At the Queen’s Command by Michael Stackpole

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A long, long time ago, in a Galaxy far away (or so it seems), I published a science fiction fanzine called OtherRealms. At its core, it was about reviews. I also spent some time writing book reviews for Amazing Stories, back when it was published by TSR. OtherRealms was well-thought of enough to score me a couple of Hugo nominations (and I finished ahead of No Award, thank you very much!) and I really enjoy the process of figuring out how to help someone decide if hey ought to try something out.

I write reviews, not criticism. I’m not going to talk about deeper meaning or higher purpose — or even, necessarily, if something is good or bad. My goal is to help put things into context so you can make a decision if you want to buy/use/read/eat/watch/whatever something. What I try to do with reviews is help you map my experience and worldview into your worldview so you can make a judgement on something and whether it is worth investing your time in it in some way.

And ultimately that’s the issue here: time is a finite resource, and even in one small segment of the universe, if you did nothing else, you couldn’t read every book published in the SF/Fantasy universe every month (and if you tried, you’d go crazy and be committed, or should be). So given there are many more books published in a month than you have time and budget to buy and read, which ones are worth your time? I hope to steer you towards some, away from others, and hopefully make you spend your time budget in a way that you appreciate.

One reason I do this is to broaden my own universe. When I was publishing OtherRealms, one rule I had was that at least every fifth book was by an author I’d never read before. I’m going back to that rule again, and I’d like to recommend it to everyone; it forces you to explore, it forces you to sample new things and new people, and I pushes you out of ruts where you can go stale and stop enjoying what you’re doing. Revisiting the familiar is comforting and relaxing, and god knows we all need that in our life, but wading into the new and unknown is broadening and energizing, and we need some of that, too. And one small way of doing that is to always be sampling things we haven’t sampled before, so I”m going to try to help you do that by doing it again myself.

About a year ago, I made a commitment to try to stop buying dead trees. I’ve bought a Kindle, I’ve been exploring ebooks and looking into electronic publication for my own writing, and in general, I’ve stopped buying words on paper in favor of words embedded in electrons. It’s not a perfect situation yet (it’s not easy to lend an ebook, compared to a paper one), but I was clearing out my computer tech book shelves again one day and realizing just how much paper was being sent out to be recycled because after 3 or so years the books were effectively useless. That caused me to rethink how many computer books I buy (sorry, geek authors), but also made me get serious about buying books in general electronically, because I can now carry around many books in my pocket, and not throw out my back schlepping them around. The side effect of that is if you aren’t allowing electronic editions of your books, I’ll probably never read them. Sorry.

Today’s Wednesday in Review is about an author I’ve known for a while, but never actually read. I love historical fiction, and I really love when an author can write a good alternative history and make it both an interesting story and an interesting view into a period of the past — especially when there are strong fantasy elements built in; Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and her St. Germain series is a great example of this — meticulously researched historical fiction and accurate renditions of the period. With Vampires. If you haven’t tried this series, a good place to start is Hotel Transylvania. But a discussion of St. Germain will wait for another day….

For some reason, I’ve never read Michael Stackpole, but when I was searching for a book to take with me on a trip, I ran into At the Queen’s Command. It’s historical fantasy set in a period rarely touched by authors (or pretty much anyone) — the time when the French and English were jousting over control of North America and the westward expansion was just starting our of the American colonies, with the colonies starting to chafe under the demands of British rule. Only it’s not, it’s his own world, and there is magic. And Dragons. and zombies, and…

And it really is rather fun. It tells of the time when two major superpowers are fighting for dominance, and this fight spills over into the new lands that are being colonized; the colonists are at that point where they’re wondering why they are still beholden to a far off land that mostly sees them as a source of revenue, and the age of exploration is just beginning as the western expansion is starting and everyone is seeing the advantage in owning and controlling the lands they’re finding out there. The indians, of course, aren’t so hot on that idea.

The story echoes some of the real happenings in our universe involving the exploration and control around the Great Lakes, and here, Stackpole writes about the creation of a fort by one power to assert control over the lakes while the other power sends people over to work with the colony to prevent this from succeeding.

It’s a well-told story based in a fascinating time period that’s been under-utilized and which most of us aren’t very familiar with Stackpole has some leeway in making events fit his need without creating the “hey, that’s not how it really went” echoes you sometimes hit with historical fiction in familiar locales. The fantasy elements have been carefully crafted into the story, but at the same time, he hasn’t made them a focal point. All in all, I really liked the quality of the writing and the story, and it’s a solid piece of world building.

It is the first book in a series, but this book tells a story in its entirety without cliffhangers. There’s a second story in the cycle — what I think is going to be a fascinating one — that builds out of the resolution of this first book, but it’s definitely a second story, not just phase 2 of this one. One of the things I hated back in the days of OtherRealms were what I called the three book novels — and that hasn’t changed much. This book isn’t one of those; it’s its own story that stands alone nicely even though it’s clearly part of a larger story arc.

So all in all, a successful and entertaining book. Well worth picking up and reading, and I’m definitely putting book 2 on my todo list. If you’re at all interested in historical fiction and historical fantasy, you’ll want to grab a copy and spend an evening or two with it.