A Stranger to Command

A Stranger to Command - Sherwood Smith

Okay, so finally, here's my review for this one. I honestly had no idea what to say about it. I fluctuated between thinking, "Ehh, it's a harmless, somewhat boring four stars," and "It's not terrible, probably a three," and "I kind of don't like it, you know? Maybe a two," and "Ugh. Grow up already, characters! Get a move on, plot! I didn't sign up for five hundred pages of irritating nothing! One star!"

 

In the end, I decided that while thinking about this book puts a very intense bad taste in my mouth, it wasn't horribly offensive and I didn't hate it. I just didn't have the energy to hate it - I've got better stuff to waste my hate on.

 

I'm going to start out by describing the main character, whose name bounced confusingly between Shev, Danric, Shevraeth, and Vidanric depending on who was talking to him at the time. I'll call him Shev for the moment, because it's the easiest to type.

 

He's a saint. He's an angelic, generous, polite, heroic, intelligent, dedicated, beautiful, sweet, thoughtful, selfless, brave pacifist who managed to go to a military school and spend hours every day learning the art of killing, and not realize that he'd have to use his training to kill people someday. I'm serious though, this guy was designed to be a perfect hero, with a heart of gold, a poker face like a rock, and enough skill with his sword to defeat Miyamoto Musashi in three seconds or less.The only "bad" thing he did in the whole book was give an obnoxious thirteen-year-old a single lash with a wand.

 

Okay, let me explain this. I hate people who hit kids. I hate seeing physical pain used as a punishment against anyone, but against kids in particular. You do not hit kids if you want to be in my good books, right? Right.

 

But this kid deserved it. See, he was thirteen, and he was at a military school. When you're in your teens and in a place like that, you're expected to be old and tough enough to take simple orders like, say, wash the dishes, fall back, take this scouting party and lead it around to the west, etc. This kid deliberately talked back to any orders that Shev, as the poor misunderstood foreigner, gave him. He undermined all of Shev's work and basically tried to make his life a living hell. If I'd been in a position of power at that school, I'd have had that thirteen-year-old expelled and sent home in disgrace for what he did, but his only punishment was actually a single stroke from the wand Shev carried at his belt.

 

It was a bendy, slender wooden wand, okay? It probably left a bit of a red mark, and that's it. The kid would've been fine in twenty-four hours. But Shev wouldn't shut up about it. He kept reliving the scene in his head and ranting about it and bemoaning how horrible he was, which essentially meant that I had to reread the scene five or six times over twenty or thirty pages.

 

I wanted to barge into Shev's tent and smack him upside the head for being so whiny.

 

But okay, I'm moving on to the next thing that annoyed me. Add insta-love to the list.

 

The girl's name was Senelac. I actually liked her at the beginning of the book, I thought she had the potential to be awesome. She was the tough no-nonsense girl who loves horses. Cliché, but whatever, she didn't have all that dialogue that I despise from "women of power".

 

Later in the book, she and Shev both suddenly become fascinated with each other. At the same time. They've known each other for over a year at this point, but suddenly each finds the other irresistible. (Blegh.) And this was two or three hundred pages into the book, just when I'd happily decided that there would be no romance at all in it.

 

Senelac becomes a witch of the highest degree. She doesn't want to be seen with Shev even though they're dating. She actually takes him down little secret back roads to get to each place they intend to hang out, and if a friend sees them together at a bakery or something, she says she'll never take Shev there again.

 

Uh, why? No, nevermind. Don't try to understand the way the witch's mind works.

 

Any time Shev accidentally starts telling a story of his childhood or comparing something he sees to something he knew in his homeland, Senelac snarls at him and shuts him up. She doesn't want to hear about his homeland - she doesn't even bother to remember its name - because someday, Shev will go back to it and leave her here. Boo-hoo. So she pointedly avoids talking to Shev about anything that isn't military-related. Horses, strategy, secret codes, etc. But she doesn't want to know anything about him as a person, even though she's dating him and she "loves" him. She's fascinated by his foreign accent and gestures and habits, but she won't allow him to talk or even think about anything that's important to him.

