Recent Read

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. 

Deed_of_Paksenarrion.JPG

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.

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. 

paksennarion.jpg

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! 

Recent Read - The Divine Cities

Oh, how blind we can be to our own selves.

Last month, as I was contemplating my goals for June and sharing them with a friend, it seemed perfectly rational that in the midst of moving into our new house, I would still be able to START writing my trilogy project and average 10,000 words per week. It's important to establish routine right away, I said. It will be a welcome distraction from unpacking and decorating. 

My dear friend just nodded and smirked at me. "Okay," she said. "Go for it."

Today is June 30, the last working day of this month for me. What do I have to say for myself, and my June goals?

Yeah...that about sums it up.

As the end of the month approached, I struggled to tear myself away from unpacking boxes, drilling holes in the walls, and periodically swearing at said walls. I was determined to have something to show for myself and my June goals... so I did what I can always do, no matter how creatively drained or distracted I am. I read a bunch. 

Read on without fear, friends -- there are no spoilers in this blog post!

If you're unfamiliar, The Divine Cities is a series of books written by American up-and-coming author Robert Jackson Bennett. The series is composed of three books: City of StairsCity of Blades, and City of Miracles.

I read the first book (City of Stairs) back in February, and at the time, I was somehow under the impression that it was a standalone novel. I'd heard about the book as a "Book of the Week" recommendation on the Writing Excuses podcast, and the description was so compelling that I decided to read it right away. When I finished the book, I was completely depressed that it was a "standalone," and moved on with other items on my reading list.

Lo and behold, City of Stairs is not a standalone novel, and is actually the first installment of this wonderful series. Robert Jackson Bennett has accomplished one of my favorite feats in this series--it is an undeniably genre-bending story. He has created a believable world that is bizarre, unique, and utterly compelling, blending elements of fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and much more.

The basic premise: for ages, the Continent ruled Saypur with the might of their gods. But somehow, Saypur managed to rebel, murdering all of the Continent's divinities. The story begins after this substantial upset of power, when Saypur has taken over the Continent and is just beginning to explore the mysteries of the nation's divine history. 

Though each book is written from multiple perspectives, each book also focuses primarily on one main character: Ashara Komayd, the brilliant and curious scholar; General Turyin Mulagesh, the hardened military servant; and Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, the lonely assassin. Each character is brilliantly written, and fascinating to explore. 

The over-arching story houses countless mysteries and adventures, all set in a gritty, modern industrialized setting. There are a million questions that you find yourself asking as the reader, because the components are so curious and imaginative. I guarantee you have not read anything like this before.

But the most impressive part of the series? It gets better as it goes. That's right, people. Book 1 is not, as we often find, an ultimate triumph followed by two disappointing sequels. My interest and delight only grew as I tore through Book 2, right up until the very end of Book 3. Part of the magic of Bennett's structure is that each book really maintains the feel of an independent story, much more so than I've experienced in other trilogies. I was satisfied at the end of each novel, yet ready and willing to read more. At the same time, the third book closes the series in a deeply moving and satisfying fashion, without tying up the ends too neatly. It is an ending worth waiting for.

If you don't mind some gruesome descriptions of violence and the frequent use of the F-bomb (Books 2 and 3 especially), this is a series you might love. Be warned: The Divine Cities series is definitely firmly housed in the adult literature section, mostly for its language and violence. I believe it would be a particularly useful read as a study for multi-book series structure, unexpected fantasy settings, mystery elements, utilizing supernatural elements, culture/world-building, and just about anything else you might want to dive into.

Recent Read - Mistborn Trilogy

Somehow, in the midst of preparing for our move (9 days away--eek!), I managed to keep reading. Perhaps it was a sweet, sacred hideaway from the moving chaos. However this miracle came about, I managed to read the Mistborn Trilogy this month, and have some pretty strong mixed feelings about it.

If you're unfamiliar, the Mistborn Trilogy is a fantasy series by Brandon Sanderson composed of three books: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. He later bridged this series with a second trilogy set, all staged in the same world, but at a later point in time. I have yet to read the second trilogy. 

WARNING: My "Recent Read" posts generally do NOT contain spoilers--just general impressions and takeaways. From this point forward, I begin discussing specific plot elements for the entirety of the first Mistborn trilogy. DO NOT CONTINUE if you are trying to avoid spoilers! If you'd like to read my general impressions without spoilers, scroll to the bottom and look for the Summary. 

Now that I've covered my bases and nobody can yell at me for ruining their reading experience...let me be clear. I am a Sanderson fan. If you hop over to the For Writers portion of my website, you'll notice multiple resources that are provided by Brandon and/or his writing group. He is an incredible fantasy writer, and a phenomenal instructor. The Stormlight Archives (thus far) are masterful and delightful to read, and those along are evidence of his skill as a writer.

