Spoiler Rating: High
Because I know you thick-in-the-midst-of-doctoral-exams folk have nothing to do but stare blankly out your windows all day, allow me to rant to you about a book that started off so promisingly, and left me a puddle of exasperation and disappointment: Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith.
It begins in a cold and shabby tower room, where young Countess Meliara swears to her dying father that she and her brother will defend their people from the growing greed of the king. That promise leads them into a war for which they are ill-prepared, a war that threatens the homes and lives of the very people they are trying to protect.
But war is simple compared to what follows, when the bloody fighting is done and a fragile peace is at hand. Although she wants to turn her back on politics and the crown, Meliara is summoned to the royal palace. There, she soon discovers, friends and enemies look alike, and intrigue fills the dance halls and the drawing rooms. If she is to survive, Meliara must learn a whole new way of fighting–with wit and words and secret alliances. In war, at least, she knew whom she could trust. Now she can trust no one.
My edition is the 2002 revised reprint, which contains the two original novels (Crown Duel and Court Duel) in a single binding, renamed Part One and Part Two. As you might suspect, Part One is the bloody-fighting half, and Part Two the court-intrigue half.
The Heroine, Mel
You’re as big a fan as I am of lady warriors who are more serious about their warrioring than making sure they look good in their armor, and allow me to assure you that Mel is exactly that type. Even though, admittedly, she’s not a good fighter.
She was raised in a crumbling castle by an absent father bent on avenging his wife’s murder (at the hands of King Galdran, who also happens to be taxing his people to death in order to raise an enormous army–as bad kings are wont to do), and so she grew up barefoot and wild, with war hanging over her head. To quote her brother:
She’s fierce, determined, and a compelling combination of bloodthirsty and innocent that’s totally sucked me in. Not to mention brave and self-sacrificing:
She’s also refreshingly honest about her own shortcomings, such as her ignorance about politics, she takes no credit for the good that her actions/mistakes lead to, and doesn’t accept flattery:
A realistic approach to her shortcomings isn’t the only thing I like about her character. Later, after a jealous lady intentionally gets Mel vomiting-drunk at a party (to make a fool of her, of course), Mel reacts thusly:
Instead of snubbing Tamara (thereby ruining Tamara’s prospects at court, somehow), Mel devises a more humane and diplomatic way of dealing with the other girl. Meanwhile, I’m giving Mel two thumbs up for her attitude and compassion, which is both endearing and realistically portrayed.
The Sexy Dude, the Marquis of Shevraeth
The Marquis of Shevraeth is a gentleman known for his taste in fine clothes and racehorses, but also possesses quite a knack for warfare.
Oh my goodness, Ashers, you are going to be so incredibly excited about Shevraeth.
Court Customs in Part Two
The customs of the court are interesting, too–especially the use of hand-held fans. King Galdran would rather kill people than allow them to speak freely, so his courtiers found a new way to communicate; each flick, flutter, and minute gesture of the fans has a meaning. Mel initially dismisses it as just a means of flirting, but her brother’s fiancee corrects her:
But unfortunately, this is where things go south.
High on my list of Grievous Annoyances in fantasy novels is the outrageously-ambiguous historical time period. Yes, of course, fantasy authors have the freedom to create their cultures as they will–but that doesn’t stop my knuckles from going white when something glaringly illogical pops up.
Now, Crown Duel takes place in a world somewhat parallel to ours (as in parallel universes, I think). Early in the book, the reader is informed that horses and chocolate had been imported to this world from another one–so we know there is some degree of interaction between worlds.
This could explain the ambiguity that bothered me so much; perhaps a lot more than just horses and chocolate were imported, and those imports were adopted by the native societies before they would have been able to develop them on their own. That’s a really neat concept, and if handled correctly would add a lot of awesome depth to the cultures/world/story. (If you’ve read a book that explored that idea at all, let me know and I’ll add it to my to-read list!)
However, because this information is presented in a single throw-away sentence and never mentioned again, that awesome depth doesn’t exist in Crown Duel. Instead, the reader is shown a culture that’s an odd conglomeration of medieval Europe, Renaissance Europe, and Regency England–a time period that spans, oh, more than a thousand years.
