At the Queen’s Command
Michael A Stackpole
Night Shade Books, 2010
I have seen little to no discussion of At the Queen’s Command around the blogging circuit and I’m a little worried it might fly under some people’s radar. If you enjoyed The Last of the Mohicans, perused Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, or glanced at C. C. Finlay’s The Patriot Witch this is probably a fantasy novel worth a look. It might be 1763 but European history as we know it had been significantly altered as Norillian (English) and Tharygnian (French) forces are still at war in Europe. The Tharygnians have had a revolution applying scientific method to study magic while the Norillians maintain a more religious outlook on arcane power (used to control the more magically powerful commoners). Owen Stake, a solider in the Queen’s Own Wurms, has been sent to Mystria (America), a Norillian Colony, to investigate the Tharygnian presence there.
What unfolds is a predictable yet consistently entertaining novel of frontier fantasy that emulates characters and themes from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales particularly via Nathaniel Woods a Mystrian scout who is a skilled sharpshooter and works closely with his native Altashee “brother” Kamiskwa. Stackpole does his best to balance the 18th century notion of the “noble savage” by injecting a bit of cultural relativism via some creative world building. While the Altashee of At the Queen’s Command are painted as being different from the Mystrians or Norillians in terms of how their culture developed they are the only native tribe given such detail and, given how the other native tribe we are introduced sell their services to the necromancer villain of the novel, are clearly thrust into the roll of good guys somewhat negating some of Stackpole’s work.
Like any work of Frontier fiction one of the more fascinating aspects of At the Queen’s Command occurs in the background; namely the conflict of cultures. While Stackpole focuses strongly on the adventurous aspects of the novel there is plenty of dialogue and some introspection which lingers on the various levels of cultural conflict throughout the novel. In terms of Captain Owen Strake that cultural conflict is examined in terms of Norillian versus Mystrian and Norillian versus native culture. For the Mystrian’s the conflict is between their emerging culture and that of old world Norillian culture. Far more interesting is Nathaniel Woods whose acceptance and adopting of native culture is at war with the fact that he is still a Mystrian; leading to some internal conflict. Again, none of this is particularly new but it is a nice change of pace from the traditional pseudo-medieval fantasy novels that are released year after year.
I do find myself curious as to why Stackpole decided to change the names of people’s and nations for the novel. While the conflicts are certainly recognizable I did find myself struggling to place conflicts in the greater context of European and American history. So, if the intent was stop just that sort of confusion the name changes didn’t help at all. With its semi-historical setting At the Queen’s Command makes interesting reading alongside Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. While Novik’s series features dragons it lacks magic though extrapolates the idea of dragons as air power in a fascinating manner. Similarly, At the Queen’s Command takes the presence of magic and extrapolates potential cultural and social developments as a result accordingly. That what if quality is a strong vein running through both these series and a quality makes historical fiction, and particularly historical fantasy, so interesting.
Certainly not a perfect novel At the Queen’s Command was a book that I often found difficult to put down. As I mentioned the familiarity of the plot and the setting lends itself to some predictability. However, rather then find that annoying I found it served to make some of the more original aspects of the novel all the more enjoyable. Stackpole, does a great job of combining a bit of family drama with political maneuvering and his protagonists are interesting enough that he can be forgiven at least one extremely buffoonish antagonist. If you’re looking for a change of pace from average swords and sorcery tale At the Queen’s Command will let you trade that blade in for a musket. A nice surprise near the end of the year At the Queen’s Command left me looking forward to the next entry in the Crown Colonies series (a focus on the East India Trading Comapny’s conflicts in India might be a interesting change of pace/local).