Take the French and Indian War. Change the names of the people and places. Add in a dose of magick and a dragon (wurm). Mix in a methodical opponent with frightening powers, intrigue that crosses an ocean, a prince more interested in research than expectations, brave young men relearning the world around them, stubborn persistence in the face of peril and the end result is At the Queen’s Command.
Michael Stackpole has created a riveting world that parallels our own with the first of his books in Crown Colonies. As a former history major, I enjoyed comparing what I knew of this time period (the 1760s) and the world portrayed in these pages. Change is brewing on many fronts, political and cultural.
Owen Strake arrives in Mystria on assignment to survey the wilderness after weeks of ocean travel. A combat veteran and nephew of a powerful Duke, Owen is used to a life of being slighted by those who look down upon his father’s Mystrian heritage. He’s not used to being looked down upon for being a soldier of the Crown or for wanting to follow orders. He’s horrified to learn that most expect him not to make the survey at all, to hire men to do the work for him and those men not to accomplish the job either. The purpose of the survey is to better know the lands of Mystria in the event of war with Tharyngia (the Crown Colonies version of France).
Owen’s persistence to do his job earns him a number of enemies, starting with the Colonel stationed in the town of Temperance. Owen’s manner impresses Prince Vlad, nephew of the Queen. He is set out on his mission with the aid of one Nathaniel Woods, an outsider with little use for society. Alongside Nathaniel is Kamiskwa of the Altashee tribe. On the journey, the group discovers a variety of disturbing evidence and comes under attack. When they survey the bodies after the attack, one of the men is someone who died two years earlier. More fearsome yet is a fort being constructed by Du Malphias, a Ryngian commander of ill report from the continent. Owen, injured severely, gives himself up to capture so Nathaniel and Kamiskwa can get news back to Vlad.
After Owen’s captivity, other characters start providing point of view chapters. At first, I found this disorienting. It was a good choice for the book in that story widens and one character’s viewpoint would not accurately convey the complexity of the conflict. The arrival of additional characters from Norisle adds to the drama, specifically with young Lord Rivendell, a foppish fool incapable of reading the dangers before him and bent on glory. Manipulating Rivendell, Vladimir and Owen is the influential Duke of Deathridge. As a campaign against Du Malphias unfolds, the Mystrians struggle to find any way to survive when the Norillians do not listen, supplies are weeks behind and the enemy has undead servants.
The conclusion moves quickly. From reading other books by Michael Stackpole, I suspect there is a twist of trouble ahead for these characters in future books. I look forward to the release of the second book in October 2011 to see how this tangled web moves forward.