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The Crown and Court Duet
Crown Duel and Court Duel

Sherwood Smith
Harcourt Brace Books, 214 and 245 pages

Crown Duel
Court Duel
Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith has written a number of solo novels including Wren To The Rescue, Wren's Quest, and Wren's War, along with The Borrowers, which is a novelization of the screenplay for the movie of the same name. Perhaps Sherwood Smith's best known work is her collaboration with with Dave Trowbridge in writing the five-book Exordium series. Further collaborative efforts include work with Andre Norton in co-writing Derelict For Trade and A Mind For Trade, two titles in the Solar Queen universe. Smith has written some of the titles in the Planet Builders series as Robyn Tallis, plus a number of titles as Jesse Maguire in the Nowhere High series, both from Ballantine Ivy, and one as Nicholas Adams in the Horror High series from Harper.

Sherwood Smith Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Mind For Trade
SF Site Review: The Borrowers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Many longtime readers of SF and fantasy cut their teeth on young adult or juvenile novels: for SF, perhaps Robert A. Heinlein, or Andre Norton, or Sylvia Louise Engdahl; for fantasy, The Hobbit, or Norton again, or perhaps Lloyd Alexander.

I remember with fondness the days of the so-called "Juvenile to Please Adults" books, and I still read with pleasure Heinlein's juveniles, for instance. I celebrate all attempts to publish full-fledged SF/fantasy for young adults which will still be good reading for, say, me. To this end, Tor's Jupiter series of YA Science Fiction deserves praise, and Jane Yolen's now defunct series of YA Fantasy, published by Harcourt Brace, deserves praise, and lamentations at its end.

Sherwood Smith, co-author (with Dave Trowbridge) of the much prized, hard to find, space opera series collectively titled Exordium, and of a few novels with Andre Norton, wrote five YA fantasies for Jane Yolen Books. The Wren Trilogy is an engaging series of books about 12-year old Wren, and her discovery of her magical abilities amidst threats of war. Better still are The Crown and Court Duet, two books set apparently in Wren's world, featuring 16-year old Countess Meliara Astiar, and her bumbling but passionate entrance into the worlds of politics and war.

The first book is Crown Duel. Meliara, who narrates the books, and her brother Bran are struggling to make ends meet after the death of their father. They are now Count and Countess of Tlanth, a remote hilly portion of the Kingdom of Remalna. The corrupt King is raising taxes, and, worse, appears to be ready to violate the Covenant humans have with the mysterious hill folk. Humans have agreed to leave the forests undisturbed, especially the beautiful colourwood trees, and in exchange the Hill Folk supply the humans with magical firewood.

Meliara and Bran are very poor, partly from trying to deflect the burden of taxation from their people--thus, they live more like peasants that peers. The two are just reaching the age at which they will start to pair, and eventually marry. But Meliara, at least, evinces no interest in such things.

As the book opens, the political situation comes to a head, and Meliara, Bran and their people rise in revolt. Smith entertainingly describes an ill-run war, which after some early success leads to humiliating defeat for the poor, undermanned Tlanth people. Meliara is captured, and taken to the Remalna capital city. She encounters the Marquis of Shevraeth, proud commander of the King's forces whose skill had turned the tide against Tlanth, and takes a sudden fierce dislike to him. The book continues with harrowing escapes, nicely described wandering through the backroads of the country, and a final confrontation with the King's forces.

Court Duel takes up after the war. The bad King has been vanquished, and the Marquis of Shevraeth is the leading candidate for the throne. The court is full of political wiles, however, and some people think Meliara or her brother should either push their own claims or support another.

Meliara at last consents to spend some time in court and we are treated to some entertaining descriptions of artificial court life and manners, including details resulting from things like not being able to use wood for furniture. She is a fish out of water, and finally finds a secret friend, with whom she exchanges a series of letters in which she is able to express her concerns about the false nature of court life, even as she begins to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

Meliara remains confused about who her real friends are, and about whether the Marquis -- who is clearly capable but whom she still distrusts -- or some other claimant, should be King. The matter is pushed to a head by a very interesting, slightly underused (I thought) character, a man named Flauvic who also has a claim to the throne, and who has spent some time learning powerful magic in a foreign kingdom. The general shape of the ending is easy to see in advance, but the details are nicely revealed.

Both these books are, first of all, great reads. Very few books keep me up at night to finish them, but Crown Duel did, and I took an unplanned extended lunch break to finish Court Duel. They are nice formal contrasts: the first almost all action and war, the second more magic and formal court life. If I had a mild complaint, it would be that in both books the Hill Folk serve as sort of dei ex machina. But this is minor, and does little to detract from the pleasures of reading these two books.

I'm not quite ready to rule on how these would appeal to the supposed target age group (teens, I would think), though I'm sure I'd have loved them then, just as I did now. Among other things, they feature a well-done, very understated, sexual tension, never vulgar, that greatly enhances our interest in the main characters. The world they inhabit isn't quite fully-furnished; I don't think books these short can do that, but the odd details are telling and nice. Highly recommended -- buy them fast before they go Out of Stock Indefinitely.

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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