Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sherwood Smith's Latest Books: Thoughts on Feminism and Romance in Children's Fantasy

A lot of girls and women I know really like Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel/Court Duel (originally two books, now published as one): it’s a heady mix of swashbuckling, action-packed fantasy, court intrigue, and romance. In fact, I often recommend the book to young readers still pining over Twilight’s Edward. For better or worse, though, Sherwood Smith has to match the success of Crown Duel in every subsequent book with similar themes. I read A Posse of Princesses last fall and The Trouble with Kings last month—I was delayed in writing reviews, though, because my sister swiped both books and wouldn’t give them back!

I suppose I should backtrack for those of you who haven't read Crown Duel. Inspired by their father's dying wishes, narrator Meliara and her brother Bran set out to overthrow the evil king of Remalna, but the courtiers in the far-off capitol seem reluctant to aid their cause. Though Bran and Mel are Count and Countess of Tlanth, they are untutored in the ways of politics and bumble around, building their rebellion against the king on nothing more than courage and pigheadedness. They also fail to realize that they are complicating a much more sophisticated and well-planned attempt to oust the king. Soon Mel is a folk hero, and the two factions come to work together. But Mel is cranky and defensive toward the leader of the other faction, the Marquis of Shevraeth (Vidanric).

When the rebellion finally succeeds, Meliara reluctantly begins to educate herself in the ways of the court, trying to decide if she should support Shevraeth as the new king. She acquires a secret admirer, along with a little polish and tact, uncovering a plot against the new government in the process. Of course, she and Vidanric have a lot to work out before she can admit how she feels about him. Magic, devious enemies, and the mysterious Hill Folk round out the plot. One of the best things about the book is its moments of unexpected humor. Even more important, Mel and her opposite number are immensely appealing, both individually and together. Mel is constantly misreading situations, but she simply never stops trying, and she has noble aims. Shevraeth is polished on the surface, but is just as single-minded and good-hearted as Meliara in his own way. The moments of romance between the two are funny and subtle as well as tender.

So how do Posse and Trouble stack up? Neither is as good as Court Duel, but A Posse of Princesses is far more successful than The Trouble with Kings, which is a little, well, troubled. Before we talk about the two newer books, however, let's take a look at the larger context: the balancing act required of writers including romance in their books during this age of feminism. You may have noticed that today's children's fantasy boasts a surprising number of freckled, tomboy princesses who save the day on a regular basis. We could call this a PC trend, but I prefer to think of it as a genre evolution propelled by cultural shifts. (Say that three times fast!) Naturally, people in the children’s book community sometimes joke around about the feisty, feminist princesses who have taken over the realm of fantasy, not to mention Zena-like woman warrior characters such as Moribito’s Balsa (see review below).

Despite worries about glass ceilings, American girls growing up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are the most empowered women in history. Aside from the occasional matriarchal society, older models simply pale by comparison. However, fantasy often has a pseudo-medieval setting, which would seem to imply that the women are oppressed. The juxtaposition of strong women characters with a setting that suggests Europe in the 1400s sometimes strikes us as anachronistic, but only if we overlook the very meaning of the term fantasy, which is to say, a created world. Fantasy writers are partly judged on the success of their world-building. Taking a step back, I would suggest that the entire world of fantasy has been rebuilt so that strong female characters are the cultural norm in that larger space.

Another norm in the world of fantasy is "happily ever after," which means, in European fairy tales, a marriage at the end of the story. Detractors of Twilight and its sequels have their reasons for concern, but what the books’ success reminds us is that a typical part of being a tween or teen girl, if not a woman or even a human being, is to yearn for romance, for a happy connection with another person on this planet. Some of the best fantasy books have a touch or more of romance. The idea of wanting a prince or princess to love you, while often disparagingly called the Cinderella syndrome, is more than just a popular theme in literature; it’s still a key item on most people's life lists (George Clooney and Co. notwithstanding!).

Then there’s the related issue of romance novels for adults, which are often considered a tawdry blot on the face of literature in our society.

Romance, while not necessary included in every children’s or Young Adult book, shows up in many of them, perhaps more particularly in the fantasy subgenre, which does have roots in the European fairy tale tradition. Also, whether we like it or not, many tweens and teens are actively looking for romance in their fantasy and other reading. Twilight, however flawed it might seem, is water in the desert for that demographic! But when does the romance in children's fantasy fail, and when does it succeed?