The illogical details start even before the plot does. We’re given a brief run-down of the world and its history, which includes this bit of information:
So we’re to believe that “several generations ago” (which reads to me as between, say, 150 to 300 years ago), these sprawling, complex, Renaissance-European-ish societies still hadn’t developed range weapons beyond hand-thrown rocks and spears? Really? What else did they fail to invent? Wheels?
I understand wanting a legitimate reason to have range weapons banned from war. I’m not sure why it’s necessary in this particular book (maybe because swords are sexy?), but I’m sure there are stories out there that, for plot reasons, cannot contain range or siege weapons.
Legitimate, historically-accurate reasons for such bans do exist, though, and they’re so much more interesting than “these people somehow never invented complex range weapons, and were terrified of them when they finally started using them.”
Here’s an example: Pope Innocent II banned the use of hand-held range weapons in the early 12th century (in part) because they threatened to upend social order/hierarchy. A crossbow in the hands of a peasant could kill an armored knight–and a lower-born man who scrounged up an army of peasants wielding crossbows could potentially force his way into the highest rings of society. If there’s one thing royalty and the papacy were keen on, it was making sure that the lower-born didn’t start getting ambitious.
That’s pretty awesome.
So what technology does this kingdom boast? Certainly not gunpowder or oil lamps. They use swords for war and magician-made glowglobes for lighting–though glowglobes as streetlamps are limited to specific areas in the capital city. (And don’t ask me about any other magically-made objects, because there don’t appear to be any. Which makes those glowglobes quite conspicuous, I must say.)
Books are common enough to be collected by moderately well-off families. In Part Two, Mel began rebuilding her own family’s library:
Not only is she rebuilding the library, she’s ordering her new books through the mail; most of those fifty books are historical and political in nature, and have been collected in approximately six months. We’re not told exactly how long the whole process takes, but it’s strongly implied that Mel receives her books within a couple weeks of ordering them. This alone suggests the existence of the printing press.
However, that assumption is contradicted by the omnipresence of scribes, which she’d considered hiring instead of buying books directly from the bookseller, and which she later refers to as the ones who will copy her own memoirs for future generations. Book-copying scribes were much less common in our world after the invention of the printing press. Scribes suggest medieval, printing press suggests Renaissance.
But these are just annoying details, ultimately. I have more important things to complain about.
Unrealistically Dumb Characters
First let me say that the book’s intended audience is unclear. Shevraeth is (I think?) somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, so he’s an adult. Mel has just reached “marriageable age,” so depending on the approximate time period (which is also unclear), she’s about sixteen. However. Due to the “complexity” (those are sarcasm-quotes) of the events in the story, and certain characters’ cognitive abilities/emotional maturity/grasp of reality, I wonder if it’s actually intended for readers around the ages of, say, eight to twelve.
Part One’s plot revolves around Mel’s attempt to realize her dead father’s dream of ousting the king. Mel and Bran don’t particularly want to rule the country, but they think they’d do a better job of it than wicked King Galdran. (I’m not sure why they think this about themselves, and I’m not really sure why Galdran is so wicked in the first place. Except that he taxes his people and has a big army, and might have been involved in their mother’s death. Um.)
Early in the book, Mel is captured (by Shevraeth) and dragged before the king, who announces that if her brother doesn’t surrender, she’ll be tortured and executed. Mel escapes the king’s dungeon (with Shevraeth’s help), and the king immediately sends his people to hunt her down because, you know, a high-profile prisoner of war somehow escaped his inescapable prison. (Meanwhile, Bran surrenders to the king.) Mel leads her pursuers on quite a chase through the countryside, taking time to make a fool out one of the king’s best men.
And then, when Mel and Bran are safely tucked away in Shevraeth’s family home, Mel asks the dumbest of all the questions:
That’s right. She doesn’t understand why King Galdran can’t just leave her and Bran alone. The girl who led an army against him, escaped his dungeon hours before her scheduled public execution, and who publicly proved him and his lackeys incompetent.
Of course he isn’t going to leave them alone. What is she thinking?
And her brother Bran’s a doofus whose scenes are painful to read.
Even Shevraeth–wonderful, sexy Shevraeth–comes up with a terrible idea about how to kidnap the king. It involves asking the king to step away from his massive army to converse privately with Shevraeth, Mel, and Bran (you know, the three people who have conspired to dethrone him), grabbing him once they’re at a slight distance from his guards, and making a run for it. They all nod seriously about it, and then go to carry it out.
I just…I can’t.
