I first encountered Sherwood Smith in an excellent anthology (Firebirds), where I was taken with her story "Beauty". Purely on the strength of that story, I went right out and bought the related double novel. I'm sorry to stay the story was far better than the book. In fairness, I note that the story was written several years later.
This first book was disappointing. For one thing, some of the language is careless. Early on, a pair of characters are described as having hip flagons. Flagons? Flasks are traditional here. A flagon is large pretty much by definition, generally not watertight, and basically not suited for the hip. There are a few others like this; not a lot, but enough to throw me off as a reader, and to weaken my confidence in the author. Some continuity flaws don't help.
The story itself is determinedly Young Adult, though the protagonist's age is never clear. That's no problem; I like YA. But even writing about a teenager doesn't excuse some of the weakness here. For example, on the run, fearing torture and death, repeatedly ill, just past escaping a trap, and literally surrounded, Mel nonetheless decides to play a childish prank. Young is one thing. Dumb is another, and not one that most readers are looking to relate to.
Even before that point, the story has its flaws. Mel is injured, gets sick, gets rescued and partly healed, gets sick, gets rescued and partly healed, gets sick ... you see where this is going. It's just not the most inventive of plots.
There were opportunities here for some interesting growth and reflection, as Mel and her idealism confront cold hard reality, and realizes there's more to the world than she knew. Unfortunately, that brief realization is about as far as she goes. The characters are likeable and Mel is mildly fun, but there's no real depth anywhere.
All in all, disappointing. I admit that the short story left me expecting a lot, but this isn't even close to what I hoped for. If I hadn't bought this as a double novel, I wouldn't have gone on to Court Duel.