A Real Unreal Place: Sherwood Smith’s CORONETS AND STEEL and BLOOD SPIRITS

I love to read, and I particularly love to read novels that transport me to a place I normally could not go. This is one reason I read very little mainstream contemporary fiction or, indeed, much fiction at all set in the present day where I live. If I do read present-day-era fiction, it often contains what I’ll call a “genre” element, that is, something that sets it one or two or ten steps apart from “ordinary life” or, at least, the life I live in the USA.

Because another element I really love in novels is landscape: I enjoy visiting places I have never been or may never be able to go.

Sherwood Smith is one of my favorite world builders. Her Inda quadology is set in a secondary fantasy world (one not connected to this world) so fully imagined that I almost feel I have walked there. And that’s besides the well drawn characters and the complex, gripping plots.

In her Ruritanian fantasies CORONETS AND STEEL and BLOOD SPIRITS, Smith brings this same ability to fully create a thoroughly real unreal place in our world.

I’m not going to write up a plot synopsis; you can get that elsewhere, I don’t want to introduce spoilers, but mostly I’m no good at and dislike writing up plot synopses whether of my own work or someone else’s. It’s a skill I don’t really have. Suffice to say that the main character and narrator, Kim, is a California girl who travels to a small, isolated Eastern/Central European principality. This principality does not actually exist (thus the Ruritanian aspect of the story) but after traveling to Dobrenica in Smith’s capable hands, one is sure it could.

Dobrenica feels so real that I believe I could buy a train ticket to go there or perhaps that I already had. In both summer and winter–although especially in winter–the city, landscape, cultural traditions, and history are so strikingly well defined that the country seems to be of a piece with European history while being entirely its own unique place. I breathed the winter air; the fountains and curious old local customs are both equally visible in my mind’s eye. The salon where Kim fences with people who may be her adversaries or may be her allies has as much heft and texture as if I had walked there myself.

And that is all besides the lovely story of lost princesses, secret history, vampires, political machinations, a thematic disquisition on the power and weight of duty and honor, and of course swordplay. Highly recommended.