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Wren's War by Sherwood Smith

Cover art by Lori Thorn

Published by Firebird Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the third book in the series which began with Wren to the Rescue, wicked King Andreus of Senna Lirwan has decided to take his old grudge with the king and queen of Meldrith to a new level. In the very first chapter, even as Princess Teressa is thinking about what can be done about an uncle whose selfish administration of the province entrusted to him has caused great suffering for the people under him, King Andreus mounts a sneak attack on the palace. An attack which includes the murder of the king and queen, an act upon which Princess Teressa stumbles even as she's trying to sort things out.

In writing that scene as she did, Sherwood Smith took a considerable risk, one that she was able to do only because it was the third book in an established trilogy. It may not be so obvious now that the Harry Potter series has included the deaths of major characters not as mere backstory, but as major turning points in the story that happen right in front of the POV character's eyes, but in the 1990's when Ms. Smith was originally writing it, the accepted wisdom about YA was that one could not have a major character die on-stage unless one were writing a Problem Novel and dealing with death was the entire point of the story. And Ms. Smith had created the world of Meld specifically to be able to abide by what she perceived as being the rules of YA storytelling, as well as being able to change elements at will to follow someone else's idea of what a story should be, as she could not with Sartorias-deles, her main fantasy world.

Of course this particular war crime is not dwelt upon, for the simple reason that Princess Teressa beats feet out of there in order to protect her own hide -- not out of selfish motives, but because she knows that if she doesn't preserve her own life, the next legitimate successor to the throne is the very uncle whose mismanagement of his province she had earlier been pondering. He mustn't be allowed to succeed the throne by default because she was too prostrate with grief for her parents to escape sharing their fate.

And neither can Duke Fortian be allowed to insert himself as regent now that Teressa is queen in her own right. No, she will have to actually rule her realm in her own name, and that will require convincing the other nobles that she is capable of shouldering the task, by which she will simultaneously have to be willing to take advice and to make and stand by her own decisions, including accepting the consequences.

It would be a tall order for a young woman in peacetime, but with the country being at war with a king whose use of all manner of foul sorcery has made his name a bad word in all the neighboring countries, Teressa is going to have to exert every bit of her ability if she is going to avoid being defeated and losing everything. Fortunately she's got some good friends she can rely upon among the children her own age, and her first act upon fleeing the palace is to seek them out.

Except the one she wants the most to be at her side is gone. Wren had taken advantage of the Magic School's vacation to head off to the Two Badgers Inn and visit her aunt, the sole close family member she has left. After spending her earliest years in an orphanage, constantly being reminded that every morsel of food that passed her lips, every stitch of clothing upon her back, were all provided by the kindness of the good, solid citizens of the town, she treasures the simple human connection of having a relative she can visit.

Because she isn't used to jewelry, she took off the magic signaling ring as soon as she arrived and left it by her bed. Thus it's only by chance that she happens to realize that she's being sent a very important message. Fortunately it's not a disaster, since she's reached the level in her studies that she can do communications spells to get the necessary information about the situation immediately, as well as the transfer magic that will instantly transfer her to a safe location close enough that she will be able to help her first and dearest friend.

And that will mean seeking allies in unexpected places, as well as penetrating the heart of the warped and twisted realm of King Andreus in hopes of breaking his power for good, rather than simply winning a momentary respite from his scheming before he turns it to aggression again. And yet again Wren will have the joys and terrors of assuming a form that is not her own, as well as getting more tantalizing hints of the mysterious Iyon Dayin, whose heritage may or may not have some connection with her slain father's people.

The book ends with major upsets in what had been the status quo and the efforts to construct a new one, to the point that it would certainly be a fitting capstone for the Wren series. In fact, Sherwood Smith wrote a fourth book, Wren Journeymage, to take the characters into their assumption of new roles and responsibilities. However, the publishing world was changing at that time. The Jane Yolen Books imprint, which had originally bought the three Wren books, was being discontinued, leaving the series orphaned. Even when Firebird reprinted the original three books, their interest in bringing out the fourth book was lukewarm at best, and the financial reverses of the first decade of the twenty-first century have meant that the best hope for any further Wren books may well like with a small press using more flexible printing technology to avoid having large amounts of capital tied up in inventory.

Review posted January 14, 2010

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