Recent Read: Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deeds of Paksennarion #1)

I don't know what it is, but there's been something in the air or water this week. Everyone I've spoken with has been exhausted, unmotivated, and driven to bury themselves deep under the bed covers. Perhaps it's the fickle summer-to-fall weather, or the hurricane vibes wafting up from the southern coasts. Whatever the cause, I've had an unmotivated week, and am struggling to get back in the groove.

The one thing I can always do--no matter how sleepy or unmotivated I'm feeling--is read. 

A few weeks ago, I picked up a massive volume titled The Deed of Paksennarion, written by American author Elizabeth Moon. Seriously, it is a giant brick of a book, and more than a little daunting to haul home for a bit of fantasy reading. We're talking 1000+ pages, y'all. Buckle your seat belts for this one. 

Prior to a couple of months ago, I'd never heard of this series, or of Elizabeth Moon. Andrew ran across the series title in an article somewhere, and it was being held up as one of the great epic fantasy triumphs, alongside Tolkien and Rothfuss. That, in combination with the fact that the series was written about a woman and by a woman, was plenty to capture my attention and add the series to my reading list.

Hunting down this series can be a bit confusing--originally, the story was published as three separate (and much more digestable) volumes in 1988 and 1989: Sheepfarmer's DaughterDivided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. In the late 1990s, Baen published a combined version of the series, titled The Deed of Paksennarion. This gargantuan compiled version is the one most readily available in our local library systems, and thus might be the best place to start if you go hunting for the series. 

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Now, it's worth noting that I read fast....really, really fast. I've attempted to slow myself down in the name of retention and focused attention on writing techniques; that's a battle I'll fight for years, I think. But regardless, I generally tear through fiction like a starving animal pouncing on fresh meat. I tell you this so you have some context when I say that Sheepfarmer's Daughter is a slow, slow, sloooowwwww read. 

Really, really slow, friends. If you are into action-packed fantasy with kick-ass battle scenes a la Brandon Sanderson, you might find yourself banging your head against the wall. There is a realistic pacing to Paksennarion's journey, a little too realistic, perhaps, for some tastes. There is a good deal of this sort of narrative, a direct excerpt from the book (spoiler-free!):

"It was a long three days' march to Fossnir, down the river from Valdaire, with a baggage train much larger than the year before. Peach and apricot orchards were still pink, though the plum blossom had passed. Paks missed the more delicate pink and white of apples, and the white plumes of pear. When she mentioned this to a veteran, he said that apples were grown only in the foothills of the Dwarfmounts, or far to the west. Pears did not grow in Aarenis at all.

The road they marched on was wide and hard: great stone slabs laid with a careful camber for drainage into ditches on either side. To one side was a soft road, for use in good weather when the road was crowded. Northbound caravans passed them, one made up of pack animals instead of wagons. They had a nod and smile from the caravaners...

The next day after Fossnir, they made Foss, oldest city in Foss Council. Here they left the river, following the Guild League caravan road to Pler Vonja. Villages were spaced a few hours apart along the way, and great walled courtyards for caravans to use were never more than a day's easy journey apart. Wheelwrights, harnessmakers, and blacksmiths had their places at each caravan halt; the villages offered fresh food and local crafts."

This is entirely a matter of preference, but I found the frequency and duration of this type of setting description to be monotonous and tiresome. Sure, it accomplishes a purpose--as the reader, you (theoretically) share the interest and awe of the world that Paks is experiencing, and you experience the boredom as they trudge around the country in between the action segments. But even still, it's a little too much for my taste, and I found myself groaning when this sort of passage came up by the final third of the book.

Even the action is described in a way that is unimpressed and unmoved by the change of pace; what happens simply happens, and there is little lingering on those moments, or change in the tone or voice. Boring days and busy days are presented realistically, from Paks' perspective, and hers is a remote and level observation style. 

That said, it is difficult to find fault with Moon's writing. As a main character, Paks is complex and certainly unique when compared with today's broody, angsty heroines. She is likable yet flawed, relatable and cheer-worthy. The most remarkable thing, perhaps, is how Moon uses little to achieve much in the way of character development. Her writing is subtle, smart, effective, and efficient. 

Moon is so good, in fact, that the pacing pain-point did not deter me from devouring the story; Paks' story is a compelling, engrossing adventure. One of the reviews for the series notes Moon's intentional assimilation of Tolkien's Middle Earth, and praises her for using his influence well to create something entirely new and interesting. Though I'm only partway through the second book at this point, I think it is fair praise to award the series--while there are reflections of Tolkien's work in Moon's world, these do not feel stolen or imitative. It might be more appropriate to call the series a love letter to Tolkien. I'll have to wait until I've read the entire series to confirm that, though.

In addition to pacing, there seems to be a missed opportunity when it comes to description. As the reader, I absolutely felt a misbalance between setting description and character description. Sure, I know what the buildings looked like in every town, and precisely what colors the tree leaves have turned, but there is a limited amount of description about the characters themselves. I still have a difficult time picturing Paks, and am at a complete loss with characters who are only passing through.

Some of that is an issue of quantity, I think; there is such a deluge of names thrown at the reader that it is difficult to keep track of minor characters at all. The same goes for the names of cities, villages, regions, and landmarks. No one could argue that Moon's world was not thoroughly conceived and imagined, but I'm not sure that anyone but Moon could accurately depict it or map out its intricacies without a great deal of effort and research. 

This has been an unusual reading experience for me, in all; there have been irritations along the way, but I have had no desire to put the series down. Moon has demonstrated her mastery in several areas, and has written a character and adventure well worth our effort as readers. I would recommend this series for anyone wanting to read a well-rounded, medieval-fantasy-era heroine, or anyone desiring a study in fantasy setting description. I'm not sure where Paks' journey is leading yet, but will be sure to post again when I've finished reading Oath of Gold.

In the mean time, I send my best wishes to anyone else experiencing the drag of this week, and the incessant desire to crawl into bed. Stick with it, my friends; tomorrow is another day!