Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: Crown Duel, Court Duel, A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith

So, you know, I’d never read anything by Sherwood Smith? I know, right? Actually, I think I’d got her mixed up in my head with another author whom I don’t like (I don’t remember who). But then I saw one or two or three references to her books by people whose taste I trust, so I asked for recommendations for what of hers to try, and the Crown Duel / Court Duel duology came up several times. A Stranger to Command is a companion novel, set earlier.

Okay, so – I enjoyed Crown Duel, I loved Court Duel, and I REALLY loved A Stranger to Command.

Meliara, the protagonist of the duology, is a good protagonist, but she initially annoyed me because she is emotional, hot-headed, naïve, and ignorant about the world. A kid reading this book would probably like Mel better than I did, because her intentions are good. But she gets caught by the bad guys fairly early on and she totally depends on luck and the machinations of the most important secondary character, Shevraeth, to survive and escape.

What becomes clear as the duology goes on is that Sherwood Smith knows perfectly well that Mel is naïve and ignorant – because Mel herself realizes this (eventually) and takes steps to learn about the world. And because though she totally misjudges Shevraeth in the beginning, she eventually figures that out and tries hard to correct her judgment. With, for a long time, mixed success.

What absolutely makes this duology is Shevraeth. Here Smith has taken the unusual choice of creating a wonderful, interesting (and uber-competent) character and never, ever showing us his point of view. We are strictly in Mel’s pov throughout, and we can clearly see Shevraeth’s quality long before Mel can. This structure reminds me of the way Dorothy Dunnett wrote the Lymond Chronicles and also her murder mysteries, separating the pov character from the true protagonist – because in a lot of ways Shevraeth is the protagonist. Every single reader is going to fall in love with him. I sure did.

And even though a lot more adventure / narrow escapes / wild rides and so forth take place in the first book? I thought the first book was pretty good, but loved the second. The second is all about Mel learning to navigate the world of the court, and about sorting out the relationship between her and Shevraeth, and though there is one wild ride and one scary confrontation, basically it is a much quieter and slower-paced book. But I loved Mel, who by the start of the second book has developed into a character I liked much better – and of course I loved watching her relationship with Shevraeth work itself out, because hey, Shevraeth, right?

Let me add here that if you love Crown Duel / Court Duel, and Shevraeth, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read Andrea Höst’s Touchstone Trilogy. Shevraeth reminds me VERY STRONGLY of Kaoren Ruuel, the male lead of the Touchstone story. I would say that Höst’s trilogy is more sophisticated and aimed at a somewhat older reader, and you will need to keep in mind that the true romance doesn’t really kick off till partway through the second book. But I confidently predict that any reader who loves Shevraeth will love Ruuel.

The other story that just leaps instantly to mind in this context is one you will unfortunately have a lot more trouble finding: An Alien Music by Annabel and Edgar Johnson. I have a copy, because I loved it as a kid when I read it as a library book, and read it over and over. As an adult, I tracked down a copy – this was before Amazon – and paid $40 for it, so that shows you how much I wanted it. There is no ebook edition, unfortunately, and I see that used copies are still pretty high on Amazon. But again, if you loved Crown Duel / Court Duel, I can virtually promise you will love An Alien Music.

If you normally read fantasy and not SF, do NOT let the SF trappings put you off either the Touchstone Trilogy or An Alien Music, or you will truly be missing out.

Okay! A Stranger to Command. You know how uber-confident Shevraeth is in Crown Duel / Court Duel. You know how he got that way? Not by sheer authorial fiat, it turns out. No. He got that way because of his background, which is covered in A Stranger to Command – which can be read either before or after the duology, but I enjoyed reading it afterward. It is a much slower paced novel dealing with Shevraeth’s years in a military school in a foreign country, and it is so interesting, because Smith totally deals with the day-to-day life of the school and has essentially nothing big and important happen in the entire book. The big important stuff happened in the backstory – did she hit this in a different series, and if so, what series? Because I would love to read it – and in the future. This whole novel is the in-between years after one bad guy has been defeated and before the next installment of serious conflict.

I loved this book. Loved it. I bet it gets more variable ratings on Goodreads than the duology (I haven’t checked, but that’s my bet). I bet younger readers in general do not love this book as much as older readers. But for a reader who loves a detailed school story where the protagonist starts off sympathetic and competent and only gets better and better as you go on – a story where you can put yourself right in the protagonist’s life – this one is hard to beat.

Telling the duology from Mel’s pov and leaving the reader to see Shevraeth from the outside was a great choice and made Shevraeth a great character. The bits at the end of the duology – adding scenes from Shevraeth’s pov – are okay, but not necessary. Telling the story of Shevraeth’s background from his pov was another great choice. These three books should definitely be read as a unit. Highly recommended, for readers from say, twelve on up.

I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Sherwood Smith in the near future; a big Thank You to all who recommended her to me and pointed me toward this set of books in particular.

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9 Comments Recent Reading: Crown Duel, Court Duel, A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith

  1. Charlotte

    Oh yay! Another Stranger to Command fan! I love that book too–I think it is genius. I love school stories, and this one was top notch. A little sadly for me, it was the first book of hers I read, and nothing else has quite matched it. That being said, Posse of Princess is fun, and Not a Princess, and its sequel, Not a Prince, are great fun.

