A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith
Published by YA Angst -- Norilana Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In Crown Duel, Vidanric Renselaeus said that he'd learned his spectacular skills of riding and fighting at the fabled cavalry school of Marloven Hess, far to the west of the tiny kingdom of Remalna. Originally it was a toss-off line, a bit of information to fill a gap in the narrative. But Sherwood Smith's devoted fans refused to let that off-hand reference lie. They begged and pleaded for more information on just what had happened to him while he was there, until she began to write the story of his arrival in that tough, martial land, so unlike Remalna which has been heavily influenced by the courtly cultures of Colend and Sartor.
The Marlovens cannot pronounce his actual names, so when they mistake his land-name of Shevraeth for a surname, he decides not to correct them. Thus the shift in names, which is picked up by the narrative voice as well as the characters, provides a neat way for the reader to mark the shift between cultures, both at the beginning when he arrives lost and confused at the cavalry academy and at the end when he returns home to find Remalna has now become strange to him.
And the details of acculturation are treated with loving attention, from Shevraeth's initial struggle to comprehend the pervasive military slang to his shock at the routine brutality of Marloven discipline. But he comes to appreciate the logic of the latter as he lives with these strong, fierce people whose wars of conquest have become legends throughout the world of Sartorias-deles.
Even as he begins to acclimate himself to living among them, to the point of winning their respect and being given an opportunity to hold a position of authority in the barracks in which the youngest students live, outside events begin to intrude into the enclosed world of the academy. Ancient evils are on the move, issuing forth from the mysterious realm of Norsunder which lays beyond time and space. A realm created by ancient magicians for whom power over death itself was the ultimate goal, and who have long memories and lay long plans.
Shevraeth throws himself into helping the Marlovens plan ways of resisting a Norsundran invasion and occupation, having come to respect and even love his adopted home. But all the time he knows that when push comes to shove, when things become too dangerous, it's to his own home he must return. Remalna needs him, and he must not waste his life trying to defend a foreign soil.
On one level, A Stranger in Command satisfies fully as a free-standing story, and by filling in a bit of interesting background that was only hinted at in Crown Duel. But at another level, the fascinating side-bits in it tie into other novels, both published and yet to be published. We see how the boy king Senrid has grown since taking Marloven Hess from his wicked uncle Tdanerend. Those of us who have read the Inda books will nod in recognition when his name is brought up during a history lesson. And we can hope that before long we will also be able to read the novel that recounts in full the attack Norsunder launched against Sartorias-deles which we only glimpse faintly, at a distance, in this volume.
Review posted January 1, 2009
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