Book Review: Subtle Feminism, Subterfuge, and Romance in Crown Duel

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Spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid names as much as possible, but there are spoilers.

This is going to be a difficult book to review in that I’m not sure if I’ve just finished one book or two or three. This edition includes two novels that were originally published separately (as Crown Duel and Court Duel) and a short story that was published first in this edition. That short story I can set aside as wonderful, fluffy fluff but with perhaps the best use of page formatting and white space that I have seen in a long while. The very bottom of the last page reads (and I’m truncating the sentence to avoid spoilers):

“[…] and kicked the door shut behind us.”

Because the line goes to the very bottom of the page, there’s no indication that this is the end of the story till one turns the page and sees two blank, white, facing pages staring out at the reader like the shut doors, saying “what happens now is not your business.”

Just excellent. Though I’m not sure if that was providence or plan. It would be a difficult thing to plan so well.

Now to the meat of this book:

The first book, the original Crown Duel, begins with a rebellion led by a brother and sister, a count and countess of a small, rural, and isolated province in the greater kingdom of Remalna, ruled by a tyrannical king, self-important and uneasy it seems to me on the throne, leading by threat and fear, imposing brutal taxes on lower classes, and occasionally arranging “accidents” for detractors, family of detractors, and potential detractors. The sister is captured by the general of the opposing army after her brother gives into fear and breaks the war code of conduct. She is humiliated, escapes and is hunted, is captured again, and is rescued, sets out to get vengeance, and has her worldview turned on its head when she discovers that she and her brother have not been alone in plotting the overthrow of the king. Mel wins allies through her righteous intentions, refusal to surrender or to be cowed, and her willingness to learn.

Mel is a sword-wielding heroine deprived for the majority of the book of sword, privilege, or the usual trappings of a hero. Most of the book she spends injured, ill, and on the run. Her true power is in her ability to invoke empathy and sympathy through her personality and through the just nature of her cause.

The second novel sees the rebellion ended, the tyrant dead, her brother a member of the royal court, and Mel being invited into that court as well, where battles are fought for social popularity and against faux pas, games of which she is ignorant, though she is a fairly quick study. There she negotiates social patterns, cliques, and party planning.

Both books pulled some pretty stunning twists.  Smith uses a close first person, and Mel is a poorly informed narrator if not an unreliable one.  She tells her story I think as truly as she can, but she is ignorant of many of the characters feelings and intentions, and some of those characters drive the larger plot of the novel more than does Mel.

In the first novel, Mel claims to be entirely uninterested in the opposite sex—and truth be told, she has little time for such diversions, even when she finds a knight to rescue her. But she doesn’t trust the knight, who has ostensibly opposed and hunted her throughout the novel, and later she believes that he kills her brother. This story does not much read as a romance to me, though Smith makes clear that there is frisson when Mel exchanges glances with one particular character—though the nature of that thrill and recognition remains unclear.

In the second book, Mel still purports to be uninterested, but she arouses the interest of several men at court, including a notorious and popular flirt. She has to evaluate her feelings and her beliefs about love and relationships, and does so while corresponding with a mysterious suitor whose gift-giving she demands become a real relationship—if their only conversations are carried out through written letters.

This whole series reminded me of a fantasy Pride and Prejudice with a backdrop of political uncertainty (not a conscious parallel, Smith says, but she admits that there might have been some influence from Austen). The second novel in particular harkens to the social drama of Austen’s book. Mel’s stubborn dislike based on previous, false conclusions in particular harkens to Elizabeth’s as does her eventual reversal of her conclusions because of a letter and her opposite’s upright actions. Ultimately, this story is a romance, albeit a slow one and one which, as the romance builds, washes the reader in action and subterfuge.

The world was interesting, well-crafted, and beautifully described. The first book in particular has elements of a journey novel as Mel is chased and dragged across the country. I spent some time wishing for a map, which I ultimately found after finishing the novel, but I was able through the text alone to place most of the important places within a larger setting and when I did misunderstand, those misplacements didn’t affect the plot.

Smith carefully crafts a feminist heroine and a feminist story. Mel never pretends to be anything other than female, and she feels no need to adopt traditionally masculine performance to be powerful—even when she’s been most stripped of power and needs a disguise. Moreover, Smith carefully, wonderfully maintains gender balance among her background characters. I particularly noticed the female guardswomen, stable hands, and servants, marked by the feminine pronoun more than anything else. It was a very subtle feminism, and very much appreciated because for being a nonissue it was all the more powerful.

I have long known of this book as having produced a favorite character of two my friends’. His name is Vidanric. I read almost the entirety of the first book looking for this character that I expected to love as well. I need to take a moment to compliment and thank my friends for using Vidanric’s first name exclusively when discussing him. “Only polite,” and I was allowed to make my own assumptions (184).

*****

Smith, Sherwood. Crown Duel. New York: Firebird-Penguin Putnam, 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Sherwood Smith, Firebird Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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