Before I start this review, I’m just going to do a bit of basking in the feeling that I was wonderfully smart to abandon my huge to-read and maybe-reaBefore I start this review, I’m just going to do a bit of basking in the feeling that I was wonderfully smart to abandon my huge to-read and maybe-read lists and reread this. I’m really not doing any rereading at the moment, which is the sad flip-side of discovering so many new books from friends here, so it was unusual enough to merit some comment. (If not basking, in all honesty.)
That done, I also want to mention that I got the updated-with-extras ebook from Book View Café for this reread, despite owning the original two hardbacks, and probably the combined paperback with “Vidanric’s Birthday Surprise” in it as well, though Becca might have stolen taken that with her. I’m extremely happy to have done so, happy enough that I also got my thieving daughter (still Becca) a copy too. One of the reasons I was glad to have bought the ebook was made even more clear when I read the “About Book View Café” bit at the end; authors get 95% of profits, which has to be pretty unique. The other reason was the inclusion of the “Inserts”, which are short stories showing Vidanric’s point of view. They were apparently shared on LJ’s Athanarel community, but they were so perfect read immediately after finishing Court Duel that I’m happy I missed them there.
So. I’m leaving my short write-up from 2008 at the bottom of this reread one, though it doesn’t say much about why I love the books so much, just that they were favourites for both me and my two, Becca and Cara, from the moment I got Crown Duel back in 1999. I almost wish I’d done a slower reread, so I had time to stop and write updates along the way, but that was not going to happen. I do know that one of those updates would have mentioned how hugely relieved I felt when Mel comes back to consciousness and finds herself on a horse again, not with Vidanric but with Captain Nessaren. On my first read it was a delightful surprise to have a female captain, but while I’m still just as delighted it’s no longer a surprise that Sherwood does female characters so well. (Not that there’s anything cookie-cutter about her portrayal of females, ever – Mel for example, is brave, loyal and utterly steadfast, but is not a particularly good fighter.) So the relief came because Mel is so alone and afraid, for such a long time during her flight, and even more so after she’s captured and taken before the king, and I knew she was safe now.
Another update would probably have mentioned how thoroughly convincing the depiction of Mel’s feelings of humiliation is. It’s downright frustrating – in a very good sense – the way seeing a person you care about beating themselves up or feeling worthless is, when you know that you can’t get them to see there’s no need for the feeling. I’m coming back to this shortly.
A third would have been a sudden odd feeling I had during one of the scenes between Mel and Vidanric, of wanting him to be like a big, fluffy dog and jump in her lap with muddy paws and nudge her hand repeatedly until she gave in and patted him, dammit. You all do know those dogs, right? Instead he sat being very quiet and self-contained across the room, like a supercilious cat. (Okay, I’m a dog person. Doesn’t mean I haven’t known very affectionate cats and snotty dogs, of course, but no matter how cat-wise your personal orientation, you’re going to have to give me this one for here and now.) I’m going to come back to this too, but when I read it to Cara (who was only ten at the time), she started saying “They’re going to get married!” very early, in part, I think, because we’d been watching the BBC Pride and Prejudice. On this read, though, it also struck me how very (very) well the narrative, firmly in Mel’s perspective, gets across the fact that Vidanric is a good guy, who can be trusted, and that he doesn’t disdain her - quite the opposite - and that he’s absolutely and utterly screwed in trying to get her to see any of this. Far from being “predictable” (in a negative sense), it’s a wonderfully subtle version of romance’s often-annoying Big Misunderstanding trope that is based on intelligent, rounded characterization, and these character’s lives.
That’s why the “Inserts” are so poignant when read right after the books. We’re seeing through Mel’s perspective, which goes through her ill-informed, and almost blinded by humiliation and self-doubt, filters. No matter what we as readers feel or think we know about the rest of the world, Mel can’t be there yet. All along we also notice how she tries hard not to hurt anyone (possible exceptions made for Vidanric), and not to blame others for the terror and humiliation caused her by the king (and Vidanric, as she initially believes), and it’s so real it’s painful. Then we get to see some scenes again, through Vidanric’s not-at-all-cold or detached perspective, and a few of the stories had me on the verge of tears. (The candlestick.) Others were hilarious (“smitten-boy”), and I felt again, as I did after finishing A Stranger to Command, that I really want a book about Savona too. All in all, they’re just lovely.
