It’s 1763, and the Crown Colonies of Mystria are in turmoil. Unwillingly, they are becoming the new battleground in the ongoing war between their colonial master Norisle and their rivals, the Tharyngians, after the ongoing conflict on the continent of Auropa. Simultaneously, some Mystrians are beginning to feel that the young colonies don’t owe allegiance to the distant Norillian queen anymore, with underground texts that advocate independence growing in popularity.
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. (Depending on your perspective, you may be either excited or worried to find out that Michael A. Stackpole is currently writing the new novel in one month during Nanowrimo.) Regardless, 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.
Crown Colonies — (2010-2011) Publisher: The colonies of Mistria are in turmoil. They face wars between the competing empires and and insurrection from natives and colonists alike. Prince Vladamier is a Norillian noble, and Nephew to King Richard. He has little political power, but struggles to ensure the colonists interests are represented back in the court. The one thing he does have is a wurm… one of the few existing “dragons” from a clutch of eggs discovered in the old world,hundreds of years ago. As Mistria swirl into chaos, Vlad is married off to an old world princess. This new alliance is supposed to help supply money and mercenaries to help put down the various insurrections. Nobody suspects that Vlad’s wurm is about to undergo a change that will impact the worlds delicate political balance…