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Fantasy Review: ‘Oath of Gold’ by Elizabeth Moon

This is the third in the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first described how Paks left her home to become a mercenary in Duke Phelan’s company, and was a very down-to-earth story of a soldier’s training and campaigns. The second book saw Paks take off on her own and be sucked into various disconnected enterprises. This book was very disjointed, and heavy on conventional fantasy elements, but the ending raised it above the ordinary. And then there’s this. How to describe something that feels like a different story altogether? I suppose it’s not too spoilerish to reveal that all Paks’s problems at the end of book 2 are airbrushed out of existence very early. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she couldn’t fight again. It’s all a matter of having the right kind of magical power to ‘heal’ her. So that’s all right then.

The rest of the book is Paks tearing about the countryside on a quest to find the lost heir to the kingdom, who can be identified by a magical sword, apparently. And there are elves and dukes and squires and royal courts and a great deal of high-flown semi-poetic Tolkienesque language, which the sheepfarmer’s daughter has an unexpected knack for, and everyone’s taking orders from her, it seems, as she transforms before our eyes into a Person of Great Importance. And there’s evil to be defeated, naturally, and the religious overtones are quite heavy and… I would say this is all very clichéd except that it was published in the eighties, so although it’s quite derivative, it was probably the norm for that era.

For me, it was a disappointment. I liked the first book very much, and the over-the-top elements of the second book were more than offset by a terrific ending. This has no such redeeming feature, because even a two-year-old could work out how things are going to end. I lost interest, frankly, and had to force myself to finish the last few chapters, not helped by some fairly graphic torture descriptions. I think for those who enjoy a certain type of fantasy, the traditional battle of good versus evil, the hero’s journey, the wordy slightly old-fashioned language of courtiers rather than the more down-to-earth speech of soldiers, this would be a terrific read. It’s difficult to do this well, and the author does a creditable job here. There are some quite lyrical passages, especially when the elves are around, and happily it never quite tips over into parody.

The story of how a humble sheepfarmer’s daughter went out into the world, plumbed the depths of despair and finally triumphed to become a paladin, a heroic champion, is well-written, well thought out and even profound, in parts. For those who wish to see such things, there’s a fair amount of religious symbolism in Paks’s suffering and its aftermath, and the whole business of believing in your god or gods and the power of that, but I found it all a bit heavy-handed. Ultimately it failed at the final hurdle for me, with a limp and contrived plot in the final book and a heroine who isn’t quite convincing in her paladin incarnation. A disappointing end to an otherwise very readable series. Three stars.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Divided Allegiance’ by Elizabeth Moon

This is the second part of the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first part told how Paks left her home to avoid a forced marriage, joining the local Duke’s private army and discovering they were mercenaries. There was a lot of detail about army life, with numerous skirmishes and battles, and Paks made many friends and attracted the attention even of the Duke himself with her fearless fighting and loyalty. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to more of the same. And within a chapter, this book has veered sharply off in a different direction altogether.

Not liking the Duke’s support for the violent methods of a pirate-turned-nobleman, Paks leaves the army and sets off over the mountains for home, accompanied only by what must be the world’s most devious elf. No longer are we following the realistic lifestyle of the mercenary troop, we’re into full-on fantasy quest mode, with a succession of threats to be defeated and magic everywhere. Magic beasts, magic rings, spells conveniently summoned to get out of trouble. Here’s a mysterious underground place, obviously full of evil, but Paks has a ‘feeling’ that someone is calling for help. Which way to go? Another strange feeling tells them. How shall we get rid of the evil spirit? I know, let’s use this magic scroll – no idea at all what it does but – oh look, it worked. Now, I have no problem with the principle of magic (I read fantasy, after all, it comes with the territory), but it shouldn’t be a universal get-out-of-jail-free card for all occasions.

Fortunately, the whole book isn’t like this, and soon Paks is back on more prosaic turf. The real difference between this and the first book is that she is essentially alone, cut off from the familiarity and support of the company. Paks is in many ways the perfect soldier – tough and hard working, willing to follow orders but without losing her innate sense of right and wrong. Her weakness comes from inexperience with the world, which leads her to accept people at face value and follow along without questioning, or even thinking much about the consequences. This is fine within the structure of a military outfit, but isn’t so good when she is travelling about on her own.

This book made me uneasy. I like Paks as a character very much. She’s the complete antithesis of the typical fantasy hero – well, maybe being handy with a sword is quite typical, but still… She’s self-effacing, honest and straightforward, yet she constantly seems to bump up against people who are more complicated, people who lie to her, or trick her, or withhold information, or push her into things that perhaps she’s not suited to. She’s very easily persuaded, especially when there’s an attractive adventure in the offing. Sometimes Paks seems quite stupid in her simple-mindedness, but that’s as much her lack of education as anything else, plus the innocence of youth, perhaps. But still, I ached for her to cut through the web of other people’s schemes and see her way to something more than being pushed around.

This book feels much choppier than the first. Even though they both have episodes of action interspersed with slower passages, the first book had the uniformity of always being set within Duke Phelan’s company of mercenaries. This book hops about – the company, the journey with the elf, the village of Brewersbridge, dealing with the robbers, training with the Girdsmen, the journey west and so on, and none of them very well connected. They seemed like a more or less random collection of events. Each time, there are new characters to get to know, new circumstances to understand, new mistakes for Paks to make. And each time there are histories to recount and long philosophical discussions to be got through regarding the essence of good and evil. Paks floundered a bit with these, and I confess that I didn’t understand a lot of the points either. It might be thought-provoking, if it wasn’t analysed in exhaustive details by a whole succession of characters. It begins to get repetitive after a while.

