Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon

It's been a long time since I read a fantasy novel that was part of a series, to the point that I can't even tell you what the last one was. Maybe the first book of the Seven Songs of Merlin? (Of which I only ever read the first song, mostly because I couldn't find the rest.)

At any rate, it's not something that I'd done in ages, and even reading fantasy at all was a bit of a rarity over the past few years, with graphic novels more or less replacing my need for a fantasy fix.

This book came on to my radar as a result of the Mobile Reader book club, and I figured it would be worth a shot. I'd recently rekindled my interest in science fiction, so why not fantasy, too?

Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first book is a series, featuring the story of Paksenarrion, a young woman who rebels against the married future set for her by her parents and enlists in a mercenary company to make her own way. It's hinted that she will go on to do great things, but this is the start of her tale, and it's filled with more drudgery than derring-do.

Paks, as she is called, must learn how hard the military life is, and to obey the military code. She's not the only woman, but must fight against the injustices still shown to female members of the mercenary group she serves. Once she's in the middle of the fight, Paks shows her worth, but also how her independent spirit may also get her killed.

As time passes, Paks is clearly something special. She's able to survive in a world that's designed to kill you. She wins the respect of those around her, and even those on a higher level. When the time comes for the work to be less about money and more about personal honor, Paks is asked to take a central role. It's a part she'll gladly pay--but at what cost to her own personal values?

Through small battles, sieges, sneaks through the woods, and large attacks, Paks proves that she belongs in the world of fighters. But does her code put her at odds with the world around her, or can she compromise in the name of loyalty? Is it possible she's destined for greater things?

Those are the questions left open-ended by the end of this book, which featured so much set up and yet never managed to make me understand the world in which Paks inhabits. Despite taking so much time to know all the details of the drudgery involved in being a military grunt, Moon never gives me a good idea of what kind of land we're operating in.

I can tell you every part of a pike drill (despite our main character *never using a pike in battle*), but the politics of the land are a vague hint of Counts and Dukes. I know there's magic and that it costs money, but how it works reminds me of a video game, where a player can restart after a bad mistake by going to a save point. The cost may as well be limited continues for all I know.

We get references to elves, dwarves, and the rest of the standard mythical creatures, but none of them are used after they are introduced. They serve no purpose at all, other than to add to the page count of the book. I was expecting to find them in a battle somewhere, but no such luck.

For me, that's the killer problem with Sheepfarmer's Daughter. It's obvious that Moon wanted to write a series, which is cool, but she structures it in such a way that this book might as well be a handbook rather than a novel. Sure, there are battle scenes and close calls for Paks, all of which is pretty interesting and happen just often enough to make me keep going. But they're all so short compared to the pages and pages of drills and line order and the like that I felt like *I* was slogging through the mud.

I have no problem with a slow-building story. However, I do take issue when the build up goes nowhere, or worse, is written in a way that says I should just be patient because in another 300 pages and in another book, this will all be worth it.

That might be the case, but what about now? The climax of this book simply wasn't. Paks is awkwardly placed in a way to be involved in a key scene (another troublesome pattern repeated frequently), but the scene itself ends up being only a few pages within a book that has over 400 of them to work with. If page count was an issue, why not ditch scenes of digging a ditch so that Paks can have plenty of time to deal with the antagonist at the end?

Again, it feels like we're in a video game and this is an opening act with a mini-boss. As a reader, that's just not satisfying to me. In a fantasy, I want to feel like I'm part of an epic struggle but also that every part of that struggle is important. I just didn't get that from Sheepfarmer's Daughter. I felt like it was a long march, culminating in almost nothing.

This wasn't helped by the fact that Paks' battle scenes, for the most part, felt incredibly forced. Her first adventure worked within the plot, but as she ends up entangled with the bigger names, to the point that she's in the Duke's tent almost as often as the Duke himself, each encounter makes me feel less like circumstance made it happen and more like the author pushed it into place.

I realize that of course all authors push their characters into doing things, and Paks would hardly be interesting if she only ever held the flank, but by the time she's being asked to save a rival army's son and then, despite only being a Private, is asked to head a squad taking on the main villain, I'm not feeling very credulous about the flow of the narrative. Because we've spent so much time establishing Paks' place in the ranks, every time Moon pulls her out of the ranks, it's harder for me to accept it. The writing style just conflicts too much for me, as we pinball from the bland to the extraordinary.

After spending entirely too much time trying to get the reader grounded in the daily military life of her world, Moon puts her main character, Paks, into situation after situation that look dire, only to have her find a way to get out of them--and mingle with the most important people while she's at it. By the end of the book, it's clear that Paks is something special, but it's also clear that this is due heavily to the circumstances created by the author and not by the story itself.

What makes this worse for me is that Paks has a habit of getting seriously in trouble and magically (sometimes literally) getting out of it. There are several times where Paks should just die, but doesn't. I know she can't, but the believability factor is stretched thin because no matter how charmed she is, it feels like the writer is making her that way. I guess in the context of a trilogy, that's less pronounced, but in one book it feels like she got a lot of saving throws.

There are other issues, like how supporting characters weave in and out of the story rather haphazardly, a large scene of villainy goes nowhere early on for how much time we spend on it, and Paks seems to have no feminine emotions, making her character feel flat or miscast in terms of gender. Because she's a merc, the enemies are by rule rather flimsy and shapeless, and only take form at the end, by which time we're rushing to a non-ending that has a big setup for the second book rather than properly closing this one.

All in all, Sheepfarmer's Daughter left me wondering if I really have grown past fantasy as a genre I like to read. I can't tell if it was this book or the premise, and I think it might be awhile before I try another fantasy book to see which it was. This book was about as interesting to me as a book on sheep farming would have been. I can't say I'd recommend it, nor do I expect to go on to book two.


  1. You clearly don't appreciate a story that is written for more than one book. Read all three then tell us what you think

  2. Speaking only for myself, I should never have to read 2 other books to enjoy the first one. Get more meaning out of that first book? Maybe. But telling me "this book is mediocre, but if you read 800 more pages, this will all make sense" just doesn't grab me. If it's released on its own, regardless of the reason, you need to make that book have value in and of itself.