Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shevraeth in Marloven

That was Sherwood Smith's working title for the prequel to Crown Duel
when she was originally sharing an early draft on the Athanarel LiveJournal community. But publisher Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books wanted a more intriguing title for the published version of the book.

And A Stranger to Command fits the bill, with its word play that underlines how Vidanric is simultaneously utterly inexperienced in the arts of command and an outsider to the harsh military culture of Marloven Hess and the rank to which he will soon be elevated.

Because the sounds of the Remalnan language are so different from the harsher ones of Marloven, no one at the famous Marloven cavalry academy can pronounce any of Vidanric's names. Instead they mistake the name of his estate, Shevraeth, for a surname and it becomes his appellation while he is a student there. This shift of names helps underline the sense of his movement into and subsequently out of an alien milleu. And alien it is, so much so that he is initially tormented by an intense sense of homesickness in spite of the danger posed by the wicked king from whose reach his parents had sought to remove him.

But as time goes by, Shevraeth becomes increasingly acclimated to this place he initially found shockingly barbaric. In time he even absorbs some of the harsh Marloven ethos as his own as he accepts a position of authority over the youngest boys, and with it the rod used to deliver the beatings known as "breezes."

Shevraeth's process of acculturation into Marloven society reminded me of another character's acculturation into a semi-barbaric equestrian society, namely that of the Jewish intellectual Kiril Lyutov into that of the Cossacks in Isaak Babel's Red Cavalry. However, there are many differences between the two books, the most significant being that A Stranger to Command is YA, while Red Cavalry is most definitely a work for adults (not to say that a certain kind of adolescent is apt to find Babel's portrayals of sex and violence enthralling). Thus it is not surprising that Sartorias-deles (the setting of A Stranger to Command is a world in which rape has been not merely memetically discouraged, but memetically erased, to the point the people no longer even have a concept of forcible sex. Thus the barbarities Shevraeth witnesses during his sojourn among the Marlovens are confined to harsh corporal punishments and the general brutality of military training.

Still, like Lyutov he finds a certain measure of triumph in learning military skills sufficiently well that he is able to blend into the general background instead of constantly being the center of attention as a foreigner. And it is the striking sense of two very different cultures being so fully developed that is the real strength of this book.

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