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Crown Duel    by Sherwood Smith order for
Crown Duel
by Sherwood Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Firebird, 2002 (1997)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This current reprint combines two previously published books, Crown Duel and Court Duel, for double the reading thrills. The stories read like a combination of the fast-paced action of The Prisoner of Zenda and one of Georgette Heyer's charming historical romances.

The barefoot, and barely literate, Countess Meliara is an endearingly impulsive heroine in a very untenable situation, which her brother Branaric ruefully sums up as 'A countess wearing a horse blanket and a count who hates fighting, leading a war against a wicked king who has the largest army the kingdom has ever known.' They must take on this tyrant since they have proof that 'greedy Galdran' intends to break the Covenant, made long since between the people of Remelna and the magical, tall, graceful and still Hill Folk. In exchange for their not cutting down the remarkable colortrees, the Hill Folk provide every person in the realm with Fire Sticks each autumn to see them through the winter.

Mel and Bran do take their people to war, succeeding in guerilla attacks against a much larger force until the king sends as new commander the Marquis of Shevraeth. Unfortunately, despite a reputation as a fop and a gambler, he turns out to be dangerously competent. Mel takes a risk with disastrous consequences, that lead her to a series of humiliating captures and cross-country escapes. Along the way she learns some lessons about what matters to the common folk, and finds that she has to 'clean out of my mind the fester caused by anger and hatred' against someone important to the revolution, whom she has misjudged. Appalled by her lack of knowledge, Mel sets out to educate herself.

This first enthralling adventure ends in a success won by others as much as by Mel and Bran. In the second, Mel is drawn to court at Athanarel by her brother's approaching marriage. Though she learns the subtle language of fans, Mel is by no means remade into a Court lady, but her own refreshing directness makes her a popular success. Dangers lurk close below the surface of manners and conversation as Mel attempts to assess whom she should support as the new ruler. And though she is courted by many, she values most the honest letters exchanged with a secret admirer. But it's not all court life. This second tale has plenty of action leading to another climactic ending, in which our heroine again rushes into danger, this time in defence of her beloved Hill Folk.

The romantic ending is enhanced by a previously unpublished short story that carries the tale just a little further. Mel is a delightful and strong heroine, 'Quick to laugh, quick to act - and much to quick to judge', but unafraid to admit her mistakes and to learn from them. Crown Duel is a totally engrossing fantasy for young and old; don't miss it!

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