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Review: ‘Coronets and Steel’ by Sherwood Smith

April 9, 2013

Coronets and Steel coverAurelia Kim Murray, a young woman from California, embarks on a journey to Europe to uncover her family’s history. Ill and unable to speak, her grandmother’s past and her family history is a great mystery to Kim. All she has to go on are a few stories from her grandmother about living in France, a picture of her grandfather in a military uniform of a style no one recognizes, and old theater tickets.

Kim journeys to Europe determined to uncover her family’s secrets, but finds no clues in France. A gifted linguist as well as a champion fencer and dancer, Kim has no troubles finding her way around Europe. Along the way to Scotland by way of Budapest, Kim is kidnapped by the mysterious and handsome Alec Ysvorod, who claims to be searching for a woman, Ruli, who looks exactly like Kim in almost every way. Through Alec, Kim finds out about a small country called Dobrenica, a country hidden away in eastern Europe and shrouded in mystery and Old World charm. The politics of Dobrenica sweep Kim into the mix when she decides to travel there and learn more about the tiny country– but those politics can turn dangerous and deadly on a dime as Dobrenica is threatened by its ruling families and by its neighbors. Kim, unfamiliar with political scheming, finds herself in over her head and still with so few answers about her family’s history, which she finally finds a connection to in Dobrenica, but little else.

Entrenched in the political schemes of Dobrenica and Alec’s ongoing search for Ruli, Kim must figure out her family’s past, find Ruli, and stop a plot against the throne–if she can keep her own life intact first!

My Thoughts: At first, I really disliked this book.  I nearly stopped reading.  I had a very hard time getting into the story, and I thought Kim was an unlikable ditz.  Not only that, but Smith didn’t just sprinkle in references to things, she loaded the first half of the book with all kinds of references that mostly went over my head, ranging from historial figures and events to pop culture to foreign works/people/events/etc.  While I don’t mind a reference or two, that many references (that many obscure references) really detracted from the story for me and left me confused because I couldn’t understand what was intended in the use of the reference.

The story is written in first person.  This doesn’t bother me, and for this story, I think it worked fine.  Some people can’t stand first person writing, but I don’t mind overall.  However, it could have been part of the problem in getting the story off the ground and getting it into more interesting territory.  I think the reason the story felt so slow at the beginning is because Smith did a great deal of setup and description rather than starting off in media res.

My other issue with this book is that it’s billed as fantasy–but there’s really very little fantasy in it.  I’m not sure that I would really call this a fantasy book.  Yes, there are ghosts, vampires, and a bit of magic, but it takes more than that to make a fantasy novel.  It’s called contemporary fantasy, though I’m thinking it’s a bit more like paranormal fantasy seeing as how the main fantastical element about the story is the ghosts–and ghosts aren’t fantasy.  The bit of magic used is in the form of prayer–sort of how modern new age/metaphysical adherents describe energy work or energy healing.  Again, not really fantasy, and if you’re going to call it fantasy, in my mind, it should play a larger role.  The real fantasy element to Coronets and Steel is something called the Blessing–but we don’t find out what this is until 3/4 of the way through the book!  And we don’t truly understand what it means until nearer to the end!  If you decide to read this, I don’t want to ruin what the Blessing is, because it is actually kind of interesting, so I won’t tell you the specifics.  I just had a very hard time buying this as a fantasy novel, even as I read further into it.  It feels more to me like an attempt at Princess Diaries meets contemporary fantasy, and somehow misses the mark on both.

The characters are decent, though like I said before, I had a hard time liking and being invested in Kim.  Her mannerisms and speech at the beginning were off-putting and annoying for me, and her willingness to forgive someone so quickly for drugging and kidnapping her because he said it was a mistake is a little appalling.  Who would do that and stick around rather than get the hell out of dodge?  It seemed barely plausible, unless Kim was an airhead, but her education and more refined tastes in fencing and ballet imply that she’s not an airhead–so it didn’t make much sense to me.  Other characters are more consistent.  Alec, for instance, is done well as the mysterious potential bad guy/potential good guy.  He keeps the reader guessing as to his real intentions for a while, and Smith uses him well as the story’s secret keeper and thus secret revealer.  He becomes more likable as the story goes along, and despite his supposedly extraordinary good looks, I do actually like him and became invested in him.

Ruli, oft-spoken of but never seen, is perhaps the most brilliant of the characters in her portrayal.  We don’t see her until near the end of the book, but I felt like I knew her and knew what she was all about from the characterizations of her as told by the other characters.  So when she finally does appear, it’s with a sense of familiarity.

Unfortunately, the family relationships and ways in which the characters related to each other got very confusing very quickly, and throughout the story I kept getting confused on who was related to whom through which family line.  I would have appreciated a diagram, actually.  I may be the only one with this problem–I’m a visual person, so while I may have had some trouble with this, others might not.

This doesn’t affect the rating of the book, but I do want to mention it.  The editing could be improved.  A number of misspelled words, and a lot of missing or misused commas.  This surprised me since the book comes from a major publishing house–surely the proofreading could have been better?  But it could use improvement.

I give this book 2 stars for the slow start, middling characterization, and it not really being fantastical.  I hope the second book is better, and from the sounds of it, it does seem to be more along the lines of actual contemporary fantasy (I hope!).

2 stars. It's just an OK read.

Buy on Amazon * Author’s website * GoodReads

Book info: published 2011, 448 pages, ISBN 9780756406851

Copy is a personal copy

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