In her introduction to this new edition, Ms. Smith states that her original fear was that readers would not be able to sympathize with her heroine, “with all her prickles and stings.” Prickles? Stings? My foot. Our Lady Meliara is a bloody porcupine. With venom at the tips. And a serious ulcer.
But more about that later. In Part I, voici the state of things in the kingdom of Remalna: Meliara and her brother, the young rulers of a hick province, want to depose the bad king Galdran, who wants to chop down the nearby magic forest and sell the precious wood. This would break the Covenant, an agreement between the forest Folk and the other mortals to keep the forest intact in exchange for the Hill Folk’s promise to restrain their powerful magic. So while Mel and Bran prepare, Galdran sends the Marquis of Shevraeth to put down their rebellion. One night while scouting, Mel gets captured by Shevraeth, which catalyzes a series of chases, captures, escapes, and plots until Galdran is finally defeated (no spoiler, I promise). Then in Part II (formerly known as Court Duel) Mel joins her brother at court and learns a subtler way of fighting while trying to navigate the treacherous waters of politics and figuring out the identity of her mysterious admirer.
Despite some very nice bits of writing, this book feels unfinished and I think Ms. Smith could have contributed at least two more drafts plus wielded a sharper editing axe. Consider:
- Plot: The book’s entire world conflict is based on this Covenant (honestly, all this for bits of wood? Whatever happened to good old world domination and ethnic subjugation?), where the forest wood balances out the enigmatic and supposedly powerful Hill Folk. Yet magic makes only a brief, perfunctory appearance in Part II, and the Hill Folk are relegated to a cameo. For such integral parts of the story, as plot devices, world-building components, and potentially interesting characters, they receive very short shrift.
- Structure: The majority of Part I is one long irritating sequence of Meliara running and sleeping and getting captured and getting dirty and being very, very stupid. Not conducive to reader sympathy.
- Character: Meliara – a porcupine, all right, with all the abovementioned attributes, but also with her head stuck in the sand. She spends one-eighth of the book reasonably prejudiced against Shevraeth and the next six-eighths unreasonably, blindingly, childishly prejudiced against him and treating him accordingly. In her defense, she is a teen and they do get off to a bad start; she also recognizes after a while that her prejudices don’t make sense, and makes a sincere vow in Part II to learn and think before she judges and acts. Bravo. But then, she still doesn’t change. What good is acknowledgement of faults when one doesn’t make an effort to alter them, especially when her immaturity results in some pretty spectacular cock-ups? Or worse (from a romantic point of view), what good is writing the framework for a surprisingly good love story when the heroine is part brat and part ostrich?
Given the dearth of background and plot development, Crown Duel becomes primarily a character book and ultimately fails considering its flawed heroine. The second part was more concisely written and considerably more interesting – Ms. Smith seems more comfortable in smaller, intimate settings than the opposite (or maybe it was the focus on things other than the heroine’s internal whinging). Meliara certainly has redeeming qualities, but dwelling on the heroine’s prejudices effectively wrecked what could have been dashing good romp – considering how long it took to shed her ostrich feathers and take some Tums.