At the Queen's Command SC (Crown Colonies) Paperback – 12 Oct 2010
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About the Author
Michael A. Stackpoleis an award-winning novelist, game designer, computer game designer, podcaster, screenwriter, and graphic novelist. He s had more than forty-five novels published, the best known of those being the "New York Times" bestselling "Star Wars" books "I, Jedi" and "Rogue Squadron". He has an asteroid named after him and, since undertaking to write "Vol jin: Shadows of the Horde", spends a lot of his spare time "leveling up!"
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If all of this doesn't sound familiar yet, just change Norisle to England, Tharyngia to France, Auropa to Europe and Mystria to America, because At the Queen's Command is essentially a fantasy twist on the colonial side of the Seven Years' War and the first stirrings of the Revolutionary War, with future books in the CROWN COLONIES series probably focusing more on the American Revolution. (Cleverly, the cover illustration by Ryan Pancoast also puts a fantasy spin on something you may be familiar with: the famous painting "Death Of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton" by John Trumbull.)
As At the Queen's Command starts, the Norillian Captain Owen Strake of the Queen's Own Wurms arrives in Mystria to survey the land -- still mostly uncharted at this point -- in preparation for possible warfare against the Tharyngians and the indigenous Twilight People (read: Native Americans). While the local military brass isn't particularly helpful in arranging his mission, he does get assistance from Prince Vladimir, a Norillian noble (and a relative of the Queen) who is fascinated with the local fauna and flora -- especially his "wurm" Mugwump. Eventually, Owen sets off on his mission, helped by a Mystrian woodsman and one of the Twilight People, but none of them are prepared for what they are about to find in the wilderness...
The first half of At the Queen's Command is a pleasure to read. Owen is an intriguing character, and following how he gradually loses some of his Norillian stuffiness and adjusts to the independent, irreverent Mystrian spirit makes for an entertaining read. Likewise, the surprisingly down-to-earth Vladimir and the rough-but-honest woodsman Nathaniel are interesting characters. The descriptions of the colonial cities, still rough around the edges but acquiring their own identity, are spot-on. Michael A. Stackpole does a great job in slowly revealing that the magic used by the Norillians to fire their guns is very basic compared to that of the Twilight People. If we could rate parts of novels, the first half of this one would get four stars.
Unfortunately, At the Queen's Command takes a turn for the worse in its second half. The Tharyngian villain is so over-the-top evil that it's hard to take him seriously. A Norillian military leader who arrives late in the novel is such a bumbling, foppish caricature that it's difficult to enjoy the story after he appears. Earlier, the way Owen subverts one of his captor's servants is so ridiculously easy that it borders on silly. The contrast between Owen's Mystrian friend Bethany and his Norillian wife Catherine is horribly overplayed, with Catherine gradually turning into a caricature too. It's really a shame that this novel, which starts out so strongly, more or less falls apart towards the end.
Another issue with At the Queen's Command, which probably can't be blamed on the author, is the back cover summary: it gives away a huge plot development that occurs over 200 pages into the novel, and delivers a strong hint of something that occurs on the very last page. It's almost like one of those trailers that give away the entire movie. If you're interested in reading this novel, avoid looking at the back cover until after you're done.
Still, despite some issues, At the Queen's Command is an entertaining novel. Even though my opinion of the book dropped considerably as it progressed, I am still interested in finding out how the story continues in Of Limited Loyalty, the second book in the CROWN COLONIES series, which will pick up about three years after the end of At the Queen's Command. If you enjoy historical fantasy in the vein of Naomi Novik and are willing to forgive the usage of some stock characters, definitely give At the Queen's Command a chance.
The geographical locations in colonial Mystria and the key players are left similar enough to the historical narrative that an astute reader can figure out where they fit in. I enjoyed seeing the similarities and differences with history. The Old World conflicts were transplanted to the New World, and rivalries and alliances followed historical lines.
Captain Owen Strake of the Queen's Own Wurm Guard is a realistic character with triumphs and failures. Seeing his transformation from loyal Norilian to a lover of Mystria provided insight into how some of the loyal American colonials turned patriot.
Overall a good book with a well paced plot, which combined forest gun fights, Bostonian town life, frontier men and Indians, a little romance, magic, and some strong divergent political currents into one solidly told tale of reinvented history.
I'm generally not a fan of history books or alternate history stories. And truth be told, I'm not that interested in fantasy, either. In spite of my prejudice against both genres, Stackpole has managed to create a novel here that captured and held my interest.
Although the story does get off to a bit of a slow start, I thought Stackpole did a great job setting the stage and introducing the major players. As the odds continued to mount against Owen, you started wondering how the heck they would ever win. That only got worse when Owen was captured and tortured by Du Malphias.
The only reason I'm not giving the novel a 5-star review is that I thought the ending was a bit disappointing. We've been given a picture of an enemy fortress that is nigh-impenetrable, with a numerically superior force inside. Yet, in a very few pages (which felt like maybe an hour of realtime) the good guys overrun the enemy troops and defenses as though they were far weaker than they appeared. Even more shocking was that the bad guy appears to just surrender at the end, without a fight - or even an argument.
Knowing Stackpole's cunning and craft, this easy defeat of Du Malphias was intentional. I'll probably finish the final novel in this series and look back on this thinking "How did I miss THAT?" (He's a sly one...)
"Magick" stands at the heart of the story and the struggles of the colonists, and of the Norillians whose contempt the colonies must weather alongside a host of natural threats. Stackpole's alternate New World is a land in which ice-age fauna continue to stalk the wilderness, even as dangerous spirits of the natural world feed on the bodies and souls of unwary mortals. The soldiers of the Old World channel magick in order to fuel the weapons of their endless wars. The native Twilight People of the New World treat magick as a more integral part of their lives, and access its power on a level that the colonial Mystrians are only beginning to understand.
Captain Owen Strake is a Mystrian officer of Norisle who stands at the center of the story. However, he's often overshadowed by Prince Vlad, an eager scientist and colonial governor, and the frontier scout Nathaniel Woods, the deadliest marksman in the New World or the Old. When they discover that Tharyngian general and scientist Guy du Malphais has created a magickal process to raise the dead, the three are thrust into leadership roles they never sought for themselves, facing off against treacherous Tharyngians, armies of unkillable zombie "pas-morts", and a Norillian nobility that treats its colonials with derisive contempt.
"At the Queen's Command" weaves its story with layers of intrigue, human drama, and subtle fantasy, even as Michael Stackpole brings the grandeur of Mystria to life with well-wrought description and a sense of wonder at a world that might have been. At the same time, the relentless and graphic darkness of the battle scenes o which the novel's climax is built starkly lay out the life-and-death stakes for which the colonials and their allies are fighting.
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