February 27, 2005

The Deed of Paksenarrion

I've finished my 8th book of the year, although I'm still pretending not to count them. This one should really count as three books -- since it orginally was three books -- but the publisher has issued it as a single 1024-page book. I'll count it as just one.

This fantasy trilogy (packed into one volume) suffers from so many flaws that it should never have seen the light of day. Sane publishers usually refuse to publish stories about female warriors who aren't interested in sex. At all. Especially when the author never explains why. Paksenarrion, the sheepfarmer's daughter-turned-warrior hero, just "isn't interested in that kind of pleasure."

Huh? Elizabeth Moon has tried to replicate a few too many elements of The Lord of the Rings, without realizing that only Tolkien himself can get away with half the stuff he actually gets away with. The rule in fantasy publishing has always been: female warriors must always be demons between the sheets, because that's what readers want.

In this case, though, we all ought to be glad that the publisher fell asleep at the switch. This is actually a pretty damned good book. It starts slowly, just like Paksenarrion's life. She is, like I said, a sheepfarmer's daughter from a small town who doesn't want to marry the peasant boy from across the hedge that her father has chosen for her. So she does the sensible thing and runs away to join a mercenary army. The army is headed by Duke Phelan, whom everyone calls "the Duke" but who is probably not an actual duke. Got it? The Duke is a great military commander who runs a tight ship, and Paks (as everyone calls her) soon learns the fundamentals of fighting in the infantry. She also learns that she has a natural talent for it.

As the story continues, Paks learns more and more about fighting with different weapons, and about tactics and strategy. Her skills begin to be noticed, and she eventually finds herself accepted into an elite military training academy run by a religious sect that is sworn to protect and defend the innocent. But before Paks can master the challenges of paladin-school, she is captured by a group of evil subterranean elves, who torture her even more mentally than they do physically (which amounts to a hell of a lot of torture). Paks is rescued, but her scars have left her a coward, who can't continue her warrior studies. She's not even fit for employment as a shepherd, since she's even afraid of the sheep.

The rest of the story is about how Paks deals with her unexpected misfortunes. Poor Paks. We really care about her by now, mostly because we've followed her through so much, and because the book doesn't really pretend to try to develop any of the other characters. The amazing thing is, Paks is enough. She's one cool chick, even if she's not interested in any flirtatious foot-rubbing beneath the table in the tavern.

This book wins because it does two things well: swordfights, and the inner struggles of a likeable, if a bit naive, swordfighter. Sure, it's nice to have some romance, and a few good monsters too. But they're not necessary. Robert Jordan proved that all the romance and monsters and political intrigue won't save a story that doesn't have any good characters. Elizabeth Moon gives us Paksenarrion, and that's all we really need.

Posted by Carey at February 27, 2005 09:04 PM

If you liked this, I suspect you will probably also like Jo Walton's quasi-Arthurian novels: The King's Peace and The King's Name. "The book's titled "The King's Peace", so I put a lot of fightin' in it" as she said when she read a chapter at Minicon some years ago.

Posted by: Zack at March 8, 2005 01:34 AM