Sep 3 2010 11:31am

Manners and escapes: Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel

Crown Duel as I own it, in the Firebird edition, contains two volumes, originally published as Crown Duel and Court Duel. The author’s afterword says they were always supposed to be one book, but it reads to me as if they are very different halves of the same story. The first half is all last minute escapes and adventures, while the second half is a fantasy of manners. This is set in Smith’s Sartorias-delas world and connects up to the rest of her fantasy. This book is definitely Young Adult, and though it’s in the same world it happens at a quite different level of plausibility from, say, Inda.

This isn’t epic fantasy, it’s fantasy at the kingdom level—we should have a term for that. It has a fairly predictable plot—really, everything you expect to happen happens, though there are some nice details. What makes it great is that it has a terrific YA heroine, Mel, or Meliara the Countess of Tlanth, a girl on the edge of adulthood who leads a rebellion against the evil king. The book is all written in Mel’s voice, and that’s what absolutely makes it—Mel is often oblivious, always impetuous, and always a joy to be with. She does dumb things because she’s fifteen, but to her they look like good choices. Because we see everything through her changing perceptions, we get immersed in the world and the problems of the world and see her grow up from the inside, in the best traditions of YA fiction.

I always have a problem with fantasy that I call “people and horses”—why are there people and horses in this world that is not Earth. I like it when people do something to answer this question, so Smith gets points for casual mentions of coffee and chocolate coming from other worlds, though no otherworldly travel takes place in the story. There’s a similarly interesting and well thought through situation with regard to magic. We learn immediately about the Hill Folk, the colorwood, and the firesticks, and then we see occasional magic items in use that have come from elsewhere in the world where there are magicians. Remalgna, where the story takes place, is a backwater kingdom on the edge of sophisticated Sartor. Some people there have magic tokens, or magic waterproof cloaks, or glowglobes to light the streets, but they’re expensive imports. We only see one wizard, and two (impressive) instances of Hill Folk magic. It’s unusual to see magic casually in use but uncommon.

The second half of the book, the fantasy of manners, takes place at court. The changing fashions and the complex fan customs are done very well—it’s impressive to see fantasy where fashion does change. It’s also interesting to see an entire society of people who have been terrorized and formed their habits in reaction to that. The nobles have been brought up together and circulating together in a hothouse palace world for years, many of them as hostages for their parents’ behaviour—and it really feels like that. Mel’s eruption into their midst has in it something of the stranger coming to Versailles, and it’s fascinating. Mel’s continued obliviousness to the identity of her mysterious Unknown correspondent is slightly implausible—I think you have to read as a convention in the same way as the horse that’s luckily waiting after a desperate escape.

This is a charming book with a solid background and a great first person voice. Give it to your twelve year old friends, and read it with your inner twelve-year-old eyes.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

T S Davis
1. tee+D
Ooh, I do love these books - love 'em. My inner twelve-year-old appreciates the work of Sherwood Smith.
Francesca Forrest
2. Asakiyume
Oh yes, you put it into words just perfectly. I especially liked this observation:

It’s unusual to see magic casually in use but uncommon.

I think you're right, and it makes the magic interesting and strange, but in a quite different way from the way it is in a story where most people think magic is impossible (e.g., stories set in this world, but with magical folk or items appearing).
3. pilgrimsoul
Sherwood Smith always provides a rattling good tale. This was fun to read even when I was an adult.
Estara Swanberg
4. Estara
I discovered her in my late 30s and it worked just as well at that age ^^ - as long as the reader can handle an unreliable narrator.

The book that connects Remalna to the Inda books is also written, it's a prequel to Crown Duel focussing on how Vidanric (Shevraeth) became the way he is when he mets Meliara . It's in print from Norilana or in ebook at - as is Crown Duel for that matter - A Stranger to Command.
Lisa Parkin
5. LParkin
I agree with alot of what you mentioned about this novel. Although it's a fun read- it really is very predictable. I did enjoy the "fan language," where Mel has to interpret the courtly way of saying what you really mean. That element was pretty original, I thought.

I've also read The Trouble with Kings by Smith (and wrote a blog post about it: )It was similar to Crown Duel in that it was also set at the kingdom level. Many elements were predictable as well, but still enjoyable somehow. It definitely had some charm but no necessarily any re-reading power.

I'd be interested in reading Inda- it seems like a much different type of novel for this author.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
LParkin: Inda is quite different and much more grown up -- though also kingdom level. I haven't read the fourth one yet, but I enjoyed the first three.
7. pilgrimsoul
Oh yes! Read the Inda books. The world building is beyond praise and the story and characters tremendously compelling.
Rich Horton
8. ecbatan
I simply love Crown Duel, which I read in the two volume version. I agree that the working out of the plot is pretty predictable, but the main characters (both, for me) are so entirely engaging.
9. Foxessa
I've read all the Inda series with the greatest pleasure. I recommend them very highly! Among the element this reader, at least, most admires and respects in the Inda novels, is how authoratively the author has mastered at least the WRITING of battles, on land and sea, hand-to-hand, army to army, ship-to-ship, fleet-to-fleet. These are conflicts of epic scope and written with the highest accomplishment.

The Wren duology isn't aimed at my demographic at all. I know many, many adults really enjoy and lie YA fiction, but me, not so much. It's purely personal taste on my part, not critical judgment.
Michael Dolbear
10. miketor
Jimbooms & bobstays folks !

Snarking on the Inda books, readers of C S Forester will have noticed that she doesn't know what relieving tackles do. OTOH having the Venn ships steer with whipstaffs was very brave.

Mike D
11. Jinian
There are three-and-some Wren books now, actually; the Bookview Cafe has most of Wren Journeymage available online. As one of those adults who likes that sort of thing, I read it avidly last night!
12. pilgrimsoul
Jinian 11
Totally agree with you re Wren Journeymage. It's a great story and one of Sherwood's gifts is her ability to write stories for different audiences although I'm not YA I like her stuff for that demografic, too, because they are Just Great Stories.

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