In her newest book, A Stranger to Command, Sherwood Smith effectively links her Crown Duel characters to the Marloven warrior society of her Inda series. The story centers around Crown Duel character Vindanric, the Marquis of Shevraeth, who has been sent to study at the academy in Marloven Hess in order to escape the oh-so-convenient accidents that occur to any potential threat to the corrupt King Galdran. The storyline takes advantage of the odd couple pairing of the elegant, refined courtier Shevraeth with the often brutal warrior world of the Marlovens. As Shevraeth begins his warrior education, he must adjust his previous ideas of what is barbaric and what is civilized, adapt to the ways of a new culture and manage his ways around unwritten, ‘invisible’ rules. The books flows with an easy, effortless pace that belies the ambitious sweep of the storyline (Shevraeth’s entire teenage years are dealt with), in much the same manner as Smith’s Inda series. Unlike the Inda series, however, the focus is less on the broader political perspective and more on Shevraeth’s development as an individual. As a result, the storyline sticks closely to the smaller events of Shevraeth’s day to day life. This focus becomes frustrating at times, such as the moment when the Marloven political story line is left unresolved at a key moment in favor of following Shevraeth on his travels instead. But overall, fans of Smith’s other works will no doubt enjoy another glimpse into her detailed world. As is the case with her Inda series, A Stranger to Command reveals an intricate, deeper history beyond the main characters, which gives the story a realistic heft to it. The immediate story is rooted in a greater chronology that weaves in and out of Shevraeth’s struggles to fit in and ultimately to learn command.
As usual, Smith excels in deftly creating fully realized characters. The boy king Senrid makes tantalizingly quick appearances periodically throughout the novel, providing glimpses of Senrid’s violent past (detailed more fully in another book), giving a greater sense of depth to this preciously intelligent boy who is also capable of all too real jealousy. Another standout character is Senelac, Shevraeth’s first love. Senelac is a prickly, bracingly realistic young woman who defies the usual stereotypes of a damsel in distress. She loves Shevraeth, but is afraid that he will leave her, so she does her best to keep a safe distance from becoming emotionally involved with him. As for Shevraeth, he finally gets a chance to come out from behind the blank-face court mask to reveal a wonderfully human, intelligent, and ever-questioning person. As he struggles to maintain command over the younger boys while maintaining his sense of pity and kindness, he becomes a truly noble character, and a worthy hero. Fans of Smith’s Inda books will love another look at the Marloven’s fierce military society, which functions as both a strength and a weakness, while Crown Duel readers will be interested to see how the story behind the Marquis de Shevraeth.