At The Queen’s Command

At The Queen's Command

At The Queen’s Command is a journey into a history that never was, cast into a dream, and reborn as a tale worth remembering. Michael A. Stackpole weaves a story that combines elements of historical fiction with pure imagination to spin an intelligent, entertaining tale that might actually be perfect. It’s a story where two superpowers are at war in the year 1763, and though all the places and people are familiar, the names are completely different. The pages take the reader back in time to a place shortly before the Revolutionary War. There are red coats, and Indians, dragons, and saber tooth cats. Blackpowder rifles fire with the invocation of magick. Yet the story is neither a tale of fantasy nor the retelling of a war. In essence it is exploration of a strange land through a cast of wonderful, deep characters that transport the reader to another time and place.

The first thing that struck me as a reader while engrossing myself in the story is just how historically correct it seems. The main character is Captain Owen Straker. He seems like your typical British officer you see in any movie. It’s quite easy to envision him as Michael Caine back in his prime, ready to serve his country and do his duty. As he’s traveling on board a ship to the unexplored frontier, you can see the vast ocean that lies between him and the adventure that awaits. But the words on the pages quickly reveal that he’s not from Britain. In fact he’s from an island called Norisle. The frontier he’s has been sent to explore is not called America either; it’s called Mystria. Slowly it becomes evident that a lot of details will be different from history. Armies commonly use magick to fire their rifles and cannons, and in addition to cavalry they have wingless dragons called wurms. But there is a great limit to the magick in this book. Most people can only use magick via physical touch. Plus the story is very careful to slowly introduce these elements of fantasy, never dumping them on the reader in large sums. Throughout the book the traces of magick and mythical things are sprinkled in such a way that it remains an historical fiction piece primarily, and a fantasy story as an afterthought. Overall the balance retains the believability in things that should be impossible. It is this accomplishment that allows the reader to easily submerge themselves into the story even when things like forest demons and zombies are introduced.

One of the key elements of the story is its subtlety. For instance at first glance the cover looks like any other history book. There’s a picture of a man who looks like George Washington fighting some red coats and Indians. One of the men on the cover looks like Daniel Boone. Upon closer examination though, it’s easy to see that one of the British soldiers looks like a zombie and that the horse George Washington is on isn’t a horse at all but some kind of dragon. That’s exactly how the story plays out. At first it seems like a normal tale and then more and more details become apparent that make it anything but normal. And yet you can still look at the cover, still read the story, and it all seems so normal and acceptable. It’s with that ease that Stackpole is able to present characters in this time period that are historically accurate. Although George Washington is not in this book, the characters feel just as real as anyone who really existed. They come to life like a well done movie. They are not given super powers to make them great, but instead gain experience in their journey that creates a growth between them and the reader. Most importantly the characters are worth investing your interest and emotions in. They are likable and multifaceted. They have flaws, doubts, joys, and strengths. Captain Straker’s journey does not lead him towards kingship or being elevated into an all powerful wizard. It is simply a story of his adventure into this strange country and the experiences he undergoes in its telling. The subtlety of the story relies on realism to keep the reader submerged in the depths of their imagination. The fantasy elements just provide a nice way to spice things up.

So the book has history, deep characters, and elements of fantasy…what else is there? What more could such a story have that sets it apart from others? The ultimate difference is the skill with which it is written. Sometimes you can read a book and it’s immediately clear that this is written by a skilled story teller. Not only that, but sometimes you get a book and the author is on their ‘A’ game. You’ve read their work, you liked it, but this one in particular is something special. In this book the author picked up on a great idea, ran with it, and really brought it to life. That’s exactly what happened in At The Queen’s Command. Stackpole took his years of experience as a skilled writer and told a story that fell together perfectly. Even when the story hit slow spots, the pacing was set so that an event would quickly follow to speed things back up. There was a delicate balance that threw in just enough of every element to keep the story thriving and alive. Characters would go off into dialog or monologue, but conversations would turn back to the adventure. Pages of exploration would lead to brief moments of violent, tense combat. The reader’s interest would be shuffled between the main characters, the exploration of the fantasy elements like wurms and magick, and the unfolding world of Mystria. Even the main adventure is broken up with side trips, and later on spiced up with political intrigues that flip everything on its head.

I bought this book on a whim because I was familiar with the authors Star Wars books and I had an interest in reading something that wasn’t Star Wars. The novel idea of a colonial historical novel that had zombies in it was enough to catch my attention. But At The Queen’s Command is a hell of a lot more than a simple zombie novel. Undead might play a role in the story but they are by no means the focus and they play only a small role. Nor do dragons and sorcery dominate the chapters and characters. At the core it’s a character story and an adventure novel, just with unique twists and flavors. There is a touch of romance, a few battles, and healthy loads of character development. Best yet the story is fairly self contained and avoids a cliff hanger ending. Even though this is the first book in a new series and the story sets up plenty of plots to be followed up on, it can be read and enjoyed without needing to read the next book. If you’re looking for a good book to escape in, you’ll find none better.

I easily give At the Queen’s Command five out of five metal bikinis. It’s definitely the best book I’ve read this year.

Reviewed By: Skuldren

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