Part One’s Infuriating Climax
Of course the kidnapping doesn’t go as planned (it was too dumb to succeed), leading to a brief skirmish between the good guys, the king, and the king’s soldiers. Mel, who’s dismal with a sword, manages to block one swing from the king before (the Marquis of) Shevraeth comes between them. The good guys are losing when:
Mel is knocked out. After two pages of skirmishing, Mel is knocked out.
When she wakes up, some time has passed; she’s tucked safe in bed and Bran cheerfully tells her that just as the good guys were about to lose the skirmish, the magical Hill Folk (whom we’ve never even seen before, and know almost nothing about) had appeared out of nowhere and used their magic to save the day. Oh, and Shevraeth killed the king.
That’s right. The good guys win via the deus-ex-machina magical Hill Folk, but Mel and the readers don’t see it happen.
Ashers, this is the first time I’ve ever been infuriated when the good guys won.
Part Two’s Plot Issues
Part Two has an unpromising start: six months after the king was killed at the end of Part One, we find that Mel has retreated to her castle in the mountains to educate herself on politics and stuff, and that Shevraeth hasn’t yet been crowned king.
Yeah. Six months later, the army has been disbanded and there’s no new monarch. Also no further uprisings, civil war, banditry at the hands of thousands of now-jobless soldiers, or invasion by greedy neighboring kingdoms.
Shevraeth’s parents, an elderly prince and princess, have stepped in and are running the government while they…smooth the way for Shevraeth to become king, I guess? And somehow this smoothing-the-way involves a “Letter of Regard” from some random queen in some random foreign country, in which she states she feels Shevraeth’s family has the best claim on the throne. And somehow this foreign queen’s opinion negates King Galdran’s sister’s legal claim on the throne–even though females have equal inheritance rights, and Galdran had no closer blood relative, and therefore his sister does have a legitimate legal claim.
I am so confused.
Anyway, Mel hasn’t learned yet to keep her nose out of crown business, and frets that Galdran’s sister (whom she knows nothing about, but whom everyone else knows is Bad News) might actually have what it takes to make a better ruler than Shevraeth. She expresses her concern to a servant/friend, who suggests that Mel go to court to find out.
And so begin Mel’s adventures in court–which consist almost strictly of learning court manners, floundering into awkward social situations, raging and blushing around Shevraeth, and conducting an intimate correspondence with an anonymous person (surprise: it’s Shevraeth!) whom she comes to consider an adviser and friend.
But there are no real conflicts, no real stakes, no real plot. At least, not until it’s almost over, at which point we’re treated to a sudden escalation of danger followed by a too-brief struggle. And, yes, Mel was present and conscious this time–but, like the climax to Part One, it was actually the magical Hill People, not Mel or any of her lot, who deus-ex-machinaed out of nowhere and saved the day.
If the Hill People had been developed at all, either as a group or even in the form of a single individual whom Mel befriends, this might not bother me so much. But no. Everything the reader learns about the Hill People over the course of the book can be summed up in a single sentence: they are a reclusive, magical race of people who look like and commune with trees, and who give humans magical “Fire Sticks” to burn so humans don’t have to cut trees down for fuel.
That’s it. We don’t even see what they look like in Part One; in Part Two, we see them for approximately one page.
As for the whole “friends will turn out to be enemies” warning from the book’s synopsis? That never happened.
This confused me to no end, because I was waiting for some exciting betrayal, and thought I knew who it’d be: Mel’s brother’s future wife. And that betrayal even seems to have taken place: Mel told her future sister-in-law the secret of how to kill the magical Hill Folk, and the villain (who wants to export the Hill People’s precious trees, and needs to kill them off to do so) clearly wound up with that secret knowledge. How did the villain learn it, if not through Mel’s sister-in-law?
But no. The book reassures us that the sister-in-law is pure of heart, and we never learn how the villain learned to kill the Hill Folk.
Here I sit, cheated of all the betrayals and revelations promised me.
How am I feeling about this book? Conflicted. There were some good elements individually, but the plot/climax/setting issues were overwhelming. And then there’s Shevraeth, oh my goodness.
There is a prequel featuring a younger Shevraeth as its protagonist: A Stranger to Command. (Hilariously, the book was published under an imprint called YA Angst.) There’s a decent chance I’ll read it, but it won’t be near the top of my reading list anytime soon.
I am, etc.,