I first started reading historical fiction when I was really young. There were some great British authors who wrote books for young people which were not only historically accurate but brought the eras they were set in wonderfully to life. So I spent a great deal of time travelling through time and around the world from the Crusades in the 1100s to the French-Indian wars in 18th century North America. However, as I grew older I discovered that historical fiction for adults didn’t quite live up to the same standards as those established by the authors I read as a kid. Far too many of them were really romance novels in fancy dress, and I found them lacking in both the quality of information and the storytelling I had come to expect from the genre.
As a result I pretty much ignored historical fiction for quite some time. Even today I’m still not all that enamoured of the genre, but there is a sub-group of authors who have revitalized the field by using human history as their inspiration instead of a backdrop for their latest costume drama. Historical fantasies are usually set in recognizable times and places given new names and where the circumstances are influenced by the inclusion of fantastical elements. The trick to creating a successful work of this type is to be able to recreate an era so it’s recognizable to readers without ever spelling it out, while at the same time writing a story that captures our imaginations.
While this may sound fairly straightforward, it takes an author of some skill to be able to pull it off successfully. For as well as having the skills we usually expect of an author in creating characters we are interested in enough to care about and plots that hold our attention, they must be sufficiently well versed in the era they are attempting to emulate to recreate its social structure, styles of speech, and all the other elements necessary for it to be believable. With the publication of the first book in his new historical fantasy series, Crown Colonies Book One: At The Queen’s Command from Night Shade Books, Michael A. Stackpole shows that he’s more than up to the challenge.
The wars that have embroiled two empires, Norisl and Tharyngia, in the Old World are expanding to the New World and threaten all who live in Norillian crown colony of Mystria. Captain Owen Strake, a veteran of the wars on one continent, is sent to the new one to survey the territory and evaluate the strength of the Tharyngian colonial forces. The Norillians hope that a strike against their foe’s colony will not only force them to divert resources away from their battles elsewhere, but also deny them access to the trade goods which have been fuelling their economy. For Captain Strake the mission represents a chance to secure his financial situation and make a place for himself and his young wife back home. In the rigid class system of Norisl the adopted son of a Duke’s youngest brother—his birth father was a Mystrian ship’s captain by pirates—lacks the resources and position to either purchase or obtain promotion.
While Strake is well aware of the Norrillian scorn for their colonial subjects, having felt the brunt of it himself because of his father, he is shocked by the level of resentment he finds among Mystrians towards the crown. These feelings are reflected in the treasonous desires for independence expressed by some of those he meets. Accepted by neither the local representatives of Norisl because of his mixed heritage nor the locals for being a Norrillian, it looks as if Strake might fail in his task before he even starts. Thankfully for his sake, the Colonial Governor-General, the Queen’s nephew Prince Vladimir, is far more concerned with the wellbeing of his colony and its occupants than most of his fellow aristocrats and has earned the respect of the Mystrians. So, while he might not have much political influence in the home country, he is able to smooth things over for Strake with the locals.
Aside from their desire for Owen to succeed in his mission, the Prince and he have something else in common. Strake is a Captain in the Queen’s Own Wurms, and is used to being around the long flightless dragons that form a vital part of the Royal Forces, and the Prince is the owner of a magnificent wurm by the name of Mugwump. Mugwump is different from the wurms Strake is used to; he was born from a clutch of eggs discovered in the new world. However, the fact that he’s as at home with the creature as the Prince establishes a bond between the two which goes a long way to ensuring Strake won’t just be taken out into the forests and walked in circles, eaten by the strange beasts who inhabit them or killed by Tharyngian native allies.
Even before we meet Mugwump, Stackpole lets us know there are sizeable differences between our world and the one inhabited by Owen Strake. For while the soldiers use recognizable weapons, muzzle and breech loading muskets and rifles, they are fired through a mixture of magic and science. Instead of a flint generating a spark and firing gunpowder to propel a ball from a musket, soldiers use a spell to ignite a blasting cap of brimstone. Each time they “cast” the spell they pay a cost in blood, and a person’s magical ability is rated according to the number of times he is able to fire his weapon before being forced to stop because of being incapacitated by the bruising the blood loss causes to whichever digit, usually the thumb, they use for that purpose.
As both we and Strake find out, there’s more, some of it deadlier, magic awaiting him as he travels into the interior of this untamed new world. Those indigenous to the land (referred to as The Twilight People for their ability to disappear into the woods by settlers, and feared by many because they are different) use magic in ways that Strake has never seen before. However, their’s is a benign power. What awaits him at the hands of the Tharyngian in charge of their colonial forces is a horror beyond his wildest imaginings. Like his Norrillian counterparts he has mixed science and magic in order to develop a power that could see the Tharyngians not only wrest control of Mystria from Norisl, but change the face of the world.
With At The Queen’s Command Stackpole has laid the groundwork for the rest of the series by taking the time to establish the world in which it takes place; introducing us to a variety of multidimensional characters and setting in motion the plots which will dictate the future of both his characters and their world. While that in itself is a difficult task, even more impressive is how he has accomplished it. Sometimes when reading a historical novel there’s the feeling of looking backwards in time with everything filtered through a modern sensibility. In this instance though, with everything viewed through the eyes of his characters, not only do we observe their behaviour and dialogue, we are party to their feelings, thought processes and reactions and are thus completely immersed in their world. If Stackpole can sustain this over the balance of the series, The Crown Colonies promises to be a great addition to the historical fantasy genre. As it is, this first book is a great opening salvo full of adventure, magic, intrigue and even a little romance that makes for a highly enjoyable read.