Crown Duel is the story of Meliara, a poor countess who decides she needs to protect her kingdom from the corrupt King, so she starts a war with a team of rag-tag soldiers. The first half of this book takes place during the course of the war, and the last half takes place after the war in the kingdom’s royal court. I found most of the characters very well drawn, and the action was quite compelling. I was also entertained and, most of the time, enjoyed Meliara’s voice. I did, however, have some serious issues with the direction author Sherwood Smith took Meliara.
Throughout the course of this book, I thought quite a bit about the author’s role as “God” within the context of the novel. In my own writing, I have noticed that characters frequently develop the traits of their personality relatively on their own—they need less deliberate invention than other aspects of the novel. However, I have noticed that the author is almost entirely in control of the characters’ actions. But, what happens when the author is careless when deciding how their characters act? What if the actions are merely a means to an end? What if the actions are actually inauthentic?
Sherwood Smith stated that she was afraid Meliara would be too “prickly” for readers and, while I love a plucky heroine, I have to agree with Smith’s initial fear—Meliara was too prickly for me. Her prickly behavior wasn’t authentic. This book is partly a love story and the man Meliara ends up with is about as likable a leading man as possible, yet Meliara is rude to him and angry at him for most of the book. She constantly expects him to ridicule her and embarrass her, when there is absolutely no precedent for this (he’s not a Darcy who needs to redeem himself. He’s just a good guy who acts out of good intentions for the entire book). Meliara’s prickliness is completely random and, in contrast, the leading man is rarely seen without a “smile itching at the corners of his mouth” and “laughter in his eyes”. He’s genuinely nice, smart, and honorable, and she treats him like he’s worthy of derision. What’s worse is their eventual coupling is predicted from the beginning of this very lengthy book (nearly 500 pages). Let’s just say I was frustrated quite often.
Why would Sherwood Smith take such pains to keep these two characters apart? As far as I can tell, there was no compelling plot reason, and I don’t believe it was a believable way for Meliara to react. The only reason I can conceive of is that the author wanted the romantic reunion saved for the end, when all misunderstandings are cast aside and the two characters can finally be together. Well, it worked in Jane Eyre and North and South and countless other novels, but I’m not sure it worked here because it didn’t feel earned.
Crown Duel is much loved by readers and, truly, it wasn't a terrible read overall. I appreciated the author's attempt at interesting language, and it often struck a very nice tone. However, the substantial problems with the protagonist prohibited me from completely losing myself in it, unfortunately.