I just found that Melissa and I had had a discussion about the books, on the Diana Wynne Jones discussion mailing list, back in early 2000. We both loved them, so no disagreement there, but she said that Mel and Vidanric reminded her strongly of Elizabeth and Darcy, and I disagreed with that. It was rather a surprise to find that I had argued against what seems in most ways a totally sound comparison, but that’s what I’d done. That was just before I started studying for a degree in English literature with the Open University and while I’d loved English in school, and had enjoyed analysing novels, I had never come across the concept of genre. I still agree with a lot of what I said about how different the two (eventual) couples feel, while also agreeing with what Melissa said, but there’s a similarity in my mind now between the two that derives from Pride and Prejudice’s being a 19th-century realist novel. I'll get to it via Mel and Elizabeth. I see them as ending up reacting in similar manner through being almost the inverse of each other in one way. Mel finds it difficult to see Vidanric as anything other than the enemy, even when she knows he was working against the real enemy, and it’s her own feelings of inferiority and belief that she’s ignorant and wrong that prevent her from seeing him in a different light. Elizabeth, for all we love her, is unable to see anything good in Darcy because her own belief in her superior judgments and clear-sighted views of others blinds her. She stops thinking critically about the behaviour of others because she’s so convinced that she always thinks critically and clearly. What is similar about all four characters is the fact that their behaviour is in perfect keeping with their upbringing in their particular part of this world. Back to what I said about Pride and Prejudice, the realist novel tries to make the setting so very real in order to deliver a moral lesson that has weight with the reader. The world seen in Crown/Court Duel - well, obviously “mimetic” isn’t quite the word for a fantasy - but it has the same sense of realness, of having histories and cultures and societies behind the ones we see on-stage during the book's action. I don’t think that Crown/Court Duel is trying to impart a moral lesson, but I do believe that its true moral strength is made more -- accessible, maybe -- because of that likeness to the classic realist novel.
There’s a lot more I could say about how the many ways this book is wonderful, but this is probably far too long for comfort anyway. I loved this reread so much that I felt rather bereft when I’d finished, the way you do after a visit with someone you love is over. It was definitely not the melancholy of reading an old favourite and finding it didn’t measure up - exactly the opposite. No matter how few rereads I do in the future, I'll make time to revisit Mel and Vidanric more often.
[From 2008] My introduction to Sherwood Smith, when I followed up on an Amazon recommendation, partly because I loved the cover. Read it to my older daughter, who loved it, ordered Court Duel, later read it to my younger daughter, who loved it, and have never stopped reading Sherwood's books since.
If I had to choose the one thing I most value about her books, it'd be a toss-up between the incredible depth to the world and what comes across of the author's moral depth. These aren't the kinds of books in which the Enemy will be pure Evil, just because he/she/the country is the Enemy. And you'll never, ever read a book which does the fantasy by-the-numbers and the world makes no sense at all. Great characters, lots of story, and fantastic world-building....more
Should be able to have it on the read and currently-reading shelves both, as this is my umpteenth reread... Synchronized read with steepholm, this timShould be able to have it on the read and currently-reading shelves both, as this is my umpteenth reread... Synchronized read with steepholm, this time....more
This is how historical fiction for teens should be done, as far as I'm concerned. Wonderfully entertaining read, full of details which give a feel forThis is how historical fiction for teens should be done, as far as I'm concerned. Wonderfully entertaining read, full of details which give a feel for how it might have been to live at the time, and a witty, sarcastic narrator. Cushman does a really impressive job of making her characters accessible and sympathetic without their being 21st century characters in a bit of an historical costume. ...more
This is one of the most often re-read books in our house - definitely the one I read to the daughters the greatest number of times. And with good reasThis is one of the most often re-read books in our house - definitely the one I read to the daughters the greatest number of times. And with good reason, as it's fantastic. First there's the Tam Lin element, which is used beautifully here. Then there's some of the best dialogue ever ('You don't look like any god to me, Christopher Heron. You look like a piece of gilded gingerbread.') And Kate's a wonderful heroine - intelligent, stubborn when it's about doing what she feels she should (or not taking the easy way out) and interesting, rather than beautiful and not much more. And the Faerie (or are they? There's just a hint of doubt about who they are that sets the story off perfectly) are so subtly drawn. And finally, in Christopher, the wounded, arrogant-acting-but-suffering hero is both portrayed to great effect and constantly deflated by Kate's common-sense. ...more
I liked this book a lot the first however many times I read it, but it was substantially below Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, and then studying iI liked this book a lot the first however many times I read it, but it was substantially below Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, and then studying it for the 19th Century Novel module with the OU really changed that slightly squeamed out liking to love and appreciation too. Seeing how it actually fit in with the serious debates about matters literary, political and societal was wonderful. (I'd particularly recommend the Oxford World's Classic ed with the Terry Castle introduction for a lot of good info.)...more
I could never quite stomach Little Women, as a child or adult, but An Old-Fashioned Girl has all the positives of LW with less sentimentality, a propeI could never quite stomach Little Women, as a child or adult, but An Old-Fashioned Girl has all the positives of LW with less sentimentality, a proper romance with the right person, and social commentary I found much more powerful and direct than LW's. I loved it when I was young, reread it many times, and loved reading it to the girls.
Then when I was doing my second-time round studying, and we read Portrait of a Lady, I had a Moment of profound significance. Okay, neither profound nor really significant, but I liked my Moment. Just as James "rewrote" Middlemarch's Dorothea on her honeymoon in Rome in Portrait, I think Alcott "rewrote" Isabel Archer's sitting alone pondering by the fire scene with Polly doing exactly that in the "Nipped in the bud" chapter. Which made me very happy, even though I could find no evidence for the argument that it was an intentional homage. (A few years later I did an essay on AOFG and that was fun too.) (Well, writing the essay wasn't fun, but the research and thinking about how so many authors were writing interactively in the nineteenth century and how very much that included those who sometimes or always wrote for younger readers.) ...more