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Once a Princess by Sherwood Smith

Published by Samhain Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Crown Duel, there was a mention of the wicked King Galdran having a brother who left Remalna for parts unknown. It was little more than a throwaway line, but the sheer richness of the world described in that novel led fans to pester the author about what ever happened to the Missing Merindar. The result is the two-volume Sasharia en Garde of which this volume is the first.

It begins in modern-day Los Angeles, as Sasha is awakened from her sleep by a knock on the door. She's expecting someone soliciting donations for a religious cult or a shady salescritter, but instead finds two people who are not of this world.

Literally. Their body language is all wrong for Americans, their clothes hang in the awkward way that betrays someone not accustomed to wearing Western styles, and their eyes are red-rimmed in reaction to the ever-present air pollution in a way far more intense than usual.

And she's given herself away by unthinkingly wrapping herself in the heirloom duvet she's carried with her everywhere in her exile. It's a rich brocade clearly made by hand rather than machine, and the design is of a flower that doesn't grow anywhere on Earth. But it does on their world, the world she and her mother fled when she was but a small child. And she can tell they recognize it.

So she has to think fast to get rid of them. As soon as she tricks them just enough to get the door shut and locked, she calls her mother and tells her what's happened. And immediately determines it's time to relocate, because Mom's been visited as well.

But even the creepy apartment she's able to find on virtually no notice proves to be no refuge either. This time it's a young guy, hardly older than herself, maybe the same one who visited her mom. And he's quicker on his feet than the two older guys who visited her first, using misdirection to distract her just long enough to activate the magic which opens the World Gate and takes them to the world of her birth.

When her mother discovers that she's been grabbed, it's time to do something. Mom may be an ex-hippie performance artist, but she can be fierce as a lioness when it's her only child's safety on the line. So it's off to a storage unit that she hasn't visited in years, in order to pick up a few critical supplies. Clothes suitable to the world she fled years ago, and a transfer token, a magical item which can open the World Gate for someone who lacks the ability to work magic and will take her to a predetermined location.

Except her old enemy is aware that things are afoot, and has the destination watched. Ataniel (as she is called in the other world, sunshine dancingstar being considered inappropriate for a princess, let alone a queen) no more than arrives but what she is captured and brought to the palace, where she is clearly a prisoner for all that she is treated with exquisite courtesy, even invited to dine at the royal table. It's not easy to have to put a smile on her face as she confronts the usurper Canardan, but she knows that an outright attack on him would gain her nothing and quite possibly endanger Sasha, whose location she cannot determine.

In fact, Sasha's on a pirate ship. Except Captain Zathdar is more than he seems. Witty instead of brutal, even if his name does literally mean Hurricane in their language, and is clearly a pseudonym covering for something else. Not to mention the eye-hurting combinations of colors he affects, which he claims to be a tactic for making sure he's easily visible to his crew in the heat of battle (although given that this is a world on which gunpowder doesn't work, there wouldn't be the huge clouds of black-powder smoke that would have obscured visibility in pirate battles on the Spanish Main).

But most importantly, he's clearly targeting the usurper king's ships, and leaving honest merchantmen well enough alone. Sasha isn't completely comfortable aboard his ship, but she's also not sure she wants to take off on her own until she gets a better feeling for the current political situation. And the more she hears, the more she can tell that there have been some very major upsets, not just within their country, but the world at large. As if Canardan's usurpation of her father's throne weren't bad enough, the ancient and mysterious mages of Norsunder have been active in the world again.

Norsunder is a place not quite of the material world or of linear time, an extradimensional realm created by magic four thousand years earlier by a group of powerful magic-users who believed that they could thus gain personal immortality and ultimately control of everything. After they were defeated in a war as disastrous to the victors as themselves, it became their bolthole outside of time where they could sulk and seek to restore their strength, making occasional forays to grab particularly nasty people whom they believe to be useful when they make their next grab for power. As a result it's often regarded as a sort of artificial Hell.

But that's a long-term danger. Right now Sasha's biggest threat is Canardan the usurper, who clearly suspects she's somewhere on their world, and wants her neutralized. Which means she has to tread very carefully while she's trying to find out who she can trust, not to mention what's happened to her father. Nobody can tell her anything definite, and what they are telling her is mostly insubstantial if not outright contradictory. No, he hasn't been seen since Canardan's coup, but no, they can't say definitely that he's dead either.

Meanwhile, Ataniel is fighting a more subtle battle of wits and wills at the usurper's royal court, knowing all too well that everything she says and does is being watched for Political Significance by the courtiers. A chance remark could easily become evidence that she is surrendering her daughter's claim upon the throne to Canardan. It's a fight made even more difficult by the way Canardan isn't acting like your typical bullying tyrannical villain. Just as she remembers him, he's always trying to position himself as the grand hero, the savior of his nation, to be loved and praised by all. Let his subordinates get their hands dirty with the nasty details of murdering people who get in the way, and if necessary he'll make quite the show of cracking down on those who exceeded their orders.

And there's the matter of Canardan's son Jehan, called the Sheep for his white morvende hair (his mother was an earlier wife of Canardan's, a member of a race of humans adapted to live underground during the long centuries after the disastrous war with Norsunder) and his vapidity. Surrounded by a crowd of artists, he seems to not have a single serious thought in his head. But is it the truth, or is it in fact a mask?

Sherwood Smith does a very unusual thing with the narrative structure. Generally a story is told either in the first person or the third person, consistently throughout the work. While Sasha tells her own adventures in the first person, the rest of the novel is written in the third person, which can be a little jarring when the first shift occurs. However, Ms. Smith handles it with such aplomb that we're soon treating it as completely normal, and simply assuming that some other person, one objective and uninvolved, is telling the parts dealing with events in which Sasha did not personally participate.

Because the story was originally intended to be a single volume but was divided into two volumes due to the necessities of publication, this volume ends with things unresolved. It's not a true cliffhanger -- that is, it doesn't leave us with a major character in dire peril -- but it's clearly a stopping place rather than a resolution, which leaves us eagerly looking ahead for the second volume and our promised conclusion.

Review posted August 29, 2010.

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