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.