Twice a Prince by Sherwood Smith
Published by Samhain Press
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the first volume of Sasharia en Garde, Once a Princess, Sasha's exile on Earth was brought to a sudden and precipitous end when a young mage masquerading as a lawyer jerked her through the World Gate to Sartorias-deles, the world on which she was born. It's also the world she and her mom left in a blazing hurry when things went very bad at the palace and her aunt's husband usurped the throne that rightfully belonged to her father.
That means she has to very wary, since she doesn't know which side the mage and his friends are on. They claim to be her rescuers, but she was old enough when she left to have at least a glimmer of understanding of the way the usurper Canardan always liked to present himself and be perceived as a hero. So she had to watch them closely and try to see what their actions said about them. And in the process managed to not only take a wild ride on a pirate ship that was more than it seems, but also get herself entangled in a hot romance with Prince Jehan, the usurper's empty-headed son.
Or so everybody says. Sasha has discovered it to be a sham, and at the beginning of this volume is confronting him about all the gaps in the things he's said and done, the spaces between the courtly mask and the real person behind it. And how it means she cannot possibly trust him, let alone cooperate with him any further.
So she leaves his company and sets off on her own, careful to disguise herself as unremarkably as possible in order to foil any pursuit by any of the goons of the usurper king. She's planning to travel overland to Ivory Mountain on a long-shot hope that the lack of any definite information about her father means that he was indeed able to carry out his plans for a magical bolthole.
But traveling so far is no small matter, particularly when her resources are limited and enemies are searching for her. First there's the matter of the military roads, which are carefully maintained while the regular roads are allowed to fall into disrepair, but are strictly forbidden to civilians. When she gets caught taking a shortcut on one of them, she manages to convince the soldiers at the outpost that she got onto it quite completely by mistake in the foul weather -- but in doing so left more than a few memories that can end up betraying her.
And then she's held up by a labor levy that gets stretched well beyond its lawful bounds -- except she doesn't dare protest the abuse by a greedy local lord lest she draw attention to herself. So there's nothing to do but grit her teeth and endure the delay until she can finally work her way loose and continue on her journey.
Meanwhile, her mother continues her luxurious imprisonment in the royal palace, where she's treated like a guest but knows perfectly well she will not be allowed to leave. Canardan is courting her more blatantly now, hoping to maneuver her into a position where she will have to lend his position legitimacy. She continues to resist, but her uncertainty about her daughter's situation significantly narrows her range of options for action.
When Canardan holds a masked ball, Ataniel thinks herself quite clever to wear the costume of the wicked witch from the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. But she's no sooner begun to dance than she realizes her horrible misstep -- in a masked ball held at court, one's choice of costume is heavily freighted with meaning, and she's managed to send a disastrously wrong message. Not to mentioned hamhandedly making an approach to Jehan which should've been made with subtlety and finesse, thus tipping her hand to Canardan.
And just to make things even more complicated, there's growing evidence that Canardan is going to move -- or at least let his rotten War Commander move -- against a neighboring country that broke away some generations earlier and is still regarded by many as being part of their own country. They're not being blatant about it, but why else would they be holding military exercises so late in the year, except to have an excuse to have an army of substantial size and excellent training right on the border as soon as spring weather makes it possible for a major campaign.
They're setting up operations in an old castle not too far from Ivory Mountain, named for its mysterious white stone that resonates to magic and human thought. Which means that all the principals end up on a collision course even as Sasha's about to break a spell that will have tremendous political impact, ensuring a confrontation that will wind the novel up with a bang -- not to mention resolving the problem of Canardan's having usurped the throne without putting any of the sympathetic characters in the position of having to kill him, whether in combat or judicially through a trial and execution. When you have a villain, you have a problem, but sometimes if you have two villains you can let them solve each other.
In the end we also get to see why this novel was written in a combination of first person (Sasha's point of view) and third person (everybody else's). Since it's not a huge spoiler, beyond letting us know that yes, Sasha did survive all her close calls (although arguably the very fact of her sections being written in the first person indicates that she did indeed survive to retell them), it shouldn't be a problem to reveal: the entire novel is a record which Sasha subsequently wrote up for the historical archives.
Review posted August 29, 2010.
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