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.