I’ve decided to try something a little new. For this book (and hopefully many books to come), I’m going to be writing two blog posts about it. The first is a review, while the second is a literary analysis, where I go deeper on the book. Why? Two reasons. First, the literary analysis I did for The Rage of Dragons wound up being one my most popular posts of all time, so there might be a market for long-form analysis of fantasy novel. Second, whenever I write my reviews I struggle to write a short review instead of an enormous review. What can I say? I like writing. By doing two posts, I can (hopefully) get the best of both worlds.
So let’s get this started.
This analysis is of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, book 1 of the series ‘The Deed of Paksenarion’
Here’s a link to my review of the book. I suggest you read my review first.
Concept, Theme and Execution
The concept of this story is ‘the rise to greatness of an extraordinary soldier… but even extraordinary soldiers have to begin as ordinary.’ Basically, this book details the ordinary life of a soldier just entering the (medieval) military, the basics of training, combat, marching, following orders… but with the twist of the protagonist being a woman. If I were to compare this aspect of the book to anything, it would be Tamora Pierce’s books, where men and women can be warriors in a medieval setting. Tamora’s books focused more on the individual characters and magic, while this focused more on the actual training.
In boot camp, in in regular training sessions later in the book, the author chose to focus on the protagonist learning to fight. This was really well done, and is what made this story feel distinct from any I’ve read. This is a military story, told from the ground level of a regular soldier’s relative ignorance. Paks has to *get by* with the limited information she’s given, because she’s only a Private and not told everything. She has limited control of her destiny, because she’s a Private and other people give her orders. Her superiors and fellow soldiers treat her with respect, but ultimately Paks is expected to be just one more cog in the machine.
This is turned on it’s head by the end of the book. After Paks consistently proves her worth, earning the trust of her superiors over the course of the entire book, she finally gains the agency she was denied the entire novel and is allowed to make the final choice which determines the fate of the antagonist. It was an interesting plot development.
In short, the theme is Esprit de Corp, or the together spirit of what makes an army function together. A spirit created through shared training, heartbreak, and hard work. Through thick and thin, and army protects it’s own.
Overall, I think this theme was executed fairly well. The book focuses on the camaraderie and the ‘we’re in this together’ spirit of the army, and I thought it did a good job of capturing both the good and bad sides of the Esprit de Corps, along with the sad.
The Bad: Paks’ junior status as a Private gets her in trouble occasionally- namely when a superior officer rapes her. Because of the Esprit, people are initially inclined to believe him over her- an army protects it’s own, even when it really shouldn’t. The Good: when Paks’ leg is almost amputated, another superior officer pays for her healing out of his own pocket so she keeps her leg. Why? Because the army protects it’s own. The Sad: when several of Paks’ friends/fellow soldiers die, the narrative gets really melancholy. This shows how the Esprit takes a hit when the army fails to protect it’s own.
Overall, the author shows a nuanced take on the concept of Esprit de Corp.
The theme would have been better executed upon if the side characters/other soldiers were more fleshed out… but more on that later.
The story opens with the titular protagonist Paksenarion (aka Paks to her friends) running away from home when her father tries to force her to marry a local boy. Paks is a free spirit, so instead she runs off to join the military after threatening her father with a sword when he threatens to beat her. This is a good way to start the story. It demonstrates that Paks has narrative agency, making her seem proactive. The fact that she was thoughtful enough to leave behind the sword demonstrates that she truly does care about her family, even if they mistreat her. This instantly makes Paks not only likable but compelling.
When Paks enlists, a training montage begins. She (and a few dozen other green soldiers) are sent to what amounts to boot camp and put through a training thresher. She learns to fight with a sword, she learns to march, she learns to follow the rules, all in excruciating detail. I found this sequence compelling, because I’m a Military Fantasy nerd and I like reading about the details of everyday life. HOWEVER, if you’re not a nerd like me I can very easily see you becoming bored.
