Coronets and Steel
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:5 (#346) in May 2011.]
In Coronets and Steel, Sherwood Smith is taking a step in a new direction — sort of. Rather than the world where many of her novels are set, an amazingly complex land where sharp-witted heroines duel with their tongues as well as their blades, and where men who at first appear to be villains end up the greatest heroes, she sets her new book in our modern world. Here, Aurelia Kim Murray, a graduate student, fencing champion, and dancer, finds herself verbally sparring with Alec, a man who, at first, appears to be a villain (albeit a very handsome and charming one). A case of mistaken identity embroils her in a plot of the royal court of Dobrenica, an eastern European country with a magical history, trying desperately to recover from having been under the thumb of the Soviet Union years before.
As in The Prisoner of Zenda, which the well read Kim compares to her own situation, Kim finds that she looks exactly like a royal relative. Soon-to-be Princess Aurelia, to whom Kim is mysteriously related, is ostensibly avoiding her upcoming marriage to Alec, but he (the heir to Dobrenica’s throne) believes that one of his rivals may be keeping her from her royal commitments. The upcoming marriage is to be a type of renewal for Dobrenica, one he believes necessary for the country. To aid him in uncovering Aurelia’s whereabouts, Alec enlists Kim (after kidnapping her — but that, of course, is a misunderstanding) to impersonate his fiancé. While maintaining the charade, Kim begins to get hints of her own family’s history — truths that she believes will help her grandmother, whose health is failing, regain some of her will to live. So rather than end her travels when she stops being Alec’s accomplice, she travels to Dobrenica herself, seeking the whole story of her family’s past — and trying to solve the mysteries that surround the country, making it seem to disappear completely from the world for years at a time. She doesn’t truly believe that the fairy tales she learned as a child are real — but she doesn’t know how else to explain the ghosts she’s begun seeing with her own eyes.
Like many of Sherwood’s novels, Coronets and Steel is clearly a fantasy, and there are magical elements woven throughout. But the magic provides a backdrop, rather than a focus for the story. The main action is in the characters and how they relate to each other — and to their duties. While the story is probably a contemporary or urban fantasy by category, it fits into a market segment that I think of as “courtly fantasy” — here is the court intrigue, the nobles jockeying for position, the moments of derring-do accomplished by heroes who should believe they are too important to their nations to be risked, but risk themselves anyway to save the day. The motives are complex, and while there are a few real villains, most of the people who seem dastardly have real reasons for their course of action.
Kim is a charming and engaging narrator, and if she occasionally refuses to admit what’s in front of her face — well, who wouldn’t doubt when facing the supernatural? But one of the most fun things about Kim has little to do with her own story, and far more to do with how I imagine I would relate to her as a real person: I could see her fitting in beautifully well among members of the Mythopoeic Society. She talks about liminal space, about a sense of the numinous, about the nature of story — all without ever detracting from the main thrust of the narrative. Rather than having a standard urban fantasy narration style, Kim has a voice that feels like someone I would know and be friends with — or at least have out to coffee or chat with at a Mythcon.
The novel ends, if not quite on a cliffhanger, at least with a clear lead-in to the second volume. The sequel, Blood Spirits, is slated for September 2011.