  2. mary anne

    There are more books about Senrid, the ruler of the country where Shevraeth attended the military school (I think one is actually called “Senrid”) but I did not like them as much as “Crown Duel/Court Duel” and “A Stranger to Command.” Some of Sherwood Smith’s books seem geared to a much younger audience and they don’t feel as rich or deep as her others. Her “Inda” series is very good, but VERY long. Set in the same country as most of “A Stranger to Command,” but much earlier in its timeline.
    And I have a copy of “An Alien Music”. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it… I like a lot of their books but that one was my favorite.

  3. Rachel

    Hi, Charlotte — oh my gosh yes. I also love a great school story. Have you read Elizabeth Moon’s original Paksenarrion trilogy? Because it’s similar in its day-to-day military-school feel. It might well have been marketed as YA if it came out today.

    It’s good to know that Stranger to Command was your personal top choice for Smith. That’ll let me adjust my expectations when I read more of hers. And Mary Ann, thanks for weighing in with your take on the earlier books that focus on Senrid; maybe I won’t rush right out and get those just now, though the backstory there does sound like it would make a great story. And I’m so happy you’ve read An Alien Music and can back me up on it! It is just SO GOOD and deserves not to vanish into the past.

    I’ll certainly be trying more books by Smith, not sure which ones, maybe both Inda and Posse of Princesses and then I can decide what next after that.

  4. Estara Swanberg

    *FLAILLLLLLLLLLLLL because you have the words for it and I never do*
    Anything between

    Meliara, the protagonist of the duology, is a good protagonist, but she initially annoyed me because she is emotional, hot-headed, naïve, and ignorant about the world.

    and

    What absolutely makes this duology is Shevraeth.

    SO THIS!!

    This is set on Sherwood Smith’s ongoing world (which she started dreaming of when she was 8) Sartorias-deles and if we’re lucky all those decades of stories she’s written down but not published yet will eventually see the light.

    DAW’s Inda series (5 books) tells the story of Marloven Hess 800 years before the time of Crown Duel and the first book is all about that military academy that Vidanric went to. It’s epic fantasy and amazing and wrenching and realistic, but never nihilistic.

    Then there’s the recent release Banner of the Damned set in Colend and Marloven Hess, but – if I understood correctly – about 400 years later than Inda and 400 years before the Crown Duel time.

    Both of these slices of time have as one commonality that the big dark danger of Norsunder (you remember what happens at the academy in Stranger at the end and why Vidanric had to leave so damnably fast) is rearing its head and what Mel and Vidanric will have to deal with when they grow up is the return of the dark influence.

    Other non-traditionally published books about these events:

    Senrid – which I think is a middle-grade/ya book about how Senrid got in charge of his own country (so it’s practically set before Stranger) and also explains why he is still so young looking

    Sartor – the story of how Sartor throws off the yoke of Norsunder and returns to the world (considering it’s Sartorias-deles premier mage country, this is very important)

    Fleeing Peace – where the storyline of Sartor and Senrid interconnect, among other things.

    Remalna’s Children – two previously published novellas about Mel and Vidanric’s kids
    ~~~~~~~~~~~
    Not set on Sartorias-deles, but with a lot of the same flair

    A Posse of Princesses
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Set on Sartorias-deles and around the same time as Crown Duel but it doesn’t intersect in the way of countries or characters and the heroine is in her 20s and both she and her mother are much more aware of the dangers of Sartorias-deles than Mel was:

    Shasharia en Garde : Once a Princess/ Twice a Prince duology (released via Samhain).

  5. Rachel

    Thanks for laying all that out, Estara — and thanks! Hah! I have the same reaction when I see a book blogger just nail down some aspect of a book which I was fumbling around.

    INDA sounds like one to try for sure. I think maybe that will be my next Smith story.

  6. Maureen E

    Yay yay! Another Smith fan! You’re right–Court Duel is the one I re-read most often, because it seems to take a big leap forward in terms of complexity. I loved the way the tensions with–is it Tamara?–were resolved. I actually haven’t read STRANGER TO COMMAND yet, having felt dubious about it for some reason. But if both you and Charlotte liked it, I’ll have to give it a try.

    I see Estara mentioned the short stories about the next generation–I enjoyed them without loving them as much as the originals. But they’re a nice way to round out some of the lingering questions that the duology leaves.

    I will also note that I have tried several of her adult novels and completely failed to finish them; they don’t seem to hold my attention in the same way as the duology. I did like A POSSE OF PRINCESSES and keep meaning to re-read it.

  7. Pete Mack

    One thing about Smith: Her various series set on “Wren’s World” are geared for a much younger audience. They too seem fairly shallow; I haven’t read many of them, and those I have read, I can’t recommend. Apparently there are different feelings about “Posse of Princesses” in particular, but that is not my cup of tea.

  8. Rachel

    Hi, Maureen! I don’t KNOW that you would love A Stranger to Command, but if you think a school story with very little wild adventure sounds okay, then you really should!

    And yes, Tamara, and I too appreciated how that conflict was resolved. Tamara came across as such a negative, mean person at first, but it was nice to see she had a little more depth than just playing the role of The Mean Girl.

  9. Maureen E

    I do love a good school story, and I think my initial reluctance had more to do with a deep-seated distrust of prequels than anything else. So I’ll probably at least give it a try.

    I think Smith is quite good at subverting expectations–Tamara is a good example, and the plot of POSSE, which I disliked until we hit a twist and all of a sudden my genre-reader expectations were turned upside down.

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