Tag Archives: political intrigue

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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Book Review: The False Prince is Aptly Titled

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Just a touch of vague spoilers.

A friend of mine has been telling me to read Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, first in The Ascendance Trilogy, since before it was published.  I wish that I had listened sooner—though I suppose that since I did wait, I will have a shorter wait between books, which is a boon.

A high fantasy set in a kingdom on the brink of a civil war, one man has a plan to avoid the war by training a prince for the throne—a prince culled from orphanages around the kingdom.

The narrator and de facto protagonist Sage is a wonderfully entertaining (so snarky) and terribly unreliable narrator.  This is a plot of plots, secrets, and lies, trust and distrust, and Sage embodies all of these.  He will deny having done something—something we’ve not seen him do—only to reveal later that somewhere between the narration he has done exactly as he has told the other characters that he has not; he reveals to the reader and the characters only some—and not all of it is true.  This book finely uses red herrings, the author and the protagonist working together to mislead and misdirect readers and characters—and mislead both successfully.

What is stunning is that Sage comes off as relatively open about his history and thoughts.  I didn’t feel misled till he began to reveal what he had hidden.  I should have suspected he was working between the lines from the number of knives and knickknacks that he pilfered without telling me, but I was not clever enough to take these as foreshadowing.

Though Nielsen hints at larger stories and more developed characters behind several of side characters, especially Mott, whose history I hope to see revealed in sequels, and Amarinda, Sage spends so much time veiling his own history and keeps others at such a distance that these characters lacked the detailed backstories that I hoped for them.  I hope sequels will remedy this.

The plot, scraped bare of all the complexities of its narrator and its characters, is an exciting one in its own right: stop civil war by committing treason, learn the lie or die.  Nielsen manages to make two weeks of lessons in a confined setting go by quickly, mostly by utilizing Sage’s snarky wit and practiced nonchalance.

I have a difficult time placing this book at an appropriate reading level and am glad to see it surviving despite that difficulty.  In its length and its protagonists’ need to find his place among a group of peers and in society, it is middle-grade.  A few of the more brutal lessons and its “or die” plot that leaves the reader thinking two young teens will be killed before the end of the novel push it towards a teen reading level, as does the inferred questioning of the established order and morality.  Plus, Sage is fifteen, a little old for the first book of a typical middle-grade series.  Barnes & Noble places it in the teen section.

I suspect that as this series goes on, it will become more firmly teen, politics and romance taking even more prominent roles.  Sage is a character I’m not willing to confine to one book.  I look forward to seeing him again.

****

Nielsen, Jennifer A.  The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 1: The False Prince.  New York: Scholastic, 2012.

This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Storm of Swords’ Charged Questions

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Click to visit the publisher's site, for links to purchase, synopsis, excerpt, author info, and reviews.

Though A Storm of Swords, where finally some of the unanswered queries of A Game of Thrones are answered, is the longest book of George R. R. Martin’s that I’ve yet read, I feel like this book more than it predecessors in A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, was missing important scenes.  Martin would show me what had happened somewhere then have someone explain it after the fact.  I’m not sure if I appreciate this tactic.  While it’s nice to be surprised, the questions like “What did you say to get him to agree to this?” go unanswered.

But none characters were caught in limbo, biding their time.  We have crossed the bridge (A Clash of Kings) to the new board—and the game has gotten deadlier.

The teams in this game are almost constantly evolving.  My list of the major teams and players consists of at least six different remaining claims to a throne in Westeros, with a vigilante group that will only cause carnage, a wild card who might greatly improve the chances of another team, and a would-be-king that is in training and cannot rejoin the game till he has leveled up.  Some of these characters I enjoy and I respect the majority of them for being fully formed, but I think that it’s the intrigue and world-building that holds me enthralled.  There is a definite element of whodunit, though perhaps because I am beginning to understand Martin’s style, I was able to guess more of the major events and “turns” of this book than I have been of others.

I finally believe that Martin will kill everyone I love—and I hope that will prevent me from establishing any more attachments, but it’s not looking good on that score.  I have a new ship and though they’re separated for now, I’m holding on.  Maybe they can be reunited when this is over—except for all those pesky vows of celibacy (why is it that the best ships in this series involve the supposed-to-be-celibate?).

My growing belief that the one monotheistic religion in the book worships a deity whose powers seem very sinister makes me somewhat uncomfortable.  I cannot decide if Martin is intending to imply anything about the Abrahamic God with R’hllor.  The preaching of R’hllor’s followers seems somewhat Christian at times—till Melisandre births a demon shadow.  Parallels between those who worship R’hllor and Christians certainly exist; they both follow religions from the East, monotheistic with a good/light versus evil/dark theology, and both burn the occasional “pagan” church or nonbeliever (ignoring the darker deeds of our past won’t erase them).  I am currently taking this series as one written from the Druidic perspective.  Westeros becomes a place where all English history and legends can exist at once:  The War of the Roses coexists with Robin Hood and the coming of Christians to the shores of England, and these “Christians” are inflamed with this deadly fervor of the Crusaders.  Westeros’ legends include parallels to Greek and Roman myths.

I am willing to continue, taking this as a work of fantasy and assigning the misdeeds of R’hllor and his followers to the characters themselves while accepting that Martin may be asking me to examine the history of Christianity.

