Kim Murray knew nothing about her family's heritage or background until she took a trip to Europe last summer. Then, she learned her grandmother had once been the Princess of a small European nation called Dobrenica, and that she had run away, leaving the Kingdom in some turmoil. Kim found herself on the run with Marius Alexander Ysovorod, the Prince of Dobrenica, as he looked for the woman promised to be his bride, Aurelia, better known as Ruli. In addition to being related to Ruli, Kim, whose first name is also Aurelia, was her virtual double, enough to pass for her now-missing distant cousin. She decided to help Marcus search for his fianceé, and somewhere along the way, fell in love with him. But when they finally did find her, she knew that, despite Marcus returning her feelings, he was promised to Ruli, and that she couldn't get in the way of that.
He also needed to be with Ruli for a different reason- his marriage alliance with her was tied up in ancient magics that would conceal Dobrenica from the modern world, and Dobrenica, where magic itself still lingers, needed that concealment. So she left Dobrenica and Marcus and Ruli behind, returning to America, and a job teaching kids in Oklahoma German and French. But when one of her colleagues in the Language Department is injured in an accident, she pretends to be his sister to make sure he is taken care of until his new wife arrives. Somewhat grateful, the woman asks why, and when Kim tells her about the situation she left behind, the wife tells her she needs to deal with it. Kim agrees, and travels home to California for the Christmas Holidays, only to find that her mother and grandmother have already left for England to meet with the Dobrenican Ambassador. Her father says that they have bought a ticket in Kim's name as well, and she agrees to go with them to England.
In England is not only the Dobrenican Ambassador, but Marcus's cousin, Tony, who agrees to take Kim on a tour of the London sights, but actually takes her back to his place and challenges her to a duel. During the duel, he tells her that Ruli is dead in a car crash, and that Marcus appears to have been driving. He asks Kim why she has come back now, and appears to think that she and Marcus colluded in Ruli's death so that they would be able to be together. Kim denies any involvement in such a scheme, and Tony appears to believe her... for now.
But he abandons her in London, and Kim knows that she has to return to Dobrenica, and find out what really happened to Ruli and to see if she can put right what has happened and unravel the mysteries surrounding the land. But in the airport on the way to England, she had an encounter with Ruli's ghost or spirit, asking for her help and she wants to know what happened to Ruli as well. So she travels to Dobrenica, where Marcus is in mourning, and many people think of her as an imposter, if they think of her at all. But that is only the nobles. The common people think of her as a hero, and support her, but Kim must be careful, lest Tony's suspicions be shared by everyone.
What she finds is disheartening. Marcus, who has a drinking problem, thinks he was drunk and responsible for the crash that killed Ruli. In fact, in council, he asks for the matter to be investigated, and if they find him responsible, he will pay for his crime in any way necessary. And this has convinced many people that perhaps Marcus isn't the best heir to the throne, and so some of the older families are looking to overthrow him, either barely on the sly, like Tony, or in secret, like others. But something is also happening with Dobrenica's magic, and their connection to vampire-like creatures called the Dark Ones is also in the mix. As Kim tries to deal with learning to see and listen to the dead, and Dobrenican crystal magic, she must also learn to winnow the truth from falsehood and keep herself from dying in the coming conflict. Because if she fails, those she loves, and her own family might end up being the ones paying the price...
I never read "Crowns and Coronets", the first book in this duology, but in many places, I didn't really need to. The characters, while not familiar to me, were explained enough that I could understand the gist of who they were and how they were important, to both Kim and the plot. Plus, there are plenty of new characters, and eventually you get a feel for how it all works together. It takes a while for the main part of the story to start, but once it does, it pulls you right through to the end.
I did find this a little surprising, that the story is billed as a fantasy with magic, the book is so rooted in the real world, so to speak. But it's very low-fantasy fantasy. What magic there is is limited to seeing spirits and portals to a world where vampires (The Dark Ones) come from. And yes, vampires and ghosts exist, but it's hardly the sort of heroic fantasy I was expecting. I was thinking more something like Glenraven, and what I got... wasn't. This doesn't make it bad, but not having read the first book, it was rather disappointing. The only fantastic elements were a country that doesn't really exist, a very low-key, low-power magic and vampires. And while every story with fantastic elements can be said to be a kind of fantasy, that's not the sort of fantasy I was expecting, so I did find it somewhat disappointing, to be honest. But that was more about my expectations than the story itself.
As a story. it hangs together well. It's not the sort of high fantasy where elves, dwarves and wizards are lurking atop every mountain or in every grove, with unicorns hiding behind the trees. It's much close to reality than high fantasy, and as long as you aren't expecting "Normal human from reality meets high or low fantasy Kingdom", then you won't be disappointed. But I have to say I feel mislead by the dust jacket copy into expecting the first and getting the second, so I felt disappointed by the novel. I would recommend the story, but not as what I thought I was getting from reading the dust jacket blurb.