Despite all of that, no author is perfect, and I had a mixed experience reading The Mistborn Trilogy. 

Pros: If there's one thing that Sanderson does consistently well, it's magic systems. Mistborn is no exception: the magic systems are complex, restricted by rules, original, and downright cool. I particularly love his ability to tie magic systems into the setting, a trend that I first observed in The Stormlight Archives, and definitely saw parallels to in Mistborn. The result is a personified setting...the world becomes a character at the forefront of the story as much as the characters themselves.

In addition, Sanderson is skilled at balancing a diverse crew of characters. There are multiple perspectives represented, and various characters to root for. In the early stages of reading this series, I was pleased to see Vin, a female character at the forefront of the story, and arguably the heroine of the series. While the kick-butt ninja assassin female trend is not my favorite way to make women strong in fiction, Vin is a total badass, without a doubt. 

Con #1: Pacing. This hinges on preference in part, but for me, the pacing of the series was way off. My husband Andrew loves to say that Sanderson writes at a super slow pace until the last 10% or so of the book/series, and then he sprints to the finish. There's nothing in between.

While I agree partially with Andrew's assessment, I think it's a little more complex than that. There is definitely action speckled throughout each book, but there are 2 major issues that slow it down:

  1. The action is described extremely slowly and specifically. Sanderson writes action for slow-motion cinema--he wants you to know where every punch lands, and every fighter spins. It makes action feel slower than it should and robs those moments of urgency.
  2. An inordinate amount of time is spent rehashing information we already know, or drawn-out, redundant naval gazing. I nearly threw the 3rd book across the room every time I came to one of Sazed's chapters. Yes, he was in a period of depression and wrestling with his own concept of faith. But he pretty much just STAYS there, for the 90% of the book. Meanwhile, action that you're itching to get to as a reader in other perspectives is delayed, slowing the pacing. 

It's completely possible that these pacing choices were made intentionally, but I didn't care for them at all.

Con #2: Twists for the sake of twists. I shudder to think how many twists were revealed in this text. When done correctly, they feel surprising and energizing. But the sheer number of them feels inauthentic and contrived. Many of them left me feeling suspicious of the story's logic, and the believability of the world. For me, the twists in this series were like an over-salted dish: a little goes a long way.

Con #3: The major pain-point that I have with Mistborn is about promises and characterization.

Reading a character like Vin is a triumphant victory as a woman reading a fantasy book, particularly one written by a man. I was so stoked and energized to read Vin's arc, and to get to her promised victory. 

When I finished the book, I was crying out of pure anger. My anger stemmed from the specific experience of reading this trilogy as a woman. Here are the issues:

  • In the crux of the big finale, Vin--having ascended to godhood with the power of Preservation--tells her counterpart Ruin that having lost Elend, she has nothing else to live for. What a missed opportunity to show that the strength and value of a woman is not dependent upon her significant other! Her subsequent sacrifice is minimized as a result, a Juliet-esque act of hopelessness instead of the selfless act to save her surviving comrades.
  • Vin's role is further minimized by Sazed's ascension to godhood, and he robs the reader of Vin's anticipated victory. Vin's sacrifice was only "step 1" in the save-the-world plan: Sazed finishes it with flair, owning the transformation and restoration of the entire planet, as well as the book's final words of wisdom to the survivors. 
  • The only major female character in this series is Vin -- Sanderson kills her, and minimizes her sacrifice. The other prominent female character Tindwyl is killed in battle in book 2, and establishes more in Sazed's story than in her own. Surviving female character Allrianne is annoying at best, and mostly forgettable. Ergo: no women of any demonstrated value or significance survive this series, while scads of men do.

So, this was a dissatisfying read for me, and one that left me feeling slighted as a reader. That being said, it is one of Sanderson's earlier works, and he has clearly grown in a lot of these "Con" areas since writing Mistborn

If you're a man, kudos for even reading this far. I'm guessing that your experience with Mistborn was largely different than mine, and it's awesome that you took the time to read and consider a female perspective.

If you're a woman and totally disagree, that's great too! Part of the beauty of creative work is the diverse responses, and the unique ways in which each piece speaks to our individual souls. Honestly, I'm vicariously glad that you didn't angry-cry at the end of this trilogy.

SUMMARY

I had a mixed experience reading the Mistborn trilogy. As always, Sanderson is a master of fascinating magic systems and writing from multiple character perspectives. But the pacing was disruptive, and made an otherwise interesting story feel painfully slow. Additionally, the promises related to some main characters were not fulfilled as expected, and left me feeling slighted, particularly as a woman. Regardless, I recommend reading the Mistorn trilogy (and all of Sanderson's published works) for a good study in multiple perspectives, magic systems, and world-building. 