The action parts are terrific, though, even if they seem a bit dated now – all those underground passages, evil beasties and magical this-that-and-the-others. And it does seem a little too easy, sometimes, that Paks manages to survive all these trials. Somehow there’s always a magical gizmo or a character with convenient powers to rescue her. And then the ending. Few books have moved me quite as much as this one. Poor, poor Paks! Her tragedy is heartwrenching, and it’s hard to see that she herself did anything wrong to invoke such a terrible fate. This is a very uneven book, but, as with the first one, the final chapters more than overcome the earlier flaws. Four stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon

I’m reading this in the omnibus edition, entitled ‘The Deed of Paksenarrion’, but I’ll review each of the the three volumes separately, for convenience. The series tells the story of Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir, or Paks for short, who runs away from her humble home to join Duke Phelan’s army as a way of avoiding a marriage being forced on her by her father. This first book is about her training, her first battles and her involvement in the Duke’s various military enterprises, and although it starts slowly with a lot of detail about training regimes and the like, it builds in time to a much pacier level. From the middle onwards I found it completely absorbing.

The author doesn’t shy away from the realities of military life. There are plenty of details about the privations of life on the march, the difficulties inherent in a mixed-sex army and the chaos of the battlefield. There are plenty of deaths, too. But on the whole, this isn’t in the gritty realism school of fantasy; there is little gore or graphic descriptions of injuries, for example. I did wonder sometimes just how this particular army would work. It’s a wonderful idea to have women fully integrated and treated identically, and although I squirmed every time Paks had to strip off alongside the men, I daresay that’s just a cultural issue. But I did wonder how they coped with periods on those long, mud-filled marches.

It’s traditional in this type of story for the main character to become a hero – acquiring unusual skills with weapons, for instance, or showing improbable levels of strategic thinking, and rapidly graduating to a leadership role. This book avoids that cliché. Paks is exactly what she seems – a sheepfarmer’s daughter who simply wants to be a good soldier. She makes mistakes, she has weaknesses and prejudices, and in tricky situations she often depends on others more experienced than her, such as during the flight with Canna and Saben. She’s good at what she does, but it comes from determination and intense training rather than special abilities. She does heroic deeds, but again, it’s not because of some unusual quality or because she seeks out risky missions, but rather that she doesn’t shy away from such situations when they arise, seeing them as just a part of her job. I liked Paks very much. Her self-effacing quiet bravery and unwillingness to stand out from the rest of her cohort are not just admirable qualities in themselves, but rare in fantasy, where every main character these days seems brash and opinionated. And then there’s her unquestioning loyalty to the Duke, her employer, even when she discovers that his soldiers are not quite the heroic idealists she aspired to but something much more pragmatic, being simple mercenaries.

I very much liked the way the world is revealed slowly, in small increments, with names and places and even religions tossed into conversations without explanation. It’s hard to grasp what’s going on, sometimes, and even with the map I couldn’t always follow the journeys, but it gave the world an unusual depth. There’s not a great deal of magic in view, but it clearly permeates all the various societies, and where it does turn up, it’s used very effectively. I found the Marshall and the paladin, with their beliefs which so disturbed the Duke, absolutely compelling, and I would have liked to know more about them. Every scene with the Marshall was dynamite, in fact. This aspect is something Moon does brilliantly – weaving a complex mesh of religion and magic and a variety of belief systems into the story without ever resorting to dry infodumps.

Some grumbles. The names are difficult. I applaud the author’s efforts to demonstate the social and cultural diversity of the Duke’s soldiers and the various others they encounter by having a range of different types of names, but it made it very difficult to work out who was who. Neither rank nor gender was obvious from most names, and I constantly forgot whether a character was a captain or a private or from a different band altogether. More than once I was startled to find that a long-running character was not the gender I had assumed (shame on me, I suppose, for making assumptions at all, but I do like to know, as a minimum, whether a character is male or female). The sheer number of characters made this problem worse. And if character names were tricky, places and groups were even worse. Occasionally, when discussing who might turn up for the next battle, I’d see something like this: A and B have to stay home because they’re threatened by C, and D has to defend E, but F and G have said they’ll come, but then after what happened at H they may not, and you can never count on I and J… Without taking notes, it’s just impossible to follow this sort of thing. One other grumble: I liked that events were seen through Paks’ eyes, which meant gaps and missing information and changes without explanation, but there were times when a little more information would have been nice. We never did learn, for instance, what punishment, if any, was handed out to Stephi (or if it was mentioned, I missed it).

The ending is wonderful. Yes, there’s a dramatic series of battles, but ultimately it’s about Paks and her beliefs, and about right and wrong, and being true to your ideals, and I can’t fault it. This is a terrific story of one person, a humble and very likeable woman, just doing a job she enjoys, and finding herself by no choice of her own drawn into bigger and more important matters. I liked the details of her life as a soldier, which was never sugar-coated, but also never resorted to overly-graphic grimness. I liked that she didn’t want marriage or a lover, and that was accepted without question (too often authors think a female protagonist has to have a sex life). This was very close to five stars for me, but the confusing number of characters and names, which made some events hard to follow, and the slow start, keep it to a very good four stars.

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