Full disclosure: Mike Stackpole is a personal hero of mine. As a writer, as an independent thinker, and as a righteous dude. I’ve read and loved his books since I was a young child, so I’ll readily confess that I’m more than a little biased in assessing the quality of his work. None the less, I think this book might be of interest to my readership, so I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
I first picked “At the Queen’s Command” quite some time ago, back when Boarders was going out of business and selling off old stock for a fraction of its value. Its taken me this long to pick it up because I’m disinclined towards early colonial history. Ball and powder muskets bore me, and the rules used to engage in combat turned actual war into “combat as sport.” Not to mention the uncomfortable reality that the slaughter of native peoples and the slave trade are intrinsically linked to many of the ‘heroes’ of that period.
However, this world is entirely fictional. Though obviously based on the history surrounding the American revolutionary war, the names and circumstances have been altered. “Mystria” stands in for America, “Norisle” for England, “Tharyngia” for France, and “Altashee” for native peoples. This approach allows the book to go beyond the constraints of typical historical fiction or alternative history, into complete historical fantasy. A history where proto-draconic wurms are the pets of nobility and the mounts of the most prestigious cavalry. In this world magic is commonplace, but weak and of extremely limited use, requiring technology (such as the “firestones” in guns) to make it effective. It also allows for the oppression of the natives to be approached without historical baggage, and for slavery to be omitted entirely. The relationship Stackpole’s world has to the real one isn’t so different from the relationship Middle Earth or Westros has to medieval England. The parallels are just a little stronger in this instance.
In keeping with the low-magical tone of the setting, the real life wonders of the new world often dwarf those elements of the story which are actually fantastic. When wurms are introduced, they are treated as commonplace. The characters not only know they exist, but also have experience being around and handling them. Then there’s this passage, which is among my favorite in the book:
“There, thirty yards away, a massive beast on long legs emerged from the brush and onto a small sandbar jutting into the river. Brown in color save for its long, buff muzzle, its head was crowned with a huge rack of thick antlers. Its stubby tail and brown ears flicked about. The creature surveyeed the riverside, then cropped some of the grasses growing at the river’s edge.
“Owen lowered the pistol and released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. At that range he couldn’t have hit the beast. No matter. Such was its size that a single lead ball wouldn’t bring it down. Even a jeopard might think twice.
“The monster looked in his direction for a moment, then ambled back into the river and swam across the deep center channel. Once it had its feet under it again, the creature strolled toward the far shore, nibbling as it went. It never cast a glance back.”
Later, Owen is informed that what he saw was a moose.
But while a good setting (which this is) is important for a fantasy piece, the characters and narrative are what make a book worth reading. Here is where “At the Queen’s Command” really excels. The author gives us characters we can easily fall in love with; a duty-bound soldier who wants to do the right thing, an excitable and passionate natural philosopher, a skilled frontiersman who doesn’t have much use for society, and a native who cares for his friends, but is wary of the danger their people pose to his. He also gives us characters which twisted my gut with fear or tightened my teeth with hatred. I normally have trouble remembering character’s names, but the people inhabiting this world were so real to me that I don’t think there’s a name I’ve forgotten. Even the farmer in Hattesburg who shows up all of three times; his name was Seth.
The book’s narrative is often slow, but never plodding. It does not rush towards action and adventure, but rather takes its time to luxuriously peruse the locals and characters you encounter. Stackpole takes his time, without ever allowing a scene to feel excessive. And when action does occur, I found it that much more exciting. There were times when I was moving my eyes across words as fast as I possibly could because I was frantic to discover what happened next. That’s a very special level of engagement which I wish I experienced more often!
“Compelling” would be the TL;DR version of my thoughts. If you’d go so far as to grant me another word, I think I would go with “Fucking Compelling.“
Buy this book. For serious.