A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith
Published by Norilana Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Although this novel belongs in the same world as the Wren books, it takes place in a part of that world sufficiently distant from Wren's homeland that there is minimal contact between the two, and thus only a few names, such as the notorious sorcerous empire of Sveran Djur or the land of Thesreve where magic is forbidden, serve to link the two of them. Thus it is not necessary to have read any of the Wren books to appreciate this new offering.
Rhis is a princess, younger daughter of the king of Nym, a tiny mountain kingdom that is wealthy solely because of the enormous number of jewels found in the ancient mountains. In spite of these riches they are a simple folk, and her parents do not even have a formal court. Instead they meet with their various agents at need, taking care of business with a minimum of pomp and circumstance.
However, this does not mean that Rhis has been allowed to grow up wild, as though she were the daughter of a peasant or a merchant. Far from it, she has been drilled from early childhood in the knowledge deemed suitable for her rank and station in life, under the stern tutelage of her sister-in-law Princess Elda, wife of her elder brother Crown Prince Gavan. There is a considerable difference in age between Rhis and her elder brother, as Rhis was a late surprise, coming when her parents had thought their child-rearing days over.
Princess Elda has very strict ideas of what is proper for a princess to know and do, and they most certainly do not include such things as ballads of adventure and derring-do. So Rhis has found herself a retreat in an old watchtower that is too tall for the plump Elda to climb the stairs. There Rhis can disappear to practice her forbidden instruments or read books that don't deal with laws and finances and other proper, practical matters that a princess should know. She even tries to write her own ballads, although she finds to her frustration that it is often easier said than done to find exactly the right words to express the concepts of heroism and beauty that are so critical to a stirring ballad.
Everything changes when a royal messenger arrives with an invitation to the nearby kingdom of Vesarja, where Prince Lios is in search of a bride. As a younger daughter who will not inherit the throne, Rhis will be expected to make a marriage that will provide a much needed alliance, and even if Lios of Vesarja is not the one, there will be enough other royals from the multitude of other small nations in that part of their world that surely she can establish one or another useful alliance. But as her parents and her sister-in-law are quick to point out to her, that can only come about if she can manage to maintain proper courtly behavior and not do anything so hoydenish as singing ballads about heroes having adventures.
So off Rhis sets with a sizable retinue, who much to her frustration keep her from any close contact with the people she sees in the villages through which they pass. Much as she understands the need for security, since the kidnapping of royals for fabulous ransoms is not merely a staple of ballads, but actual historical occurrence, she really would like to make the acquaintance of someone who hasn't been a part of her social circle from earliest childhood. The sole consolation is arriving in Gensam to meet Princess Shera, a cousin of Princess Elda with whom Rhis has been corresponding for a number of years.
Rhis had seen it as small consolation for the simple fact that the letters she had received from Shera had been so painfully boring, revolving as they did about flowers and similar tedious subjects. But once the girls actually met and were able to get a moment by themselves in order to actually converse instead of reciting statements dictated by protocol, Rhis soon discovered that Shera's governess had censored her letters of anything even the least bit "improper" just as rigorously as Elda had censored Rhis'. Shera is in fact just as enamored of ballads and the notion of adventures, and has had to work just as hard to keep it from being obvious to those who would condemn her as unladylike for it.
When they arrive in Vesarja, Rhis and Shera are both astonished by the beauty and luxury of the royal palace. But Rhis soon discovers that the court mask can hide a multitude of deceptions, including ones intended to uncover the deceptions of others. The man to whom she was introduced as Prince Lios is not in fact him, but an impostor, for the actual prince is masquerading as a mere servant in order to better judge the character of the various princesses who have gathered for this grand event. Rhis is not amused by the deception, and far from it considers it disgusting duplicity.
And then the most beautiful of the gathered princesses, the primly perfect Iardith who had come with paternal orders to land herself a prince Or Else, is kidnapped. Rhis witnesses it almost by accident, and in her bad frame of mind after discovering Prince Lios' duplicity, she is certain that it is the work of nefarious outsiders.
Thinking that she is getting a chance at the adventures and romance of which she has dreamed so long, she gathers the other princesses with whom she has made friends and sets forth to rescue Iardith. But she soon discovers that things are not nearly so simple as she'd thought them to be. There is a long tradition in these lands of "capture marriages" that are in fact elopements.
And remember the rotten old emperor of Sveran Djur? It seems he's rather interested in this business -- or rather an ancient magical ward in the place to which they flee. Getting out of that particular jam reveals a talent that Rhis had never even suspected she possessed, and opens doors she had never imagined possible.
One of the final chapters is done in epistolatory form -- that is, in the form of a collection of letters written by and to Rhis. It has the strength of enabling the story to move forward quickly over several years of what would otherwise be very routine events. However, some readers may feel that the shift in tone is somewhat disconcerting, since it does feel different from the more intimate narrative of the rest of the book. But given that it comes almost at the very end, I think that most readers will be sufficiently engaged by that point to go right on through to find out how it ends.
Review posted February 1, 2009
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