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Senrid by Sherwood Smith

Published by YA Angst -- Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the world of Sartorias-deles, a number of nations are ruled by children. Not just reigned over by child monarchs under the guardianship of adult regents, but actually ruled by children who take care of the work of governance. Such is thirteen-year-old Leander Tlennen-Hess, who has been king of the tiny nation of Vasande Leror ever since his wicked stepmother Mara Jinea was deposed and vanished away to the mysterious realm of Norsunder, a place outside of time and space ruled over by evil magicians of almost unimaginable antiquity.

His is a simple land, and his "court" consists of a circle of old friends in the run-down old castle in the market town of Crestel. But his step-sister Kitty Marlonen, who was so instrumental in the displacement of her mother's tyranny, has been brought up on stories of the splendor of royal courts in places like Sartor and Colend which have left her longing for fine dresses and balls and the intricate protocol of ceremony. Thus she is frustrated when Leander would just as soon eat cold sandwiches in his study while poring over his volumes of magic in search of the enchantments that may be able to protect their tiny nation from its powerful neighbors.

And like Poland or Belgium in our own familiar Earth history, Vasande Leror has a powerful and militaristic neighbor that would like nothing better than to annex it and milk it dry of resources. Marloven Hess has a long and often ugly reputation for militarism, and not just martial posturing. A millennium earlier (during the period that includes the Inda tetralogy), they ruled over an empire that covered almost the entire Halian subcontinent. Although that empire later broke up, the nation has continued to focus on military strength, often to the exclusion of all else.

Worse, in recent history its rulers have frequently practiced the arts commonly known as dark or black magic. Unlike the white magic used by Leander and his allies, which carefully assembles magical energy to do work without disrupting the natural magical balance of the world, black magic casually spends magical energy without regard to the consequences. The effect is of light going out to leave darkness behind, and it is dangerous because it can force and warp nature, and if its user loses control of the working, it can turn on and destroy the magician. But the power it gives is quicker, more useful for coercion and military conquest, so it is favored by those low on moral scruples and high on ambition -- which perfectly describes its current regime.

However, even while facing this sort of threat, Leander and Kitty are still kids. So when a strange young man their own age comes wandering around the palace, Kitty thinks nothing of befriending him. His name is Senrid, and although his accent is oddly familiar, he's quite friendly and happy to be shown around the place. Although he does ask an awful lot of questions.

And then they discover the hard way that he was in fact no friend. Senrid is in fact the boy king of Marloven Hess, scouting their realm on behalf of his uncle Tdanerend, who has acted as regent for him since his father's death. Tdanarend fancies himself both a military genius and a black magician of the first rank, but he excels best in cruelty, threats and bullying. And overrunning a smaller and weaker country is just the sort of military victory that appeals to him.

When Faline, friend of another teenage ruler from another continent, comes to help Leander and Kitty use magic to thwart the Marloven invasion, she sets off a chain reaction of magic and revenge that will change the course of history. And while there is a lot of swashbuckling adventure and magical derring-do, there are also moments devoted to heavier things, as Senrid wrestles with the question of how to oust his uncle from power without turning into what he fights. And there are glimpses of struggles far older and far-reaching than the struggles of these kid rulers to maintain or regain their thrones, from the release of Laurel and Lael from their century-long enchantment and the kids' adventure on a strange water world to the intervention of the mysterious Erdrael who might be an angel or a ghost or some other order of being altogether.

Adult readers may complain that this novel is not tightly plotted as Sherwood's other works have been, that it is full of extraneous elements that lead off in various directions and are never properly followed up upon. But guess what -- most teen readers could care less about whether a book is tightly plotted and free of extraneous elements. They want first and foremost that the books they read be fun, that the stories deliver adventure and excitement. And Senrid will -- and as Sherwood is able to publish more of the dozens of novels she has already produced in several decades of writing and struggling to find a market for her vision, it's a book that will reward re-reading. Those little spaghetti-strands of story that ran off to parts unknown, those elements that seemed extraneous and unnecessary to the plot, will be revealed to be part of a larger schema. For Sartorias-deles is a whole, round world that exists for itself, not a collection of stage-sets upon which characters go through motions and recite lines at the direction of the author.

And some of us like it that way.

Review posted January 1, 2009.

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