What do you do when the story you’re reading isn’t anything like the one you expected? As I kept going through Coronets and Steel, by Sherwood Smith, it was as if I was waiting for the author to drop the other shoe somewhere in a future chapter, but it never happened. I’m not saying that the book wasn’t good, or that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I kept expecting it to be more magical, or more fantasy, and it was neither.
The coronets in the story are due to the main character’s family history. Kim discovers that she is, unbeknownst to her, a scion of one of the ruling families of a tiny European country named Dobrenica. A country which she doesn’t even know about until she is kidnapped in the middle of a low-budget European trip to discover the murky truth about her grandmother’s past during World War II. If this sounds like the plot for a formula romance, well, that setup has been used, and more than once, at that.
But, and this is a pretty big but, if you throw in either a little magic or a little high-tech mumbo-jumbo, it can also be the plot of either a fantasy or a science fiction novel. I was expecting a variation of the Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which I liked a lot. It also had some of the elements of S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, which is more science fiction, if you consider alternate history to be science fiction.
In the first book of the Merchant Princes, which is titled The Family Trade, a reporter finds out that, unbeknownst to herself, she is a member of one of the ruling families of a kingdom on a parallel world to our own. There is a love story involved here as well, adding to the common elements between the two books. But the plot element where the heroine finds out that she is a member of someplace-she-doesn’t-know-about’s royal family while being in the midst of a personal crisis is one heck of a coincidental way to get both stories started.
Conquistador isn’t actually similar, but in memory it seemed similar, mostly for me through the link with Merchant Princes. Once the story in Coronets went to the unknown tiny country, I was expecting a parallel universe or alternate history universe to slide in there too, the way it eventually does in Conquistador. The other things that made me think these stories were all going to line up somehow, was that family ties and heritage were central to all three stories, and that the lead characters were all strong women.
So, when I saw the preview for Coronets, considering that Smith is known as a fantasy writer, I was expecting the fantasy version of this story. I was expecting a familiar story, written by someone new to me. I know I was expecting a variation on Merchant Princes. Didn’t happen. What I got was a variation on Brigadoon! With a side-helping of the Keystone Kops.
If the prince marries a girl from one of the other ruling families on September 2 in the appropriate place, and if the ruling families are at peace with one another, and a whole host of other conditions, this lovely little country will slip back into the mists, just like Brigadoon, for as long as they can manage to not squabble with each other. The not squabbling part alone may make it fantasy. There are two rival princes, at least three kidnappings, a couple of mobsters (one American, one Russian), ghosts, possibly vampires (people believe in them, but no one claims to have actually seen one) and one swordfight straight out of the Princess Bride, complete with quotes from same.
And yes, there is a sequel! Blood Spirits is due out in September. Just because it wasn’t at all what I expected, doesn’t mean I’m not dying to know what happens next.