****

Martin, George R. R.  Song of Fire and Ice, Book Three: A Storm of Swords.  New York: Bantam-Random, 2000.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Books, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A “Shipping” Song of Ice and Fire and A Clash of Kings

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When one “ships” a couple in a fandom, it usually means that the reader/viewer wants that couple to fall madly, deeply in love and remain together forever.  When I “ship” characters in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I do not do this, so I don’t really want to dub it shipping.  I want to call it matchmaking.  I don’t dream about a couple together forever.  I dream about a couple wedded and ruling the kingdom with love to follow or maybe not.  By the end of A Game of Thrones, I was matchmaking Robb/Dany because Robb seems to be making a decent leader and I like Dany and don’t think that she’ll let anyone but her husband or progeny sit comfortably on the Iron Throne so long as she’s alive.  By 100 pages into A Clash of Kings, I was considering a Gendry/Arya match, because Gendry is at least of Robert Baratheon’s blood and—actually, that might be a ship.  The circumstances of their meeting might just scream “future romantic coupling probable!” and even if Gendry can’t be crowned, I think I would still ship he and Arya—except that Arya is supposed to be wedded to a Frey—but maybe that would just make their ship more romantic, since it would be forbidden or impossible love.

A Clash of Kings, second in A Song of Ice and Fire, complicates the wars waged over Westeros by adding new would-be-kings of half or more of the island and new gods and cultures besides.  The world is expanding, and that I greatly appreciated.  Martin captures well the diversity of religious beliefs and rituals.

Martin’s writing seems both more advanced and less polished in this second novel.  Twists were more sudden and sharp.  Martin makes use of his multiple narrators to offer the reader foreshadowing and herrings, such that I second-guessed my initial and correct guess at least once.  Yet, the wealth of narrators has here become overwhelming.  In particular, the introduction of the narrator Davos, a once-smuggler now lord and always sea captain with a good heart, who questions more devious methods of war, left me floundering.  Each time he appeared as a narrator, I had to read half a page before I could remember who he was and for whom he fought, and this broke the spell of Martin’s narrative for me, however much I liked Davos when I did remember him and however much I understand why he needed to be given a narrative role.

My interest waned more so in the middle than it had in A Game of Thrones.

Sections of this story (Jon’s, Dany’s, maybe even Arya’s) may have been bridge sections, used purely to get the characters into the positions that he wants them for the third book.  Great swaths of untold story seemed to separate the narrative chapters of these characters, though post-read, I think that I can see where nothing of importance likely happened to these narrators between those chapters.  Other perspectives seemed to be missing, and I hope that their stories will be flushed out in future novels.  The end of A Clash of Kings leaves me with almost more questions than it does answers.  The end felt like no resolution, only another beginning.

***1/2

Martin, George R. R.  Song of Fire and Ice, Book 2: A Clash of Kings.  New York: Spectra-Bantam-Random, 1999.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Spectra, Bantam Books, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: You Can’t Stop Playing A Game of Thrones

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Coming late as usual to the party, I’ve just finished the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones.  You may have noticed if you’ve been following this blog, or if you scan down the entries, that I don’t frequent adult fantasy.  I have just not found myself as drawn to adult heroes as I have to those working beneath the noses of adults and on a curfew or those just coming of age and discovering themselves while saving the world.  Perhaps that makes A Game of Thrones a great introduction to adult fantasy for me and others who usually don’t read above teen level.  Many of the heroes of A Game of Thrones are not adults.

Rickon Stark, the youngest of his siblings, is only three, and his next oldest brother, Bran, [SPOILER] now heir to Winterfell, [END SPOILER] is younger than nine.  Danaerys (Dany) Targaryen, whom I expect to be a major player in this deadly game, is in her early teens, just developing the curves of womanhood.  Robb Stark, [SPOILER] Lord of Winterfell, [END SPOILER] and another major player in the game, is only fourteen.  These last two easily fall into the age range of heroes about whom I usually read; the other two are actually younger, though Bran, who is one of several third person limited narrators, is very well-spoken, maybe too well-spoken to accurately portray his age, actually, even allowing for a culture at which one comes of age around fifteen.

Though sexual relationships are perhaps more key to the plot in this book than in many teen novels, in truth, I think there are probably more graphic and more blunt sex scenes in some teen literature (generally not in what I read, but I avoid most teen romance and most teen issue books).  What truly marks A Game of Thrones as adult literature is its length.  This book would not be publishable as a teen book on the merits of word count alone.  The greatest maximum word count for a teen fantasy manuscript that agents will consider that I have found is 120,000; the Internet claims that A Game of Thrones nears a hefty 298,000 words.  Teens who love to read and aren’t daunted by page count shouldn’t be discouraged from reading this book.

A Game of Thrones further deviates from the majority of books that I read in that is so very plot- rather than character-driven.  When I realized that with the wealth of characters, I was shipping no one, I began to suspect such was the case.  Now, if I’m planning marriages, they are marriages of position and peace-brokering not love.

Many of the necessary trope characters are here, but on many of them, Martin has put a new spin, and he has created several atypical characters to balance the tropes. Martin has not neglected creating likeable characters.  There are those that I hope to see live and those that I hope die.

Martin’s political intrigues are exceedingly twisted and leave the reader guessing and second-guessing whom to trust and what is best for the kingdom.  His world itself is vast, though not exceedingly well-mapped (though Martin just published a book of maps to complement the text).

I’ve just bought book 2.

****

Martin, George R. R.  A Song of Ice and Fire, Book One: A Game of Thrones.  New York: Spectra-Bantam-Random, 1996.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Spectra, Bantam Books, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.