In the midst of chaotic or new experiences, I am always soothed by the familiar. So as this semester began, I decided to return to the work of one of my favorite fantasy writers, Sherwood Smith. I first encountered Smith’s novels Crown Duel and Court Duel in high school, both books bound together in a trade paperback edition. I borrowed the book from a friend – and bought my own copy before I was halfway through the story.
When searching Audible for old favorites, I came across the same two novels sold as a single audiobook. Scanning down the list of Smith’s works, I saw a book that was released just last year. Titled A Stranger to Command, this audiobook was described as the prequel to Crown Duel. I added it to my cart without hesitation.
Knowing I would need a refresher on Smith’s layered cultures and characters, I listened to Crown Duel first. From the initial minutes of the audiobook, I was transported back to my first reading of the novel. I remembered how I used to read then – lying on my bed, moving my glass dome magnifier across the book’s cramped font. The magnifier was heavy, the borrowed paperback thick, smelling faintly of someone else’s house. When I read with a magnifier, my experience of a good book was decidedly tactile; I had to be close to the book, my nose a centimeter above the cold glass dome that made the words legible to me.
As the audiobook caught me up, I rearranged my schedule, so that I could complete mindless necessary tasks and give my thinking brain to the familiar story. The book’s narrator halted here and there – a fault of the performance, not the prose – but the story charmed me. Though I remembered the general events of the plot. Smith’s writing still surprised and delighted me. During intense moments, I set aside the papers I was filing and wrapped my fingers around the arms of my desk chair, pressing hard into the spongy rubber. The book satisfied my craving for the familiar and justified my earlier admiration.
Crown Duel tells the story of a country countess who leads a revolution against a tyrannical king. Narrated from Countess Meliara’s point of view, the story is shaped by her surmises and misjudgments – allowing the reader to sigh with relief when Meliara is correct and cringe with despair when her ignorance leads to disaster. Mel’s delivery is honest and earthy; she critiques the world around her, leaving the reader to derive more compassionate conclusions.
The second novel, Court Duel, describes Meliara’s forays into Court life as she unravels the intense attitudes of the previous book to make sense of her new situation. In this novel, Meliara must examine her relationships with the other dynamic characters. While Crown Duel had the countess determined to go it alone, its sequel allows her to recognize – with considerable reluctance – how much she needs other people and how this need lends itself equally to joy and disappointment.
Throughout these two books, Mel’s chief irritant is Vidanric Renselaeus, the Marquis of Shevraeth. Despised by our forthright narrator for his reputation as a flirt and a dandy, Vidanric occupies several roles in his interactions with Meliara – from a “court decoration” to a military commander. Court Duel places Vidanric in yet another position, which I won’t describe here (I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers!).
Though Smith has created a vivid and captivating fantasy world, it is her characters that compel me to reread her books. Listening to Crown Duel (Books I/II), I fell in love with Vidanric for his wit, capability, and good sense – to say nothing of his long blond hair and expressive gray eyes. But as a writer, I fell in love with Meliara – more precisely, with how Smith allows her to develop. Without changing Mel’s values or personality, Smith creates a character who learns to think for herself and reflect on her actions, a character who makes the same mistakes because her mistakes are habits. In short, Mel doesn’t fit the obnoxious protagonist of many fantasy stories – the heroine who is too perfect to be real. She is wonderfully flawed, and as she learns to manage her bad habits, she doesn’t cease to be human.
The audio version of CD is roughly 18 hours, but the story finished around 14:30:00. I listened on to find that Smith had included several inserts found in the most recent reprinting of the book: a series of thoughtful and engaging vignettes from Vidanric’s point of view. Here, I recognize an elegance of craft; these inserts add shades of meaning to the overall project of CD but they wouldn’t work within the novel itself. Because they bring in knowledge that might tamper with the healthy suspense of the plot, they function best outside the novel, which is a miraculous craft secret! Smith has managed to create supplemental materials that fit around the story without changing the story itself. It’s as if we’re in a CD archive, and we have special permission to examine a box of hidden records. This archival quality may be what makes her world seem so real. I am taking notes.
After the intense first-person narration in CD, I did not know what to expect from A Stranger to Command, which tells the story of young Vidanric’s military training outside his own country. Because Vidanric rarely shows strong emotions in CD, I wondered what kind of narrator he would make. To my delight, Smith employed a third-person narrative voice, taking us inside the heads of several prominent characters in the book. This time, the story was read by a male narrator, who employed a British accent to mark Vidanric as a foreigner in the military academy of Marloven Hess. The British accent, beautifully performed, renders Vidanric’s thoughts and dialogue with graceful intensity. Somehow the accent suits the wide range of emotions that the young Vidanric experiences: attraction, defiance, disgust, resignation, joy.
This audiobook is around 14 hours, roughly the same length as CD without the added material. Because I couldn’t judge how much story remained by the feel of pages in my hand, I frequently checked the time elapsed. Six hours into the story, I misread the remaining time; I was relieved to realize that I actually had 8 hours left! At 13:00:00, I felt incredibly sad, even close to tears. I recognized the coming end, and I wasn’t ready to leave this world – especially with its characters in such dire places. Then I remembered that a good writer never leaves you to languish in a story: she gets you in and helps you out. She makes sure that when you turn that last page, you crave more, but your heart isn’t broken. So I read on, and when I finished the book, I felt satisfied.
I have a formidable trouble finding light reading. Most of the books waiting on my desk are nonfiction – about linguistics, teaching, psychology, animal behavior – or poetry. When I choose a novel, it’s usually an old favorite or a classic I haven’t read. I like the fantasy of Terry Pratchett, Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling. (Tolkien I place in his own category.) I love these authors because their work is entertaining and satisfying, but it doesn’t make me ask craft questions.
A Stranger to Command is the first page-turner I’ve read in a long time, one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read. Each character is so compelling, so rounded and developed, each side-story woven into the main plot with grace and subtlety. Especially with this book, Smith makes me ask how and why questions about craft – timing, description, emotion, balance.
I finished the book with a sense of conflict not about its contents but about my next step. I didn’t know whether to open the slumbering documents that house my own fantasy-writing projects, reread the book itself, or dive into nonfiction as a kind of literary purge. I have decided to listen to the book again, this time with my mind on craft and content together.