 

She ignores him in public and turns her back to him and snaps at him when he tries to talk to her, and then afterward when they're alone, she threatens to leave him for just trying to talk to her in public. She gets smug when Shev avoids talking about his homeland, and actually thinks, "I've trained him well." And when he stops talking suddenly and looks pained, she decides that he stopped himself from saying something about his homeland, which irritates her. She actually has the gall to be annoyed when he's causing himself emotional pain even though that's what she wants him to do. 

 

And then, as the crowning glory to their relationship, Senelac eventually becomes aware that there's another guy interested in her. She stops going out with Shev, who feels neglected and betrayed and sad. He understands that she's hanging out with this other guy, so he avoids her. (He was avoiding her in public anyway, so I don't know how she sees this as being different.) Senelac hunts him down one day, demands to know what he's doing, and confesses that she wants Shev to go pick a fight with the other guy. She wants Shev to "be the bad guy" so that she can dump him without feeling bad about it, and go marry the other guy in peace. And yes, she says all this to his face.

 

Is she the most horrible witch ever yet? I swear, every time I saw her name written down in the second half of the book I wanted to throw it at the wall.

 

Ahem. All right, next item on the list - the pacing. The book was boooooooooooooooring. Mostly it was just repeating the cycle of the same forty pages over and over again. Shev wakes up. He trains. He sends or receives a letter. He goes to talk to the king. They have the same conversation they've already had ten times before, but this time it's supposed to be enlightening. Shev leads or participates in a war game of some sort. Shev sends or receives another letter. Repeat cycle.

 

I swear, nothing happened in the entire book! Oh, and I have the same problem with this book that I did with Anne of Windy Poplars. It was irritating seeing the flow of the book constantly interrupted by convenient letters. I mean, half the time I wasn't actually reading about Shev doing his training, I was reading about him telling someone else about him doing his training. It was like the author couldn't quite decide whether to put the book in first-person or third-person mode, so she went halfway. And just so that you wouldn't lose track of what was happening in Shev's homeland, his parents and childhood friend sent him constant news.

 

Problem was, the news never updated anything. Evil king killing people, got it. Lots of pretty girls fluttering around at court, got it. You must be careful, Shev, got it. Your parents are being very cautious, Shev, got it. Your childhood friend is also keeping his head down, Shev, got it.

 

Ugh. I'd had enough after the first two or three letters. They never said anything new. And worse, a couple of times I was actually given the POV of somebody in Shev's homeland for no reason. I mean. why didn't they just write another letter to tell me what happened? Why did I actually have to read about that one from the guy's POV?

 

Anyway, moving on again. Is this review getting long? I think it is. I'll shut up pretty soon here, after I give you some quotes and such.

 

He smelled the sharp sweat of older boys.

 

What, do older boys stink more? You're already like Shev. You don't stink more when you're seventeen than when you're fifteen.

 

This was Shevraeth's first experience of the ancient Marloven travel bread, a recipe that had not materially changed for hundreds of years.

 

You mean it was his first experience of the recipe, right? You don't mean that he was actually munching on ancient bread, do you?

 

The western barbarians duel with steel, in the east with silken ribbons.

 

Did she just say that the western barbarians duel in the east with ribbons? Or did she mean to say that someone else duels in the east with ribbons, because if it's those western guys hanging out in the easy, why are they called the western barbarians?

 

She has talked with Queen Yustnesveas of Sartor, who is a scholar and a mage more than she is a queen.

 

Ahaha. Okay, nice name. I'm impressed. It must've taken a long time to come up with such an unpronounceable name. But I guess it looks cool on paper, and it's certainly nothing if not unique.

 

If he hadn't been given a solid fourteen-year-old war horse who was no longer used for the harder runs, he probably would have fallen out of the saddle more than he did.

