When I first started Crown Duel, I thought it was going to be a trite YA fantasy and not worth my time. This was mainly because the main character, Meliara, was repeatedly described as a short, feisty, redhead who wanted to take down an evil king. This felt like it’s been done many times before, and not particularly well. But despite myself I kept reading, because after the first few chapters I found myself loving this book. I constantly wanted to yell at Meliara for making all the wrong choices – in her own words, “Some of it was wrong decisions made for the right reasons, and a little of it was right decisions made for the wrong reasons; but most of what I did was wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. That’s the plain truth.” But Meliara being able to say this about herself was why I loved this book so much. I cared about this short feisty protagonist far more than I wanted to admit. She has an incredibly strong voice and comes across the page clearly. And it’s not just Meliara who is so likeable, but the whole cast of characters, from her blundering, kind-hearted brother Branaric to her untouchable enemy the Marquis of Shevraeth. Characters can make or break a story, and Sherwood Smith wrote such fabulous characters that I’ve ended up rereading this several times.
As for the other story elements, the plot and conflict were excellent. While the first half is plot-driven, the second half emphasizes character development and the slower tension of politics and romance. The world building was a blend of original elements and familiar ones that fits with the story being told. While Sherwood Smith shows us some of the world and the culture, an extensive focus on world-building is not the purpose of the story, and it isn’t bogged down with overwhelming descriptions. And the writing style is simple but captivating, with prose that’s not oversimplified.
Nonetheless, the story is far from perfect. Meliara makes a lot of mistakes, to the point where it can get annoying. She’s also incredibly sensitive, stubborn, and so obtuse it can be frustrating, especially in the first half. While this fits with her background, it can be a bit much at times. And while all the other characters are wonderful, there isn’t a lot of character growth other than for Meliara, although this could be attributed to the limitations of Meliara’s perspective.Crown Duel was originally published as two separate books, Crown Duel and Court Duel. While it is now officially one book, not just an omnibus edition, it really is two separate books in one, the first a tale of adventure and the second of politics and courtship. They are very different stories in terms of focus and themes, but they also complement each other wonderfully. On their own each would be a good story but paired together they become something excellent.
Violence/Gore: A character’s father dies due to illness; several instances of characters harassing an army with pranks; a character is badly injured; mention of hanging; a few reports of injuries; a character is threatened with beheading and having their head mounted above the gate to a city (2x); report of death; mention of public execution that would last all day; a character is chased by soldiers (3 page scene); a character is hit across the face; a character is killed with a throwing knife, no detail; a character is threatened with torture and death; a character is shot with an arrow; a group of fighters is threatened with death; a battle takes place, little detail (2 page scene); characters discuss the murder of a character’s mother; characters fight briefly with swords; report of a character committing suicide; character is killed with magic; a character is threatened with a knife; a character is transformed with magic; a magic spell is cast over many characters.
Sex/Nudity: Characters kiss a few times; characters hold hands; characters embrace; several mentions/instances of flirting; several mentions/instances of courting; a kiss is the stake of a wager; mention of wandering hands and lips; a character touches another’s neck and kisses them (1 page scene); a reference to sex; mention of pleasure houses.
Mature Subject Matter:
Death of parents, war, politics, suicide, courtship, gambling, tyrants.
A character smokes a pipe; characters commonly drink wine; characters drink alcohol medicinally; a character gets very drunk; a few characters get drunk.