In literary terms, I would say that the characters have to matter to the reader, and the romance can’t seem contrived or rushed. In reference to the idea of strong female characters, we can further ask how the romance flourishes in conjunction with the girl hero’s personal efficacy. In other words, how does the older model of romance in fantasy look when it plays out together with the equally strong idea of the self-sufficient twenty-first century woman?

As a contemporary feminist—meaning, an independent woman of my culturally empowered generation—I find Twilight irritating mostly because Bella keeps saying she isn’t worthy of Edward’s wonderfulness. (The movie, while kind of goofy, does less of that, thank heavens.) Stephenie Meyer can really write characters, in my opinion, but she has trouble with this romance-independence balance.

Of course, different writers handle the issue differently. For example, some books sacrifice romance completely on the alter of the main character’s independence—Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy is perhaps the most well known, although I will point out that many young fans were frustrated by the last book’s ending for that very reason. (Then again, at least the love interest wasn’t demonized. Speaking of which, I recently came across a slightly irate sounding adult self-help book called Kill the Princess: Why Women Still Aren’t Free from the Quest for a Fairytale Life, by Stephanie Vermeulen.)

Other children’s book writers choose the path of compromise rather than sacrifice in their quest for balance. In Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, main character Miri doesn’t end up with the cold and calculating prince, but she does connect with her social equal, Peder, another mountain villager who respects and values her. I’ve also started seeing more picture book fairy tales in which the prince proposes at the end, but the girl says no because she wants to go off in search of adventure. For example, Laura Krauss Melmed and Henri Sorensen’s book, Prince Nautilus, gives us this speech from heroine Fiona: “Prince Nautilus, I cannot marry you now. For years I have longed to see the wide world and its wonders. After this taste of adventure, I am hungry for more!” But Fiona graciously allows the prince to come along as her ship and crew sail off to seek their fortunes. Hudson Talbott’s book, O’Sullivan Stew, about a girl who saves the day by telling deceptively outlandish stories, ends like this: “Oh, it’s funny you should ask me today, Your Majesty. You see, I’ve just decided that after talking so much about the adventures of others it’s time that I go find some of my own.” She does let him know he can come back in five years if he’s still interested, however.

Then there’s The Well at the End of the World, by Robert D. San Souci and Rebecca Walsh. It’s really a very fun book, but a second look showed me that the ending is even more PC than I had remembered. Earlier in the story, readers learn that Princess Rosamond is far better at managing the kingdom than her inept father, who has to be rescued from her scheming stepmother by Rosamond. Then Rosamond puts the kibosh on a hurried wedding to a friendly prince. First she must get to know him better, discovering all of his character strengths: “And Rosamond realized that Egbert, as well as having a sense of fun, was kind and wise and even-tempered—the very virtues he found so appealing in her. They soon fell in love; and, in time, there was indeed a wedding. When he became king, Egbert proved no better at running a kingdom than Rosamond’s father. So she wound up helping them both keep accounts balanced and drawbridges in working order. And with the gold and jewels from her hair, Rosamond helped the needy in both kingdoms, and still had enough left over to buy her father a new set of royal dishes. People would often say what a handsome couple she and Egbert made, but they found their true joy reading good books to each other by the fire every evening, sharing a good laugh, and simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company.” Shades of Cinder Edna! Is that enough Role Model for you? (Note also the Homer Simpson syndrome, in which the heroine’s competence is further heightened by the male lead’s lovable incompetence.)

Books for more mature readers may take a different tack. In Kristin Cashore’s recent Young Adult book, Graceling, warrior-assassin Katsa concludes that she never, ever wants to get married, but might as well have sex with her hunky best friend. Tamora Pierce's warrior heroines aren't as averse to marriage as Cashore's Katsa, though they're pretty blithe about sex. There are more examples of this approach in the YA realm, but you get the idea.

For her part, Sherwood Smith achieves a pretty good balance between old-fashioned romance and new-fangled feminism. Her heroines are generally kind as well as competent and strong minded, while her heroes respect the heroines. The hero and heroine tend to team up to fight the bad guys, though often after an initial misunderstanding worthy of Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen. There's little or no sensuality in the author's books for children/young adults, by the way: Crown Duel has a couple of kisses, while A Posse of Princesses and The Trouble with Kings merely touch on physical longing. A Posse of Princesses actually addresses the question of acting on those feelings in terms of loyalty and choices.