The next major sequence is about rape, and the prosecution of the criminals responsible. The rape itself thankfully happens off screen, but the fallout of the crime is displayed in great detail, from Paks’ wounds to the trial and the punishment of the criminals. Paks is initially disbelieved in her claim of being raped, but eventually the evident truth of events comes to light and justice is served.
I found this sequence compelling. Indeed my initial assumption was that this was a commentary on the recent series of military sexual abuse scandals which have come to light… however as this book was written more than thirty years ago that’s not the case. Instead this is just a depressing commentary about the nature of life for women in the military in the past and present, and how somethings don’t change.
After they leave boot camp, they travel from place to place, fighting and getting mercenary work. If I have a complaint, there is not unifying narrative for all the fights they get in… though I suppose you can argue there is a larger message to this. Several of Paks’ friends die, and their deaths seem meaningless.
In the mean time we have a few side scenes where the protagonists go shopping, haggling, and becoming friends with one another. It was a nice, relaxing moment of bonding between battles and sieges. This low tension moment is great for building up characterization, and is a trick I like to use in my own fiction.
Speaking of meaningless deaths, when Paks’ company is captured and held hostage by an enemy force, Paks and her two BFFs escape and are forced to run for help to save their company. After a series of misadventures they finally get back to their Duke to give him news of the capture… but Paks’ two best friends die, leaving her feeling even more emotionally tormented.
Paks spends several chapters mourning their loss, and this is my favorite part of the book character-wise up until this point. Paks is broken hearted by this development, which made her seem more empathetic. Remember that relaxing moment of bonding? That made this moment all the more bitter. That’s a good narrative tool, bonding characters together before you break that bond so the reader feels more invested in the death. Her grief is only reinforced when they return to boot camp to get the next year’s recruits, and their barracks is almost empty due to how many people were killed.
And then the time comes to get some revenge. They pursue the enemy duke back to his homeland and make him pay for all the lives lost. There is a series of sieges of enemy towns. I liked this focus on siege warfare, it’s not something you see very often in fantasy fiction.
A question occurs to me. Why are they fighting? Is it just to ransack and loot things? I understand that they are mercenaries, paid to fight. But what are the principles guiding their superior officers and the antagonist? Are they just fighting to steal land from one another?
They attack the enemy, and make allies of all his enemies. After a few brief run ins with the enemy, one of their allies is captured, held hostage and tortured by the antagonist. Some people besides Paks go in to save him. I didn’t like this scene very much because it wasn’t from Paks’ POV.
This book is 3rd person close POV, from Paks’ perspective. About 95% of the book is from Paks’ perspective, with about 5% being from other people’s perspective. I wish the author did 100% Paks’ perspective, or maybe 75 Paks/25 other. Why? Because these little scenes seemed random. Why did we need these little random scenes? It didn’t advance Paks’ character plot, and it barely advanced the main plot. If there were more of these non-Paks POV scenes I’d like them more, but as is they felt tacked on.
The enemy goes into retreat, and it’s revealed that Paks is a chosen one of the gods when she fights off an enemy priest of evil. This plotline felt… undercooked. I don’t mind Paks being a baby paladin- indeed I thought it was a potentially compelling plotline- but not enough was done in this book to give this plotline real meaning.
To explain, let’s compare the ‘Paks being the chosen one’ plotline to the ‘Paks learning to fight’ plotline. Paks had to work hard to learn how to fight; she spent months in boot camp getting her ass kicked to learn how to fight. She earned learning how to fight. Paks didn’t earn the god’s favor, at least not anymore than anyone else in her army. For example, if I were the author I would add a scene in the beginning where Paks saved a shrine of the gods from being burned down. After she saved that shrine, the gods favored her. It wouldn’t take much, I just wanted a reason why the gods liked her.
After the hostage is rescued, they chase down the villain to his final stand. They siege his fortress… but instead of an epic battle taking the fort, the villain walks right into their trap and they beat him easily. Paks is favored by the gods and they’re victorious.
