Review of CROWN DUEL by SHERWOOD SMITH
I’ve been meaning to read this book since I met the author at a literature conference called Sirens in 2009. I already owned her book A POSSE OF PRINCESSES, which I later read and reviewed on this blog, but it took me a while to finally read the one I heard so much about at Sirens: CROWN DUEL. Now I wonder why it took me so long!
Investing in the novel from the get-go felt easy and I found the whole thing utterly engrossing and addictive. Not simply good-book-addictive, but why-can’t-i-read-while-driving-addictive and oh-right-i-was-supposed-to-be-eating-lunch-addictive. I resented real life a little whenever it made me put the book down!
Smith originally published CROWN DUEL as two shorter books, CROWN DUEL and COURT DUEL, but note that I’m reviewing the more recent edition that contains both books as Part One and Part Two. Smith divides the story in an effective, orderly manner: Part One covers a war and physical challenges while Part Two covers court intrigue and more verbal challenges. Both parts earned and held my full investment.
It’s worth mentioning a little more about the Sirens conference, since it’s relevant to the book. Sirens is a literature conference dedicated to strong female writers and characters in the fantasy genre. Sherwood Smith was one of the guests of honor at the inaugural conference and, though I already had a copy of A POSSE OF PRINCESSES, when discussing Smith’s work at Sirens I primarily heard about Meliara from CROWN DUEL.
Now I see why! Mel will likely become one of the heroines who lives on in my memory while other good, and even great, characters fade from recollection with passing years. She’s no Mary Sue perfect heroine, mind you, but as far as I’m concerned that’s all the more in her favor. Frankly, Mel has quite a few flaws: she can’t admit when she’s wrong, she’s ornery and quarrelsome, and she lets embarrassment force her into hiding. However, I found myself far more concerned with her strengths, of which she has more than I care to list, and I admired her both as a person and a character for not being idealized. She felt multi-faceted and all the more real for her complexity and sometimes even contradictory natures. By that I mean how Mel both seeks out and avoids confrontation. When faced with another person she won’t lie, even lies of omission, and bluntly speaks her mind, a trait that often leads to bickering or more impassioned arguing. Yet Mel tries to avoid facing other people as much as possible, probably in large part because she has trouble connecting. When she anticipates a possible conflict, she’ll avoid the individual like her life depends on it. These tendencies seem opposing, but have a definite believable logic. Mel isn’t a people person. She knows this and she prefers solitude.
Speaking of believability, my only very minor quibble with the book involves suspended skepticism. Certain things seem so obvious to me as the reader that I don’t understand how Mel can’t pick up on them, too. I won’t say what; in case said things aren’t obvious to every reader I don’t want to spoil anything. (Though I will specify below after a spoiler warning.) Said things seem so predictable to me that I became curious about the author’s intent: whether this is supposed to be dramatic irony or whether the reader is meant to be as surprised as Meliara. Even this potential fault in an otherwise captivating novel felt easy to brush off due to Mel’s genuine and plausible personality. She’s stubborn. More details below if you don’t mind possible spoilers.
Note that there’s not much fighting description for a war book, but that’s okay by my standards. Smith does include some interesting tactical details not to mention minutiae of court life that contribute to the glimpse into these characters’ lives. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of well-written action, more along the lines of chase scenes. I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that Mel finds herself captured quite early on in the novel and Part One focuses primarily on her riveting tug-of-war escape efforts.
I’ve only mentioned Mel in my review and that feels a bit silly given how many wonderful, rich characters populate this novel: Mel’s brother Bran who’s helping her lead the small but determined uprising against the cruel king and the Marquis Shevraeth whose loyalties Mel cannot decipher - to name two major players from Part One. Part Two introduces numerous additions as Mel steps off the literal battleground and into the figurative one of court alliances and double meanings.
Long story short: if you’re at all interested in this book, don’t wait. Read it now!
My quibble has to do with the Marquis. In Part One, my interpretation of the author’s intent is that he’s meant to be an incomprehensible enigma, one moment a possible ally and another likely a villain. Except I never doubted from the first moment of his introduction that he’s an ally. I can understand why it might take Mel longer to notice such (They do meet when he captures her and brings her to the king for her death sentence.), but not why she wouldn’t pick up on the obvious with each new clue. I mentioned earlier that I can set this complaint aside due to Mel’s personality. She’s leading a rebellion pretty much doomed to failure as a last ditch effort against a tyrant and for obvious reasons she’s grown into quite the cynic, quick to believe the worst of people and slow to amend those initials judgments.
Part Two presents a similar obvious-to-me-but-not-to-Mel conflict. Shevraeth has feelings for her and he’s her secret admirer, two facts I deduced early and easily and never doubted. I found this blind-spot easier to believe than the earlier one as Mel doesn’t know much about romance and probably wouldn’t recognize obvious signs, not to mention how she avoids the Marquis and then interprets his every sentence as negatively as possible in their infrequent, brief interactions.
Not things that made me like the book any less, but I am very curious if other readers found these things obvious as well.