honor - but she remains hostile to the man who saves her life multiple times. She also is painted as being terribly interested in the idea of running a government properly, but when she gets to court, she can't make herself go to the Court proper, when complaints are heard and handled, for ages. In both these cases, there are Plot Reasons for this behavior: in particular, if she could make herself warm up to Shevraeth at all, there would be less than half the amount of intrigue that sustains the second book. Also, because the two volumes were originally written separately, perhaps the contrast between honor-obsessed Mel in the first book and slithering-out-of-doing-right-by-Shevraeth Mel in the second book wasn't originally so sharp.

The whole subplot about the Hill Folk reminded me of the use of the Downers in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station - and not in a good way. Someone once commented that the Downers are only there so that the good guys have something to defend that isn't strategically advantageous - not unlike the Morality Pet trope on TV Tropes - and the Hill Folk were similarly a barometer for ethical behavior. In both cases, what has been defended turns up at the last minute to save the day, in an awfully convenient way.

Finally, couldn't Mel have describe that first dinner gown of hers in more detail? Clothes are a huge subject of discussion, and yet we never find out even what color it is!


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 29th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
I like Sherwood's Princess book, but I just couldn't get into this one. The narrator bugged me. *laughs*
Aug. 29th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
Which is that? Sasha from the Sasharia en Guarde duology is a princess and there's A Posse of Princesses, too:
Aug. 29th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
The thing about Mel is that it's easy to forget just how young she is. I think that explains a lot of her prickly behavior, especially when it comes to Shevraeth. She is essentially honorable and means well - but she's a teenager and she's never even had a crush before. Of course she has no idea how to handle herself.

That said, not all teenagers are like that (obviously) and it doesn't make up for some of the handwavyness, especially when it comes to how quickly she forgets Oria and the other non-noble people she comes across.
Aug. 29th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
I think Mel is an unreliable narrator and just doesn't see a lot that's going on (although I agree somewhat on the hill folk thing - but then you could call Tolkien's use of Gollum a deus-ex-machina solution to Frodo's final corruption, too, I guess).

If you liked what you saw of Shevraeth, there's a prequel all about how and why he is what he is at the time he meets Meliara (A Stranger to Command) - and it connects to the epic Inda series via being set in the same country that is at the center of Inda's conflict (only the timeline of Mel and Vidanric is 800 years later): Marloven-Hess

There's even a book about the current generation king, Senrid, and why he is as he is to explain what Vidanric gets into in Marloven-Hess.

Caveat: Sherwood Smith is an auto-buy author for me ^^.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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