Sunday, 3 March 2013

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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