Flian is rich and a princess, but she takes no pleasure in the sycophants or court politics she's known all her life. Being kidnapped by three royals in short succession (the sarcastic Garion, the dour Jason, and the swashbuckling Jaim) shakes up her staid routine. She begins to rethink her life, and how she wants to spend it. Annoyed at the numerous kidnappings, Flian takes up self-defense lessons (but in a twist on the trope, she doesn't become a super-ninja, but instead just slightly more competent and confident). She realizes that she's letting others lead the Court, and that if she wants it to be a more friendly, interesting place, she has to take charge and do it herself. In one of her escape attempts, Flian spends time as a maid, and starts thinking about her own servants. She was never cruel, but never exactly inviting, either, and she seeks to change that. (Amusingly, this works well in some instances but not in all--when she tries to have a more intimate conversation with her life-long ladies maid, the woman is clearly discomfited and uncomfortable.) She has long conversations with her brother, who rules their country, about what it means to be a good and just ruler. Meanwhile, Flian begins to realize that at least one of her kidnappers is a better man than she'd thought...
One thing I love about Sherwood Smith is that she always plays with the expectations and assumptions of the genre. Most fantasy is written in a pseudo-medieval Western Europe where society is patriarchal and queer and non-white people don't exist (or, as in the case of CS Lewis, are only present in order to be a villanous contrast). Reading stories set in a slightly fantastical version of the dominant culture and paradigm is fun! But it does get old, especially when "realism" is used as an excuse for why the author didn't bother to do much in the way of world-building. If readers can accept dragons and wizards without disbelief, surely we can deal with the occassional non-patriarchal, non-heterosexist society? Is it really so unbelievable that not all cultures are based in the same assumptions as ours is? Sherwood Smith uses the magical background of her stories (for magic itself is only rarely mentioned, but is used constantly in a thousand quiet, housekeeping-type ways) to create societies without hang-ups about polyamory, heterosexism or homophobia, sexism, or racism. Smith doesn't preach, she just creates societies in which the most beautiful woman in the world has brown skin, women are rulers and jailors and housemaids, in which a queen's female lover helps run the country and the most jock-like man at court is the one to capture the eye of a handsome visiting prince. It's all so casually accepted that it feels beleivable. Her work is unpretentious proof that medievalish fantasy world doesn't have
to have sexism to be realistic.
Which is not to say that this is a great novel. The world is great, the characters belieable and relatable, and the dialog natural. There are lots of friendships that never turn romantic, but have their ups and downs nevertheless. There are fight scenes and strategy, internecine court politics and off-handed talk about countries left under centuries of enchanted isolation. But though the fantasy is good, the romance is not. I rooted for the couple to get together, but the periodic insertion of romance novel tropes felt unnatural and forced. Also, the names feel off: Flian and Maxl don't trip off the tongue, but at least they're better than "King Jason" or (worst of all) "Princess Jewel". That aside, I really liked this book, and am feeling disheartened at the fact that it's over and I have to read something else.