Book Review: A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

4 Mar

Okay, hold up–an entire book about Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth? How had I not read this before now? I admit, I knew it existed–I must have just forgotten how much I adore this character or something. Maybe my brain has grown fuzzy with age. Whatever–finally, the deed is done, and it was quite enjoyable. (WARNING: Crown Duel and Court Duel spoilers!)

Fifteen-year-old Vidanric Renselaeus has been sent away by his father to Marloven to learn the fighting arts. In part, because Vidanric was a prime target for a convenient, tragic accident at the hands of Galdran’s cronies. And in part because, as he learns later, he needs to learn how to command an army if there is any hope he’ll take down Galdran and become king himself. The book covers three and a half years, during which Vidanric goes from a learner, to a teacher, to a commander, making friends and enemies and mistakes along the way, smoothing his path to becoming a king.

Lame plot summary–I shouldn’t be doing this late at night. But the idea is there. The character development in this book is amazing. The Vidanric we meet at the start is not the one who becomes king in Court Duel, nor even, really, the “court-bred fop” imagined by Meliara in Crown Duel. He is a teenage boy fresh from his father’s pocket with no idea of the destiny in store for him. He doesn’t want to be in Marloven learning the sword, he doesn’t understand why he must learn to ride like a Marloven, he doesn’t really care to think like a commander because he doesn’t want to be one–but he does it all because daddy told him to, and there must be a reason.

By the end, he’s everything we see in Crown and Court Duel, and more importantly, we see why. When reading C&C, I always thought it a bit odd that he knew so much about commanding and killing and wondered how he’d learned so much. Here, you can see how each decision formed him into who he becomes–and there are so many parallels with Meliara’s story, I was laughing out loud. Those parallels explained their relationship to me, too; the attraction he felt for her, while I didn’t really question it, did seem a bit off. It doesn’t anymore. He IS Meliara, just a bit further along.

As you can imagine, a Shevraeth-who-is-Meliara is insanely amusing. But somehow, it all works.

It was interesting, too, to discover a new part of Sartor. Marloven is just as rich as Remalna, perhaps more so, and largely military-based. Thus, the book was packed with military strategy and knife throwing practice and politics and what have you, which I quite enjoy in my reading, but which probably weren’t as action-packed as they sound. As with other books I’ve reviewed, I can see some readers losing interest, but for me it was everything I expected.

I do have complaints with this book that I didn’t in C&C. Most prevalent was the constant switch in perspective. This wasn’t just Vidanric’s story–it was also Senrid’s and Senelac’s and a few others. But it wasn’t that these characters were offered a chapter of their own. It was like it was third person omniscient in some places, which I haven’t encountered often and I didn’t really like the way it was executed here. It almost seemed like the easy way out–the reader learns things that maybe the reader doesn’t really need to know. For instance, at the height of action, we’re told “they couldn’t know there wasn’t really any danger” and I was like, well, that’s a let down–why not build up the suspense until it’s all certain? There were several moments like that. I didn’t feel like the omniscience added anything to the story, but rather took away from it.

There were also a lot of instances where I was completely thrown off and confused–largely because this, rather been being a prequel to C&C, also acts as a sequel/bridge to a lot of other books in the same world, with characters popping in who didn’t seem to have much of a purpose in the plot line other than to appear for hardcore fans’ sake. Sort of like if JK Rowling wrote a book about Harry’s children and Neville and Luna got their own side-plot that only kind of had anything to do with what the children were doing, and probably didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

I mean, it was great that the king was there–he was necessary, but I wasn’t so sure that his background, or the fact that he cast some hither-to-unknown-to-me-stopping-his-aging-spell on himself, was that integral. “Sartora” served absolutely no purpose that I could see. Little details kept popping up, which I assume had been explained previously, which hindered rather than helped.

And speaking of characters and plotlines, I felt like the romance aspect of this was a bit forced, but then, maybe I was just glowering with rage because… Meliara, dangit!

And while I’m picking on plotlines, I admit I didn’t entirely understand the ending, which felt rushed. It was a long book, but I wouldn’t have minded it being longer. I was left with so many questions–does Shevraeth ever see his friends again? What happened in Colend, exactly?

I feel like I’m complaining a lot more than I usually do, but that’s probably because Vidanric is my absolute favorite character in literature, hands down. Wait… Numair. Okay, Shevraeth is tied as my favorite character in literature ever. I’m critical of things I love, I’m pretty sure I read that in my birthday book.

Anyway. Despite my complaints, I recommend this to anyone who loved Crown Duel and Court Duel, especially if you were as in love with Vidanric as I was. On that account, this book doesn’t disappoint. It’s worth it to see how he grows and changes and becomes who he was meant to be–and like I said, the parallels are so funny, but they aren’t forced. Go out and get it now and let me know what you think!

**Oh! And I did notice a handful of typos, more than is normal to run across in a book. I read it on the Kindle, so I thought maybe they had a tendency toward more typos or something. Just thought I’d mention it.

***Also, OH MY GOD how it needs a new cover! One that looks like the Vidanric in my head, for a start.

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