Judged by Cathy • Find her on Goodreads
When Beth asked me whether I could/wanted to judge a match-up in this year’s book battle, I didn’t really hesitate to say yes. If anything, reading two books and then choosing which one to put through seemed like fun. However, having now finished the books I was assigned to judge, I’ve come to the conclusion that this process of elimination is somewhat brutal. Because even if I had liked or disliked both books equally, there would probably still be a part of me that would be sad to send one book home, so to speak.
Crown Duel and Binny in Secret are very different books. Crown Duel is a YA fantasy with a healthy dash of romance thrown in, in its second half, whereas Binny in Secret is a delightful but obviously much younger-feeling story. There aren’t many similarities between both books, although I suppose you could say they share an element of adventure. And war, come to think of it.
Still, this eventually proved to be a more difficult battle than I had initially expected. I say this because I did not enjoy the first part of Crown Duel at all. Apparently, both Crown Duel and Court Duel were published separately back in the day as a duology, but they have since been combined into one edition. This (and the fact that the ebook version that I read also combines both stories) made all the difference to me, because if it had been just Crown Duel, just that first part, then I would have disliked it.
I will attempt to share some essentials about both books and try to – preferably coherently – get my thoughts and feelings across. Though, I should mention that I… well, I have the tendency to ramble. I get carried away sometimes and have been known to just go on and on. Just, you know, in case this happens here, you have all been forewarned.
Let’s get to it.
Crown Duel tells the story of Meliara, countess of Tlanth in the magical kingdom of Remalna, and her brother Branaric, after they make a promise on their father’s deathbed to take up arms against their current, greedy ruler and reclaim the kingdom. They go to war without much training in either combat or war strategy, with something that is supposed to resemble an army, and the book follows them from there on out.
This started off as a difficult read for me, since I struggled a lot to keep my attention on the book. The beginning was far too messy, I found. It seemed like a jumble of all these different things that were happening at once, and all the while there were a lot of places and names being dropped that were impossible to keep straight. There was little backstory beyond the short prologue, and everything happened so fast that they were off to wage a war before I even knew or fully understood what their reasons behind said war even were. There were also magical elements to the story, but they are neither fully explained nor used very much, except when it was convenient to the plot.
Basically, I lacked information and I was, quite honestly, bored out of my mind. I couldn’t get into it at all.
By the time I was around the 30% mark, I was already thinking that no matter how the second book in my match-up would turn out, if this continued the way it was going, then the other book was going to win by default. It couldn’t possibly be less enjoyable, after all.
Then a curious thing happened.
Gradually, my feelings started changing and suddenly the book had no problem keeping my attention whatsoever. A few chapters before the break, where “Book II – Court Duel” would begin, I suddenly had an idea of what I wanted to happen and… to put it quite simply: I started shipping. Which, fun fact about me: if I catch even the faintest whiff of a romance I could get really invested in, I am lost.
And did I ever get invested here.
Meliara is a great character because she’s far from perfect. She’s brave, loyal and fierce but she’s also very impulsive and makes rash, uninformed decisions that seemed more foolish than not to me. The fact that she was so quick to judge and constantly rush into things without listening to other people and their advice frustrated me, but that means I cared about her as a character. In spite of her headstrong ways, I loved her loyalty when it came to her brother and the people depending on them, her conviction to do the right thing, and the fact that she was more comfortable racing through the country on horseback than being put in a carriage.
Vidanric, on the other hand, I confess I was pretty much sold on the moment he showed up. I could write an entire essay on why I love him and all the misunderstandings between him and Meliara. But perhaps another time.
The reason I enjoyed book II so much more was not just because of them, however. I liked reading about their life at court and the workings going on behind the scenes, and all of the characters I loved trying to find their place in this new life. Things felt less contrived and though it was still messy here and there, it was simply a better story filled with lovable people. There were a lot of characters, outside of the main three, that I grew very fond of.
Or perhaps I just tolerated the book’s flaws more now that I was looking at them through heart eyes. Hee.
Because the romance. Oh. I’d like to snatch it up and put it in a little frame to hang up on my wall, that’s how much I adored the romance. It’s my favourite kind; where mistrust, hostility and a series of misunderstandings turn into a sort of grudging respect for the other and eventually moves on into something more. I JUST LOVE THIS VERY MUCH, OKAY?
Needless to say, by the end of the book my feelings had drastically changed and I was even somewhat devastated to have finished. To be done with these characters and not have anything more to delve into. I wanted to follow them for the rest of their lives, to be honest. I am also fairly certain that if I were to go back and start the book all over again, my reaction and sentiments toward part I might be completely different now.
Then came Binny in Secret, which is a very different story altogether. I admit to not knowing much about Middle Grade fiction. On the imaginary map of different genres I’ve read throughout the years, it would be the region marked “Here be dragons!”, because by the time I started reading books in English, I’d moved past the target age for middle grade fiction and I was too busy devouring other things to go back and see what I might have missed.
This just goes to show that I have zero experience with middle grade books (in English, at least), and I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
What I ended up getting was a lovely story with beautiful language and funny, lovable characters. Binny in Secret is about Binny (short of Belinda), her older sister Clem, younger brother James (who goes around greeting everyone by saying “Hello, don’t kiss me!” and who was therefore obviously my favourite) and their mum. Oh, and their two chickens, of course. After a storm does serious damage to their home, they have to move and temporarily rent a cottage in the countryside. The story then switches back-and-forth between present time when Binny’s family is there and 1913, when 3 other children – Rupert, Peter and Clarry Penrose – spent their summers at the same cottage. Binny finds old collections and other items in the attic that belonged to them, 100 years before.
I quickly grew attached to all of the characters. From Binny to James to even Gertie, the family chicken. Yet, as with Crown Duel, the beginning of this book was problematic for me, because of one particular storyline. Despite the fact that this is middle grade, it’s not a rainbows-and-unicorns book, because it deals with a couple of real issues. It doesn’t shy away from emotional topics.
The topic I had problems with was the bullying. Binny is starting a new school and even before her first day, she gets off on the wrong foot with Clare, one of her future classmates. The fact that the way the bullying started, that what lay at the basis of it was basically Binny’s fault, did not justify the actual constant teasing for me. Particularly because it went pretty far and I felt like it was never really addressed at all. It bothered me that nothing seemed to be done about it and that her fight with Clare was eventually over and done with far too easily. It was kind of swept under the rug, but why introduce such a topic if it won’t be brought to a decent conclusion?
What I did love was the way both stories were woven together, with parallels and a sense of mystery throughout, and how well all of that was done. Seriously, this book is so well-written. I don’t know why that surprised me so much, but it did. The 1913 story ended up being my favourite, actually, just because the mood and tone of that storyline were probably hard to get exactly right, yet the author managed it perfectly. And I liked that Binny found out she’d drawn the wrong conclusions and that she and Clarry had more in common than she’d known, even if they did live in different times.
Binny in Secret surprised me in a lot of ways, and it was charming, comforting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
But in the end, I was about 18 years too late to love it like I ended up loving Crown Duel; wholly, unconditionally and even turning a blind eye to its faults. None of which I cared about, in the end, because Meliara and Vidanric managed – against my own expectations – to steal a piece of my heart. I am weak when it comes to a well-told romance story, and I fell hard for it here.
Trust me, after the first half of Crown Duel and remembering my feelings while trying to plough through, no one is more surprised than I am for declaring this book the victor. This just goes to show how quickly things can change within a story, changing one’s opinion right along with it.
And in this case, I love being proven wrong.