Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sheepfarmer's Daughter - Elizabeth Moon

I ran out of books to read on my recent trip to Norway so I borrowed one of the books that my girlfriend had left behind. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first book in Moon's Paksinarrion series, the later books of which my girlfriend is very impressed with. This novel also had the added benefit of meeting the criteria for the WWend Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge as I have never read anything by Moon before. The series currently has eight books published, with a ninth coming next month and a tenth expected. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is also part of The Deeds of Paksenarrion, an omnibus collecting the first three books in the series.

When eighteen-year-old Paksenarrion "Paks" Dorthansdottir is forced to marry a neighboring pig farmer, she decides that life is not for her. Although her father expressly forbids it and has already paid her dowry, she decides to run off to join a mercenary corps and find wealth and glory as a soldier. This novel follows Paksenarrion during the first two campaign years with her company. Years that show that she is no ordinary soldier but that fighting is in her blood. So much so, that the deities of her world appear to take an interest.

 I can't say I liked this book very much. At first glance it was probably refreshing to have a female protagonist of a fantasy series, which were in very short supply at the time. Almost the entire story is seen though the eyes of Paks, who does a great many soldiery things without showing any interest in finding a husband or raising a family. She is not a the only female soldier but they are a minority and she has to prove herself equal to a man at several points in the novel. Which she proves to be as far as the physical aspects of soldiering go.

A strong female main character she may be, she is also intensely annoying. She is loyal to a fault for instance, ending up with one of the noble mercenary companies in the realm. The reputation mercenaries have for turning to the winning side as soon as the odds appear to be against them may be a bit exaggerated in Fantasy but the fierce loyalty commanded by the Duke that leads them strikes me as very unlikely. They fight for money (during their first year that is) and that alone, generally doesn't inspire heroics. It is not until one of the competing mercenary companies acts against the conventions of the trade that their motivation becomes a shade more likely.

Paks is surrounded by, with a few exceptions, very well behaved and disciplined soldiers. They are career soldiers, not press ganged, no convicted criminals, no desperate men and women running away from enemies, debts or poverty. In fact, in many cases one wonders what prompted these men and women to take up a profession with a very high risk of premature death. Paks has a motivation, which is dealt with in about three pages at the very beginning of the novel; the secondary characters are mostly decoration.

Another problem with the novel is that it contains very little plot for a five-hundred page text. Most of it is taken up by very detailed, and rather dry, descriptions of Paks' training an daily activities as a soldier. Most of which is not very exciting. Soldiering is mostly make work, routine and waiting after all, battles are infrequent. Moon has the unfortunate tendency to explain what is going on to the reader by having Paks ask lots and lots of obvious questions. It makes her seem very dull witted to say the least, especially because she almost never seriously questions what she is told. Paks is a good soldier in the sense that she follows orders and feels supremely guilty when some unforeseen circumstance prevents her from doing so or necessitates she does something else instead. Add to this the tendency to repeat certain information over and over in dialogue and you get a novel that is very slow in actually pushing the plot forward.

Because we see most of the story form Paks' point of view, we generally have no idea what is going on in the rest of the world. The Duke directs them to go certain places and fight certain enemies for reasons that are very unclear most of the time. Paks has no idea what their long term goal is. She also doesn't display much in the way of ambition other than the rather childish dream of being a great warrior on a big warhorse. The politics of the world are largely uninteresting for Paks, she shows little interesting in the non-human sentients of her world (your regulars elves and dwarves mostly) and she doesn't seem to be very religious either. Even after it becomes clear that one of the gods worshiped in this world has taken an interest in events, Paks shows no initiative in finding out what is going on. Same goes for the magic she encounters during her travels. It is mention but never explored in any depth.

What remains is an account of two campaign years. Moon obviously has a good idea of how an army works, what it takes to move one and supply it and what the human toll of the fighting is. The military detail overwhelms the plot and bogs down the novel in several places however. As much as I appreciate the care Moon took to paint a realistic picture of what campaigning is about (if we overlook the fact that her soldiers are a bit too well behaved to be completely believable), it simply gets in the way of telling a good story.

So what does that leave us with. Sheepfarmer's Daughter is essentially five hundred pages of Paks going through the motions of becoming a mercenary and finding out how to be a good soldier, a lot of which is no more interesting that my average day at the office. She does what she is told, never seriously questions what she is doing and turns out to be good at pretty much everything she is required to do. In short, neither Paks, or the events described in the novel really managed captivate me. It is readable but I wouldn't go as far as calling it good.  I understand that Sheepfarmer's Daughter was Moon's first published novel. One can only hope she has improved plotting and characterization since.

Book Details
Title: Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 506
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-671-31964-7
First published: 1988

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