Paks is then given the choice: does she allow the villain to be tortured to death (which he deserves after the antagonist tortured hostages), or have him beheaded painlessly. Paks chooses the painless death, because torture is evil and Paks is favored by the good gods.
Paks making the choice to not torture the antagonist to death is fine. However Paks had no personal skin in the game of killing him. He never personally wronged her, besides in the broadest sense of him being the leader of the enemy. So it wasn’t hard for Paks to say ‘don’t torture him to death.’ He didn’t personally wrong her, so the choice of her not torturing him felt cheap.
I wanted her to really, really want to torture him to death, so when she finally decided to give him a clean death that was a sign of character growth. Going back to my prior example, if the antagonist burned down her village and killed her family, Paks would be driven to kill him painfully. In that case, if she doesn’t torture him to death then that’s a sign of Paks rising above her baser instincts. Written as it is in the book, her sparing the antagonist doesn’t show character growth on Paks’ part.
The the book pretty abruptly ends. There is brief talk about Paks going home again, or Paks becoming a paladin, but in the end she decides to stick with the army and stay with her friends. I wanted more of a denouement, maybe another chapter or two of Paks and friends chatting, or maybe going home again to impress her father with how awesome she’s become.
Pacing and Structure
This was a bit of a slow burner of a book. I liked it a good deal, but many reviews suggest that it was too slowly paced. I can see that: not much happens until the halfway point. I think this is a fair critique, even though I found the slowness to be refreshing.
I enjoyed the fact that this book was slow paced. The beginning was slow in order to spend time teaching Paks how to fight and be a soldier. This patience was key in making her character arc have value. She begins the story strong, but untrained. Over the course of many story beats in bootcamp and in her first few battles she learns how be both strong AND skilled. If you commonly dislike Mary Sue characters, Paks isn’t that. She has a good character arc in which she learns how to fight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Mary Sues; I’ve read books where that trope is done well.)
And while the book does speed up toward the middle and end, it’s not exactly what I’d call fast paced. While Paks does have some agency in the plot, as a soldier she spends most of the book just following orders. She is frequently ordered to do boring things, like hurrying up and waiting. It made the war seem long and drawn out, which is an interesting style-choice by the author. I thought this stylistic choice felt authentic. Wars take months if not years. Well this war took three years, and felt like that. Which is good.
Structurally, I think these are the book’s acts:
Act 1 begins at the beginning, and ends when Paks enlists.
Act 2 begins in boot camp, and ends when Paks goes on her first mission.
Act 3 is her first mission, and ends when she’s wounded and promoted from Recruit to Private.
Act 4 consists of her and her company going on a tour, working for mercenaries for pay. This is a slow act, with minimal fighting and some character development of the side characters.
Act 5 begins when Paks’ troop is captured and held hostage by the enemy. Paks escapes with two friends, and they go run for help. It ends when Paks alone getting help, after her friends die
Act 6 consists of freeing the hostages and getting vengeance on the hostage-takers.
Act 7 is a return to boot camp. A year has passed since the begging of the book, and Paks is now a veteran. She helps train new troops. This is a mournful chapter, as Paks grieves for the loss of her two dead friends.
Act 8 is re-deploying with the new troops, to try to get a last, final revenge against the real enemy. There are a few minor story beats in the lead up to the actual final conflict, but in the end the protagonist defeats the villain.
Acts traditionally begin and end when the protagonist character makes choices. In this book, Paks doesn’t make very many choices. As mentioned, she’s a soldier so her superior officers have agency, not her. As a result, act breaks are determined by outside events.
I think this book fits into The Hero’s Journey structure. Act 1 and 2 consist of the ‘Normal Life’ and ‘Call to Adventure’ segments. Acts 3 & 4 represent the ‘Searching for the Plot’ segment. The Act 5 represents the ‘Finding the Plot, For Better or for Worse’ segment. Acts 6 are the ‘Success!’ story beat.
This is where things get weird. Act 7 isn’t directly applicable to The Hero’s Journey. It reminds me more of the formulatic Act 4 from the Five Act Format, an act focused more on characterization and gathering the strength needed for one final battle. Which is fine. I think this works well here.
