Crown Duel - Sherwood Smith I first encountered Sherwood Smith in an excellent anthology ([b:Firebirds|40160|Firebirds An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction|Sharyn November||17234924]), where I was taken with her story "Beauty". Purely on the strength of that story, I went right out and bought this related double novel. I'm sorry to stay the story was far better than the book. In fairness, I note that the book was written several years earlier.

Crown Duel
This first book was disappointing. For one thing, some of the language is careless. Early on, a pair of characters are described as having hip flagons. Flagons? Flasks are traditional here. A flagon is large pretty much by definition, generally not watertight, and basically not suited for the hip. There are a few others like this; not a lot, but enough to throw me off as a reader, and to weaken my confidence in the author. Some continuity flaws don't help.

The story itself is determinedly Young Adult, though the protagonist's age is never clear. That's no problem; I like YA. But even writing about a teenager doesn't excuse some of the weakness here. For example, on the run, fearing torture and death, repeatedly ill, just past escaping a trap, and literally surrounded, Mel nonetheless decides to play a childish prank. Young is one thing. Dumb is another, and not one that most readers are looking to relate to.

Even before that point, the story has its flaws. Mel is injured, gets sick, gets rescued and partly healed, gets sick, gets rescued and partly healed, gets sick ... you see where this is going. It's just not the most inventive of plots.

There were opportunities here for some interesting growth and reflection, as Mel and her idealism confront cold hard reality, and realizes there's more to the world than she knew. Unfortunately, that brief realization is about as far as she goes. The characters are likeable and Mel is mildly fun, but there's no real depth anywhere.

All in all, disappointing. I admit that the short story left me expecting a lot, but this isn't even close to what I hoped for. If I hadn't bought this as a double novel, I wouldn't have gone on to Court Duel.

Court Duel
Court Duel is better than its predecessor, though it shares some of the same flaws. The story is a harmless young adult adventure, though it focuses more on court politics than I might have wished. On the pedantic front: the language is sometimes careless - several times, there are variants of "he had bade her to ...", where "bidden" would have been correct. But generally, it's a readable light fantasy.

More of a concern, even in a YA novel, are substantial flaws in court behaviour. For example, the kingdom lacks a ruler throughout virtually the entire book, yet no one seems very concerned. The book makes the occasional stab at depicting budding democracy, but it's essentially a hereditary, feudalistic system through and through. In a fantasy, that would be no problem if the author embraced it. Here, Sherwood seems to want to pretend everyone's happy with the arrangement. Yet our protagonist, Mel, who we understand to be at one with the common people despite her formal rank, shows no compunction about spending what must be vast amounts of money to have artisans brought from other countries, all to throw a party. Money originally deprived from brutal repression and excess, but ... that was before.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward - court politics, unexpected romance - and no great surprise to anyone but Mel. I'm not certain it was mean to be, but watching her not know what's what over the course of two books did get a bit tedious.

Overall, a decent read, but not one to go out of your way for, and possibly not meaningful to anyone who hasn't read the first book, which I can't recommend.

Omnibus edition
The dual novel comes with some amusing extras - one short story, and some scenes re-told from Vidanric Shevraeth's perspective. Unfortunately, even these don't explain why the intelligent, sophisticated Marquis displays the interest he does. The copy editing is a trifle lax.