Sherwood Smith established herself on my favorite authors list with her book, "Crown Duel." So of course I had to read "A Stranger to Command," which gives readers more insight into Vidanric, the Marquis of Shevraeth, one of the protagonists from "Crown Duel."
"A Stranger to Command" follows Vidanric (re-named Shevraeth after his title) as he goes to faraway country Marloven Hess to their famed military academy at age 15. Over the next few years, he goes from being the newbie outsider to someone respected and admired by everyone at the academy, including the country's king, Senrid, as he learns how to become a leader. Meanwhile, events back home are taking a sinister turn as King Galdran goes from being a paranoid ruler to a complete despot.
Sherwood Smith is great at world-building and characterization, and "A Stranger to Command" is typical of her style. Vidanric doesn't really have many character lessons to learn (unlike his future wife Mel in "Crown Duel") but he does have to learn how to fit in. In some respects, Vidanric is a little too perfect, since he doesn't seem to make many missteps as he grows in military command at the academy.
There are only a few issues I have with this book, and they're pretty minor if you're already a Sherwood Smith fan. For one thing, I think she assumes that we're already familiar with her characters' world, and doesn't really explain the hand modes (something from Vidanric's country). It didn't bother me, since I had already read "Crown Duel," but if you're reading these books in chronological order, it might be confusing. There are also some tense situations that are never really resolved, such as the Norsundrian invasion at the end.
While this book is fine as a standalone, I actually recommend reading it as a sequel to "Crown Duel" instead of in chronological order. Not only are the customs explained in more detail, but for me it was nicer to learn Vidanric's history after I had already fallen in love with the other book. I don't think I would have enjoyed it as much the other way around. Definitely a must read.
Fifteen-year-old Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth, has been sent from his home in Remalna to a military academy in Marloven Hess in order to escape political unrest at home, where the king is increasingly out of control. In Marloven Hess, Vidanric must learn and accept many new things: a new name (the Marlovens assume his title, Shevraeth, is his name), a new king (the young king Senrid), new friends and foes, and most of all, a new view of the world, as he must reconcile the seemingly civilized ways of his own country with the warlike ones of Marloven Hess.
As always, the worldbuilding is excellent, and the characters are as well. I loved Vidanric's courage, intelligence, and integrity, which he retains in spite of the difficulty of adapting to his new environment. The difference between the two cultures is especially intriguing, as Vidanric finds that there might be more to be said for Marloven Hess than he originally thought.
This prequel to Sherwood Smith's popular novel Crown Duel gives us the past of the dashing and mysterious Vidanric, Marquis of Shevraeth, who travels to Marloven Hess, a country famed for its horses and military prowess, to train in its famous military academy. The young courtier is unprepared for his harsh new life, but he grows into it admirably, becoming a true leader.
The fan base for Crown Duel is probably mainly female, but boys will love this story too--Sherwood Smith's sense for military training is uncanny; you'll feel ready to take command yourself, when you've finished the book.
Disclaimer/Spoiler: This review assumes that the audience has read the Crown Duel and Court Duel book(s).
This prequel is a surprisingly different novel than the Crown and Court Duel books for several reasons:
1. The original Crown Duel & Court Duel (CCD) was written adventurously and romantically to be understood by young adults, but A Stranger to Command is decidedly more adult, serious and complex though still simple enough for a younger audience.
2. The undertones of a Stranger to Command are more sinister from an unseen threat--perhaps because a lot is hinted rather than plainly stated in Crown Duel. It plays out in military style more of the subterfuge of Court Duel without any of the romance.
That said, it's a fascinating novel about Vidanric's teen years in that there is a pleasantly surprising link to the Inda novel series world.
While this book has some romance, it is nowhere nearly as romantic as Court Duel, but it gives a lot of interesting context to the person that Vidanric becomes in CCD.
My recommendation for the order in which to read the novels is below:
1. Crown Duel (any version)
2. Court Duel
3. Inda (which has four books, but you can get away with reading the first and last, or the first two to three of the four books as long as you check the online wikis to catch summaries of the rest of them.)
4. Optional: CCD again, this time paying attention.
5. A Stranger to Command (preferably the electronic eBook/Kindle version, which the author stated in September 2011 has the most completed scenes and recent revisions.)
6. The electronic version of Crown Duel published in 2010, because it contains both Crown and Court, and there are significant variations from the original hardcovers, as well as some extra chapters and scenes that the author added.
7. Then go to Sherwood Smith's website and livejournal blog to read all the extra short stories related to the world of these novels.
Yes, I realize that means re-reading Crown Duel multiple times, but most of us reading this review will have already read CCD recently, so it's really a matter of laboring through the complex adult series, Inda, and then refreshing our minds about CCD, and then reading it again after A Stranger to Command because it's those final reads in which the reader is delighted to discover the richly complex world that author Sherwood Smith has created and revel in what it all means.
Sherwood Smith is a wonderful writer and it truly shows in all of her stories. Her characters are so real. They always linger in your mind long after you put the book down and start to feel like old friends. As everyone says, her world building is INCREDIBLE. There is so much depth and history and echoes of stories within stories.
This book is a followup to Crown Duel and tells Shevraeth's backstory. It was really interesting to learn about Marloven Hess and realize how much work Shevraeth's family had done to peacefully rid their kingdom of an evil tyrant. The book made me curious about the Marloven history, but at the same time, I still felt like I was missing a lot. I didn't mind in the end because it also made me search for her other books and reading each one felt like opening a new treasure.
My biggest gripe however...HOLY SMOKES! Who chose this cover?! And WHYYYYYYYYY?!
That is NOT how I pictured Shevraeth and it's completely ruined my mental image of him. It's burned into my mind and I wish I could gouge my eyes out. Haha. Dramatic, yes. But it really stinks when I re-read the books and all I can picture is this guy instead. Yech. I would have preferred anything----a spear, a tree, a gray building, a cat?---anything but this. Now I always have to cover my computer screen w/my hand when the thumbnail comes up. Thanks a lot publisher. >__<