Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
Goodreads: Crown Duel
Summary: In fulfillment of a vow made to their father on his deathbed, Meliara and her brother Bran declare war against the monarch whose greed now threatens the prosperity of the kingdom. Against the odds they struggle valiantly on, but find that peace can sometimes prove more dangerous than war. Treachery lurks everywhere at court and Mel fears to place her trust in anyone. Her reluctance to own to her mistakes and to take sides, however, may ultimately cost her her chance at happiness. Contains Crown Duel and Court Duel.
Review: Crown Duel never breaks from the predictable, but proves a satisfying and solid fantasy read nonetheless. Full of danger and adventure, it hits all the right notes from its feisty heroine to its upright love interest. The inclusion of Crown Duel and Court Duel ensures that readers get their fill both of hair-breadth escapes and of intrigue.
The characters prove the driving force of the story since the ending never remains in doubt. Meliara in particular is richly drawn. She comes close to losing the support of the readers with her stubbornness, her anger, and her inability to see past her insecurities to the truth. However, she has claims to sympathy through her instinctive kindness and willingness to learn. More than anything she comes across as real, and she can make readers question their own dislike of her. After all, not everyone is charismatic and bright, so why should all protagonists be so? Maybe Meliara has to be met on her own terms.
The other driving force behind the story is the mysterious marquis Vidanric. “Mysterious” describes Meliara’s perception of him rather than his actual state, and her complete failure to understand him may either amuse readers or cause them to throw the book across the room. Either way, he provides many of the qualities Meliara lacks (cleverness, patience, understanding) and thus saves the story. Meliara by herself is merely frustrating; Meliara with Vidanric is entertaining.
Crown Duel blends typical elements of court novels, fantasy, and romance to create a story comforting in its familiarity but fresh because of its strong characters. Its vibrant world will draw readers in, and leave them desirous of returning.
Published: 2002 (Crown Duel first published 1997)