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Usurper's Crown
Sarah Zettel
HarperCollins Voyager, 628 pages

Usurper's Crown
Sarah Zettel
Sarah Zettel was born in California in 1966. She has been writing for more that 14 years now. With several published novels in hand and her short fiction published in Analog, she's found herself with a host of fans and critics alike singing the praises of her work. Currently, she lives in Michigan with her husband Tim.

Sarah Zettel Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Sorcerer's Treason
SF Site Review: Kingdom of Cages
SF Site Review: Kingdom of Cages
SF Site Review: Playing God
SF Site Review: Fool's War

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Readers familiar with Sara Zettel's splendid fantasy debut, A Sorcerer's Treason, might be disappointed to discover from the book jacket that this novel goes back in time and not forward. At least I felt the same, initially, but that disappointment lasted about three breaths.

Most fantasy prologues I tend to skip, but within a single page the prologue to this book had me hooked: Avanasy, a mage, is condemned to death if he dares to enter the kingdom again but he's not only in Isavalta, he's in the royal palace itself, because he is forcing himself to see if his beloved royal student, the princess Medeoan, will marry Kucha, prince of Hastinapuran despite his warning. In between descriptions of the wedding's progress we get snippets of the scenes that led to Avanasay's banishment, spurred by the fact that Medeoan, young, determined to do good by her people, also thinks herself in love.

We then switch to Lake Superior in 1872, where the exiled Avanasy, known locally as a fisherman named Avan, saves a pair of sisters from a vengeful ghost, and is forced to use his magical skill. Ingrid, the older sister, is drawn to Avanasy; meanwhile, Kucha, in obedience to orders from home, moves step by cruel, inexorable step to secure Isavalta. By the time Medeoan discovers his treachery, it's too late, and she's a prisoner. And all she can think of is to call for Avanasy to rescue not just herself, but her beloved Isavalta.

The fireworks are just beginning -- led by the sort of Firebird you do not want to meet. Only Baba Yaga knows how it can be defeated. And only Ingrid can do it. Pregnant, caught between worlds, Ingrid has to decide whether to follow her heart or her conscience.

Gosh, what splendid worldbuilding! We travel not just between this world and that, but through the Land of Death and Spirit, meeting avatars of Russian, Chinese and Indian myth along the way. Magic is both subtle and complex, not mechanistically logical, but balanced with the laws of the natural world. The characters are complex, their motivations soaring above that of stock fantasy heroes and black robes.

New readers ought to be swept right in, which will lead them to A Sorcerer's Treason. Even though I knew how this story must end, having read the first, I was completely absorbed in these characters, the intriguing details of the world, and the hints of what may or may not happen in the future, all making me quite eager for book three.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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