REVIEW: At The Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With magic in the new world colony of Mystria, Captain Owen Strake is assigned to survey the new world and the advances of his country’s rival nation of Tharyngia. Assisted by local royalty and natives, he faces evil of all types: a necromancer with grand ambitions in the new world, as well as those of his own nation.
PROS: A fun, imaginative take on the French and Indian War.
CONS: The story lags at points with story lines that just take up a bit of time.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun book: brisk, entertaining, & exciting throughout.
Michael A. Stackpole has long been a favored writer of mine when it comes to fantastic warfare: His books defined my high school years with his Star Wars: X-Wing series, and later on with such novels as Dark Glory War and Fortress Dragonis. Now, Stackpole is back with a new take on his particular brand of military fantasy with At The Queen’s Command, the first novel in a trilogy that Stackpole is penning.
At The Queen’s Command is best summed up on the back of the book: Robert E. Howard meets Last of the Mohicans. Set in an alternate world of colonialism, familiar lessons from U.S. reader’s early American History come back in a very different way, reminiscent of J. Gregory Keye’s Age of Unreason series, where magic takes a dominant role in world history, rather than science. Here, France and England are still at war (although with different names), with grand aims to take control of the North American continent. Captain Owen Strake is deployed to the new world, where he’s tasked with surveying the new territory, and scouting out how far the Tharyngians (France) have encouched. Along the way, we come across, an evil Necromancer, native Americans (Twilight people), power-hungry Norillians who see America (Mystria) as a way to stamp their mark on the history books and a reanimated army that threatens everything that the Norillians have worked for.
Stackpole’s take on this era of history is a fun one. Indeed, he understands the mechanics of warfare of the time, and effortlessly transplants the concept into a fantastic setting, where it holds up nicely on its own, surrounded by a fairly basic tale of heroic actions from all sides. There are points where it lags behind – politics, romance and religion all make their appearances as side plots – but on the whole, the book speeds along nicely. Stackpole’s background is in history, and it’s nice to see concepts from the field make its way into prose.
What works the best isn’t the allegory (I would have preferred to have locations and nations named what they really are – the changes prove to be a distraction), but the style of fiction that we’re left with. Magic and supernatural forces exist in the world, but they’re treated as concrete elements, which is always difficult in a fantasy novel. Magic, in a large way, is very much like faith, in that it’s usually separated out from science and rationalism. Here, magic is studied, with its mechanics vaguely understood, in a way that almost makes it an alternative to science, or at least a different version. Many of the same elements are in place: brimstone is used to fire weapons, magic is used to track people, and to reanimate the dead into an almost unstoppable army.
One of the pet-peeves that I’ve had recently with the zombie craze is the lack of innovation with the concept. People are zombified, eat others, repeat. Here, Stackpole’s reanimated dead are treated in far better terms: they’re used as workers, soldiers, talk, and are shadows of their former selves. It’s a neat take, and I hope that the rest of the series will see more of this style of thinking somewhere in the background.
At the end of the day, At The Queen’s Command is a fun book – brisk, entertaining, and exciting throughout, an alternate history coupled with some of the bigger elements in fantasy. More than once, someone looked at my copy of the book, thinking it was George Washington (and by extension, a history book) before realizing that the central figure was not riding a horse, but a Wurm. The book follows many of the same styles: stripped of its fantastic elements, this book could very well have been a work of historical fiction.
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