 

No kidding. If you're given a crazy, energetic, twitchy horse, there's absolutely no way you'd fall out of the saddle more often, right? Or even an average, young, spirited horse. Or heck, a normal horse who hasn't slowed down with age. Anything would have made you fall out of the saddle more, dude.

 

He let 'em practice up that stunt riding display.

 

The "'em"s were really out of hand in the second half of the book. Nobody used it in the first half, but then around page three hundred, suddenly they were everywhere.

 

....not 500 paces away rose the senior barracks.

 

That was the only time that numbers were used instead of letters.

 

His fingers were ready to write Shevraeth.

 

This is Shev signing a letter on page 363. Why is he having this trouble now, of all times? Hasn't he sent a thousand letters to his parents in the past couple of years? How did he sign those, with Shevraeth or Vidanric? Why wouldn't you have that indecision at the beginning, rather than now?

 

Okay, done with quotes. Back to nitpicking.

 

At the beginning Shev doesn't want to cut his hair. He likes having long hair and he's adamant about keeping it. Everyone teases him about his hair and calls him names and demands that he cut it, but he won't. This was the one thing I liked about him - he didn't bow down to the bullies and just cut his hair, he actually defended himself and kept it.

 

.....But then,

the moron goes out and gets attacked and his hair is forcibly cut off, and he leaves it that way just so he can feel more accepted. Ugh. If he'd defiantly allowed it to grow again, I'd have liked that, but I have no respect for someone who changes who they are just to fit in. Even if it's just trying to like short hair better.

(show spoiler)

 

And the end of the book irritated me so much. Spoiler time.

 

 

Shev goes home, and on the way he cuts down six armed bandits in two seconds when he has never actually used his training against a human being before. Let me point out that he'd only practiced with a real sword for a few months, he couldn't possibly have been all that used to it. And actually fighting against a living, moving, armed and presumably armored target is a heck of a lot different than beating up some wooden posts in a training courtyard. So yeah, I'll buy that Shev might have been able to kill them, but not in three seconds flat and not without, I don't know, uncertainty? A little fumbling? A reaction to the strangeness?

 

Oh, he did fall down and whine about the killing once it was done, like he did after he whipped that kid. But that was afterward. He should've been weirded out while he was doing the fighting, don't you think?

 

Ah. And by the way? This three-second fight was the climax of the book. Shev's childhood friend was with him, and the scene was from the friend's POV. The friend spent the whole fight - all three seconds of it - fumbling to pull his sword out of its sheath. I didn't even get to see the fight itself, because it was from the friend's POV and his eyes were elsewhere. Grrrr. And that was the most exciting thing that happened in the whole book.

 

Well, there was the part where Shev was leading the kids away from the academy at the end, but that was just the book proving that all of his ideas and suspicions were magically accurate and useful. And there was no actual fighting or urgency to any of it.

 

But hey, the worst part was the actual ending to the book. See, the first four hundred-something pages of the book detail Shev's three-year stay in a foreign country and what he learns there. But five pages from the end of the book, his parents send him off to another foreign country to learn some stuff. For three years.

 

Two pages before the end of the book, he returns, and it's apparently been three years.

 

This means that the first three years took four hundred pages to tell about, and the last three years took three pages. Honestly, I don't even know why this book was written, if that's the case. Firstly, nothing really happened in the whole book. And secondly, if you're willing to just skim over three years in three pages, why didn't you do it the first time? There was nothing terribly important in the first four hundred pages, nothing you couldn't've skipped.

(show spoiler)

 

And finally, this monster of a review is at an end. I'm not giving this book a half-star rating because I didn't hate it. I'm giving it a one-star rating instead, because it was one of the most boring things I've ever read and because Senelac offended me. And I'll look up the plot of the sequel before I decide whether or not I'll read it - I think the author could write something awesome, if she had better material. If the next book sounds more exciting than this one, I'll probably try it out.

 

Bye now! Happy reading! And if you read this book, I hope you enjoy it more than I did.