Recent Read: The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon

Read on without fear, my friends! Recent Read reviews do not contain spoilers unless otherwise indicated in big, bold, impossible-to-miss fonts. 

A few weeks ago, I offered my thoughts on the first installment of this trilogy by Elizabeth Moon. Typically, I would wait to review a series until I finished the final book, but in this case, I was in a low period of productivity and inspiration, and thus wildly reaching for anything and everything I could feasibly write about. Mercifully, life is starting to swing back toward normal, and I'm off to a good start this week. I mean, it's only Tuesday, and I'm already blogging! Huzzah!  

If you've read that initial review from a few weeks ago of book one, titled Sheepfarmer's Daughter, you know that this is an epic fantasy trilogy written by a woman, about a woman--this was my main reason for diving into the story. 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. 

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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As I mentioned in my initial review, the first book was slow, cumbersome, and too distant for my taste. The level of world-building detail was astonishing, and an obvious nod to Tolkien, but I felt too removed from the characters, including our title heroine Paksennarion--Paks for short. 

Friends, this is somewhat embarrassing, but I have to give it to you straight: my initial impression could not have been more wrong about the series as a whole. 

Now that I have read the entirety of The Deed of Paksennarion (three books often presented together in one published volume), I can say that it is a brilliant and worthy addition to the classic rockstars of the epic fantasy genre. Moon creates a world clearly inspired by Middle Earth, but also entirely distinct. And in her heroine, Moon develops a fresh and surprisingly complex woman, a heroine worthy of the reader's admiration and respect.

If you're a regular on my blog, you can imagine what a fantastic surprise this was for me. I have been tremendously disappointed with the garbage heroines being written--by women--especially in modern young adult speculative fiction. This comic by author and illustrator Adam Ellis sums it up nicely:

 Credit  Adam Ellis , @adamtots. 

Credit Adam Ellis, @adamtots. 

In addition to Adam's observations about young adult heroines, I would add that they tend to be bitter, vengeful, violent, and romance-obsessed. Anger is lifted up as their most redeeming quality, and ironically, this makes me want to punch some people in the face. Is this what we want to promote in our culture, and for our young women? Do we really want our friends and nieces and daughters to admire these heroines who are obnoxiously broody and selfish? 

This is one of my primary goals as an author--to write flawed heroines who can still be admired and respected for the right reasons: heroines who inspire young women to be brave, kind, independent, intelligent, and thoughtful. 

So you can imagine my delight when I got deep into Paksennarion's story, and completely fell in love with her. Is she my ideal heroine? No. Her behavior is more passive and meek than I might hope to promote in my own work, but even so, one could argue that her choices are context-appropriate, and the best decisions she could make in the world that she lives in. 

One particularly compelling aspect of Moon's story is spirituality, and the interaction between various characters and the gods they choose to serve. Paks' journey is certainly spiritual, and takes her to a place of open-handed obedience and faith in her path and decisions. This, in my opinion, is a woman worth admiring--a woman whose faith leads her to do good, who acts according to the leading of her god, and who does not respond with selfish ambition, but instead with selfless sacrifice and tireless commitment to do what is right. 

My only surviving complaint from my initial impressions is that the character development for secondary characters is so sparse. There are many, many characters that Paks encounters on her journey, and they are given very little attention in the way of development. Even Moon, whose character development is so subtle and effective, has left me feeling that I don't really know many of those characters beyond Paks. By the end of the series, I still had trouble visualizing other characters and keeping their names straight. But perhaps this was intentional--perhaps the reader is meant to feel the fleeting moments with these individuals as Paks walks a lonely road. Regardless of intent, this left me feeling a little cheated as a reader, and hungry for more information.

That said, The Deed of Paksennarion is a magnificent, fresh take on an epic fantasy, centered on a well-developed heroine. Paks' journey feels new and unusual because she is so different from the women who are elevated in our culture. If you are looking for a surprising and patient read, I strongly recommend picking up this series.