There’s a genre called the “Ruritanian romance” that exists in fiction (and it’s one that you’re probably never going to see discussed in Genrely Speaking) where most or all of the story takes place in a small, fictional Germanic/Slavic nation somewhere in Eastern Europe. The genre is named for the country central to the first such story, Ruritania. Today, Ruritanian romances are a lot like Regency romances in that they tend to take place in a specific era and place, although Ruritanias are usually somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and set in Europe where as Regency stories tend to be set in the beginning of the eighteen hundreds and set in England. Originally, Rurtanias were supposed to be exist in the same era the story was written, but that’s a convention that’s fallen out of style. The genre has also been spoofed mercilessly, and also kind of fallen out of style.
Enter author Sherwood Smith.
I have no idea how much study, world building, language lessons and rewriting Smith’s Dobrenica series entailed, but the result is quite impressive. Dobrenica is the quintessential Ruritania, a small, isolated and kind of backward nation in the mountains of Eastern Europe. It has a semi-monarchy, landed nobility, quaint little ways, gorgeous old manor houses complete with ghosts, keeps guarding passes full of vampires –
Okay, okay, Coronets and Steel, the first novel Smith has written about Dobrenica, does not throw it’s readers for a loop like that. It’s not another Out of the Dark. From moment one we get the impression that our story is taking place more in an Uberwald kind of a world than a Ruritania kind of a world. Kim Murray, our protagonist, is more of clean cut college kid than a paranormal investigator, but fact is she can see weird things. When she travels from California to Europe to try and track down her mother’s genealogy she stumbles across ghosts all over the place. No surprise, Kim’s seen ghosts since she was a child and Europe’s got some ancient cities where a lot of people have died. Kim tries to ignore them, for the most part.
She can’t ignore the fact that she’s being mistaken for someone else. At first she doesn’t notice it. The ladies in that one dress shop were weirdly polite but she didn’t think much of it. It’s not until Kim meets a fantastically attractive man, who then politely drugs and abducts her, that she starts to think something might be amiss. Turns out that she’s a lookalike for the woman who’s engaged to Dobrenica’s crown prince! Said prince’s fiancee has gone AWOL, causing a lot of problems, and Kim is going to have to explain who she is and possibly play body double for her doppelganger. As for why all this is possible… well, remember how Kim was in Europe researching her genealogy?
As an employee of the largest public English language genealogy reference library in the world, I know that most people have nobility in their family tree somewhere. It just so happens that Kim’s is much more recent than most.
This adds another twist to Kim’s situation. Since she represents a noble line thought lost to Dobrenica sixty-plus years ago, her turning up adds a whole new layer of problems to an already complicated political landscape. Before things have played out, she’ll have to figure out where she stands in the midst of it all, how badly she’s in love with another woman’s affianced and what the heck is up with all this talk of the country occasionally disappearing off the map from time to time.
Not getting stabbed, shot or bitten by fiends of the night in the process is optional.
Again, the world building in the Dobrenica novels is quite impressive. The history of this fictitious country is clearly well developed and we get glimpses of it throughout, and the pastiche of real world languages the Dobrenicans speak reads much like you’d expect, rather than like a made up language. Just as importantly, while the elements of the weird are present throughout the story they don’t take it over, at least not until the third book which is markedly different from the first two. There’s no fourth, so I can’t say if that’s the beginning of a pattern or just a brief aberration.
Finally, the Dobrenican novels are romances in the modern sense of girl meets boy, accuses him of drugging her and then starts to warm up to him. I have no idea what the that says about our culture today, other than maybe it hasn’t changed much since the days courting involved clubs and caves (or tangle guns and spaceships). But Smith handles her characters well and is careful to keep them from becoming one-dimensional. With all the intrigue, hauntings and other stuff going on in Dobrenica how could they afford to pass on those other two dimensions?
While the plots of these books are solid and the characters keep your interest, the real reason you should read the Dobrenica novels is for Dobrenica. The country itself feels real, like you could hop a train out of Vienna and be there in a matter of hours. It’s an impressive bit of writing and worth experiencing even if world building isn’t your thing. If it is, then the Dobrenica novels are among the top ten books you need to read. They will not be a waste of your time.