Wednesday, 8 May 2013

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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