Recent Read - Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb

Since I started pursuing writing in the fall of 2016, Robin Hobb’s work has been on my reading list. Her name pops up on many speculative fiction “must-read” lists, and the Farseer Trilogy was a floating collection in my brain that I had intended to pin down eventually.

Guys, I devoured these books. The story was so enjoyable that it became problematic in the strength of its appeal, and my own work suffered while I read the books. Was it worth it, you ask? Absolutely.

This series was an incredible, refreshing, heart-wrenching read. Robin Hobb is a master of character development, and the quality of her writing is exquisite. Every sentence was a pleasure to take in.

This epic fantasy series is composed of, you guessed it, three books: Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest. The entirety of the series is written in first-person past tense from the perspective of the main character, FitzChivalry...Fitz for short.

Here’s a quick teaser: Fitz is the bastard son of the eldest prince of the Six Duchies, King-in-Waiting Prince Chivalry. The series is Fitz’s telling of his own life, starting from his earliest memory being taken from his mother and being thrust into the care of Chivalry’s men. It’s a story about the circumstances that we’re born into, and the commitments we make. And the story leaves you fully satisfied -- it is told in its entirety, without any frustrating gaps or interesting crevices left unexplored.

The pacing is much calmer than many of the books I’ve read lately, and I found that meandering pace surprisingly enjoyable. Hobb effectively immerses the reader into Fitz’s heart, mind, and world, and I cannot express enough how brilliantly she developed and wrote this character. I can’t even recall the last time I cared about a character this much, and was surprised to find that depth of likability in a trilogy about an assassin, a male character written by a female author. Not usually my preferred read.

Here are a few writing takeaways from my reading of the Farseer Trilogy:

Don’t take it easy on your MC.

When obstacles and hard choices arise for your MC, tension is created, and the potential for conflict multiplies. What I noticed most about this story was how much crap was done to Fitz, that he was often thrust into difficult circumstances outside of his control. The result of those circumstances was my profound empathy for Fitz as the reader -- I never stopped rooting for him, and my heart broke for him often. Did he frustrate me sometimes? Yes. Did I think he acted like a moron sometimes? Yes. But despite his flaws, his troubles allowed him to remain likable, and that pulled me into the heart of his experience magnificently.

Try something new for your magic system.

It’s absolutely acceptable to borrow from existing/common magic systems for your fantasy stories. But one of the draws of the Farseer Trilogy was the unique nature of the two types of magic presented. I won’t spoil anything for you here, and maybe these ideas won’t be as new to you -- but for me, it was refreshing to discover something that was quite different than what I’d read in other fantasy.

Consider the effects of your point of view.

Third person is the most comfortable perspective for me. Every time I’ve started to write something in first person, I feel inhibited and awkward. Because of that, it’s been tempting for me to avoid first person altogether. In reality, first person offers a level of intimacy that is difficult--or perhaps impossible--to match in third person. The opposite may be true for you. My challenge for you would be to explore the “other,” and get a sense of the possibilities that the perspective offers, however awkward the initial efforts.

Resist the temptation to get caught up in the minutiae of your fantasy world. Instead, focus on what matters: people.

I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted trying to build a believable, realistic world for my stories. Yes, believability is important. Yes, you should spend some time world-building. But take a story like the Farseer Trilogy as an example: this is an epic fantasy, y’all. And it is epic for sure--the story spans a great amount of time and distance. While I felt completely immersed in the setting and daily life, Hobb didn’t linger on unnecessary--and I’m guessing nonexistent--details of specific distance, time, etc. This might not be a temptation for you, but for me, I always feel like I have to know the full scope of these details, even if I’m not putting them in the book. How long would it take my MC to walk from Point A to Point B over uneven forest terrain in unfavorable weather conditions?

The short answer: nobody cares. Tell the story from the inside--what would your character linger on? What do you need to communicate to your reader, to immerse them in that setting and moment?

Previously, I’ve mentioned my own personal determination for my first novel to determine exactly how much forest area would be needed to supply a nearby village for wood with a given population. That research was self-induced torture, my friends. Don’t go down that road; just tell your story. This is speculative fiction, after all! What is the fun of this genre if we restrict ourselves to the measurements and requirements of our own reality?

If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you add the Farseer Trilogy to your list and give it a go. For those of you who have already conquered the emotional roller coaster of reading this epic story, what were your thoughts and takeaways?

As always, your reading suggestions and favorites are always welcome in the comments.