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Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith

Published by Puffin Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In her own words Meliara tells the story of her role in the revolution that unseated the wicked King Galdran. And it's a wry voice, for all that she starts out brash and quite assured of her own ability to lead her people from the mountainous province of Tlanth against a king whose armies are far larger, better trained, and better equipped. After all, she and hers have right on their side, so it's got to triumph.

But all that brashness lasts only until she steps straight into an iron trap, one of the very ones her own forces set in hopes of troubling King Galdran's forces. They knew it was against the rules of war in their world, but they felt it justified for the simple reason that otherwise the king's armies would simply roll right over them and crush them. And we couldn't possibly have the good guys ignomously squashed by the villains in the first act, could we?

Injured and unable to escape, she is captured by the king's forces and taken to be questioned. And thus begins a wild chase across the countryside, seemingly one jump ahead of the king's sneering lackeys. But not everyone who appears to serve the king is in fact working at his behest. Far from it, Mel's daring rebellion is in fact a sideshow to a much older and more carefully planned movement to unseat Galdran.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the simple fact that it doesn't end with the unseating of the wicked king. Mel thinks she can then go home to Castle Tlanth and her old life, and to let the rest of Remalna go on without her. After all, the wicked king is gone, so everything has to end happily. When her brother Branaric summons her to court, she quickly discovers otherwise.

Far from resolving the problem, the death of King Galdran has created a power vacuum that several different factions strive to fill with their own candidates. Among them is the handsome and charismatic Vidanric Renselaeus, who was in fact one of the chief leaders of the real resistance against Galdran, even as she thought him to be one of his chief agents.

If Mel discovered to her cost how little she knew about the arts of war, she learns even more quickly her utter ignorance of the arts of courtly intrigue. But her previous experience has taught her one bitter lesson; namely, the need to be willing to admit that she does not in fact know as much as she thinks she does. And that one skill is what will save her, if she can just overcome her own bullheadeness and quick temper to apply it.

Discussing Crown Duel is made difficult by its rather complicated publishing history. Sherwood Smith originally wrote it as a side story of Sartorias-deles, dealing with a relatively minor country that had little role in the great wars against Norsunder (the ancient Enemy that lay beyond time and space). After the success of her Wren trilogy, she decided to take it back out and see if it could be reworked to fit into that world. Because of its peripheral nature, it proved relatively easy to replace a few names here and there, and she successfully reworked it into a story of Wren's world.

Due to more rigid ideas about the length at which children would read (this was, after all, long before the days of Harry Potter), it was decided to divide the book into two volumes, the first dealing with the guerilla campaign against the tyrannical king, and the second, titled Court Duel, dealing with the more subtle maneuverings in the subsequent power vacuum. The first volume did well enough, but the second volume came out just as Harcourt Brace Jovanovich decided to terminate the Jane Yolen Books imprint, leaving it effectively orphaned. It never got any real publicity and as a result sales were abyssmally low.

However, it was also at the same time that the World Wide Web was really taking off and Internet usage soared amount teens and twenty-somethings. As a result, a word-of-mouth buzz began to develop online, centering around a number of fan-built webpages. Eventually the number of positive reviews at became so large that editors began to take note of it and consider the possibility that this was a property worth reprinting. As a result, Penguin-Putnam picked it up for their new Firebirds imprint, and decided to market it to an older audience. As a result the two halves were reuinted and Sherwood was able to restore the actual Sartorias-deles references, as well as a few scenes that had been cut for length.

Review posted January 1, 2009

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