Wednesday, October 5, 2011

At the Queen's Command by Michael Stackpole

At the Queen’s Command is a peculiar sort of alternative history. Imagine Colonial America, shortly before the revolution, except America is called Mystria, England is Norisle, France is Tharyngia, and Native Americans are the Twilight People. Oh, and there are magic and wingless dragons. It’s an unusual starting place for a novel, but that’s where we find ourselves as At the Queen’s Command gets underway.
Once started, the book focuses on the story of Owen Strake, a captain in the Queen’s Own Wurms, who has been sent to the colonies from Norisle to conduct a survey of the land and report back to the continent on how best to fight the Tharyngians in the New World, should his homeland wish to extend their ongoing battle from the Continent to the Colonies. As he undertakes this mission, he must learn to work with the Mystrians who distrust him as well as overcome his own misconceptions about the land. Gradually, the main plot shifts from Owen’s original “mission” of mapping and reporting to the actual planning and execution of battle, especially after the introduction of the main villain, a Tharyngian madman with a penchant for creating zombies. (Yes, it's not just dragons and magic- the undead are there, too.)
Author Michael Stackpole’s unpretentious writing style keeps the plot moving briskly, which works in the book’s favor. Aside from the occasional distraction of trying to figure out which country/people names correspond to those from our own, more familiar history, the plot does a decent job of drawing the reader in, even if it’s not quite page turning. The characters in general are broadly drawn and lack any particular nuance. They’re not badly written, but they tend to stay firmly (and occasionally irritatingly) within the borders of the expected character types. Heroes are brave, on the side of right, intelligent, stoic and have occasional cutting wit. Antagonists are selfish, close-minded, pig-headed and given to acts of petty and occasional genuine cruelty, with the only real variance being in if they have sufficient intelligence to carry out their sinister plots. This doesn’t necessarily detract from enjoyment of the book, but does guarantee that the characters don’t provoke much in the way of deep thought or analysis.
The only real source of intrigue beyond the basic plot is pondering the political and social mechanics behind the lead up to a revolution. Lurking in the background of the main plot points and character development is the concept that Mystria is beginning to chafe under Norisle’s rule. Stackpole takes the time to explore the seeds of rebellious thoughts, allowing Mystrian characters to explain their beliefs that they deserve at the very least better treatment. However, as Owen Strake is a “red coat,” we also get a decent look at the perspective of one who believes wholly in the royalist viewpoint and can skillfully argue with the colonialists. Additionally, most of the major plot points receive some analysis from the perspective of their impact on Norisle’s control over Mystria. Will undertaking battle in this manner demoralize Mystrians and make them more dependent on Norisle? Will a different battle plan make Mystrians feel more independent, or perhaps resentful? Who benefits the most? Again, these perspectives aren't written with exceptional nuance, but they nonetheless provide an interesting jumping off point for contemplating the political and cultural machinations within the book and, potentially, in our own analogous history.
Overall, At the Queen’s Command has quick moving plot, with just enough twists on the genre(s) to keep it interesting and unique enough from other quick-read fantasy or historical fiction to make it worthwhile, if not a must-read. Judging by the number of books to his credit, Michael Stackpole has a knack for creating inoffensive but somewhat intriguing worlds, and filling them with just enough action to keep things interesting.
3/5 Stars (Or maybe 3.5/5. I'm indecisive.)

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