heroines

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!