A Posse of Princesses has a Cinderella-inspired setup as Rhis and other princesses are brought to a month-long party intended to introduce eligible young royals to one another, and especially to the event’s host, the Crown Prince of Vesarja. Since princesses are often presented singly by authors, readers may get a kick out of being able to compare and contrast different personality types and approaches to being royal. Naturally, Rhis is kind to people of every station, but beautiful, popular mean girl Iardeth is not. Rhis must use her less obvious influence to combat Iardeth’s sway over the social group and bring out their better sides. There's also a whole lot of flirting going on, but who is sincere, and what does everyone really want?

Then Iardeth is kidnapped, and Rhis and a group of princesses ride to the rescue, pursued by a group of princes who also intend to help. The swashing doesn’t buckle one bit, and Rhis learns a unique lesson about love and duty. However, she and her love interest both acknowledge that they are too young to marry just yet. While undoubtedly true, this slows the book’s ending down a bit, and the well-meaning author is glimpsed here (as in The Well at the End of the World). Still, A Posse of Princesses is a terrific read for the fantasy/adventure/romance crowd.

The Trouble with Kings starts off with a lively premise: Princess Flian finds herself repeatedly abducted by three different royals, each of whom attempts to convince her that he is the hero and the other two are villains. This is partly a detective story as Flian tries to learn who is telling the truth. She is deeply suspicious of all three young men, which both helps and hurts her. Eventually she reorients her loyalties and works to defeat the greatest threat against her own kingdom as well as the rest of the region.

Premise and execution are two different things, of course. This book suffers wildly by comparison to Crown Duel. The biggest trouble with The Trouble with Kings is that the main character and her eventual love interest aren’t that appealing. As a corollary, their romance seems abrupt and unconvincing. Another difficulty is that the plot is so convoluted it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on—and good books, no matter how complex, must provide clarity for the reader. In addition, the multiple abductions take their toll: Smith seems to intend Flian to be a strong heroine, but it's hard to avoid the swoony victim thing when your book really does include that much swooning.

At any rate, while Sherwood Smith fans might still like the book, I would caution them not to expect to like it as well as her others.

I’ll just mention a third book by Smith that I read last summer, A Stranger to Command. This one is a prequel to Crown Duel, giving us the experience of hero Vidanric when he is younger and attending military school in a strange country. While Crown Duel will appeal primarily to girls, A Stranger to Command should appeal to boys, too. WPs (Worried Parents) will find that while the hero does have a girlfriend at one point, their physical relationship is handled tastefully. Still, it's a book I'd recommend for teens, not 9-year-olds. I do agree with the Amazon reviewer who suggested reading this one after reading Crown Duel, not before.

Smith has also written books for adults (and mature teens), featuring a whole lot of military training and pirate fighting on the part of the hero and his friends. Inda, The Fox, and King’s Shield, with the fourth and supposedly final book coming out this summer, are set in the same fantasy world as Smith's books for younger readers, although in an earlier era. They’re very good, but the level of violence and sex means they're shelved in a different part of the library or bookstore. Inda is especially well written, reminding me of a fantasy version of Orson Scott Card’s stunning YA/adult sci-fi book, Ender’s Game.

Sherwood Smith is a strong fantasy writer, and your 10- to 16-year-old daughter will probably like Crown Duel and A Posse of Princesses very much. You might also want to grab A Stranger to Command for your son--or for that same daughter. The Trouble with Kings is a little more iffy. The author's Wren books, an earlier series, are a nice read, though less polished. I do suggest you avoid the author's juvenalia, Senrid and Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook.

Now, as you venture out to the bookstore or library in search of Sherwood Smith's books or any other children’s fantasy, consider that the world has changed, and the genre has changed with it. Wimpy heroines who simply sigh and pine, waiting to be rescued by princes, are pretty much out. How well authors tackle the delicate balance between romance and independence—and how well your daughter will handle the issue in her own life—is the real question.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I am hoping to post my own thoughts on Crown Duel and Stranger to Command one of these days, and I'll be sure to link back here....

Kate Coombs said...

I look forward to it, Charlotte! Glad you liked my post.

Unknown said...

love, love, love "crown duel" but wasn't too crazy about "a posse of princesses". i liked "the trouble with kings" much better and the "inda" series aren't bad. when is the next edition of that coming out again kate?--kc

Kate Coombs said...

The fourth book in Sherwood Smith's adult fantasy series, Treason's Shore, is due out August 4th, according to Amazon--I've found they're almost always right about those dates!