Act 8 returns to the Hero’s Journey, and is the ramp into the ‘Climax’ of the story. This is followed by Act 9, the Denouement.
From a structural perspective, I think this book is good despite being nonstandard. The book MAJORLY revolves around Act 5. Paksenarrion’s character development changes in a massive way with that event, as does the plot. Before Act 5, they’re fighting a war against an enemy they can’t seem to get a handle of. After Act 5, Paks’ army goes on the offensive against the enemy for seemingly the first time.
If I were to improve this book Pacing and Structure wise, I’d say that the antagonist needed to be introduced as a threat at the very beginning of the book. Maybe Paks enlists to fight because her home was burned down by the antagonist, as an example. As is, the beginning of the book seems a bit empty. The book starts out low-tension due to not having an antagonist or a looming threat.
Also, I might have also trimmed out one or two of the extraneous city sieges for the sake of creating a shorter/tighter book.
I’ll start with the bad. This book’s side characters were bland.
When I read Military books, be they Military Fantasy like ‘The Shadow Campaigns’ series, or historical books like the ‘Master and Commander’ series, one of my favorite parts is the banter between the different soldiers. Often soldiers in the same squad/platoon hate one another, and make fun/rib one another. I like watching unit cohesion form between the clashing personalities of the different soldiers in said unit, as people who begin the book not liking one another grow to have one another’s backs by the end of the book.
Unfortunately the side characters in this were a bit… blah. None seemed to have unique personalities beyond ‘a nice guy/gal’ or ‘a asshole’ or ‘a rule abiding officer who doesn’t take your shit.’ We barely got to know any of their backgrounds. Due to the blandness of the characters, I was not invested in the overall narrative as much as I needed to be. I wanted more scenes of Paks and her friends goofing off, having fun, playing cards, exercising together. Why are they friends? I wanted to see the scenes in which they became friends.
Here’s a spoiler: a ton of named characters die. This was presented as being tragic, but because none of the side characters were compelling or seemed to have much of a backstory, I just didn’t care. Their deaths aren’t cheap; their deaths serve to advance the plot. However I just didn’t care enough about them.
That said, I enjoyed the protagonist. At first she was as likeable and as bland as the side characters, but as the story went on and more and more of her friends died, she gained a decided edge of melancholy about her. I liked that melancholy, because such deep sorrow isn’t something I see very often in literature, particularly in Military fiction.
And about the rape scene. Early on in the book the protagonist is either raped, or she fought off the rape- we never know for certain either way. Either way, I feel mixed about this scene. On one hand, this scene provides a good cultural commentary about the presence of rape in the military, and shows how military justice isn’t kind. On the other hand, Paks didn’t seem to have any long-lasting personality changes as a result of this event. Why include it if it doesn’t change her character? And on the third hand, rape being used as character development for women is a bit trite and played out… so yeah. I don’t know how I feel about this scene.
Added on to this is Paks’ apparent asexuality. How much of that was due to this incident? How much of it was present beforehand? I just… don’t know. I think her asexuality was in place before the rape, but it’s hard to be sure.
Lastly, the villain. The book basically didn’t have an on-screen villain for the entire story. The bad guy was the general of an enemy army, who we don’t hear dialog from until (I think) basically the 80% mark. He got no development, and we don’t know his motivations, besides ‘evil.’ Does he fight for anything besides wealth and power? Does he worship dark gods to cure his sick mother’s cancer? Or does he worship dark gods for the lols? I don’t know. He’s an evil enigma, which makes him boring.
Prose, Setting and Worldbuilding
Generic. This was written back when all fantasy books were expected to be in a certain style, and this is certainly of that style. There are elves and dwarves and gnomes (though in this novel those fantasy races barely make an appearance). There are magic spells and magic potions, which are rare but powerful things. Battles are fought by soldiers with swords and shining armor. You could mistake this for the Belgariad, or Wheel of Time, or Eragon, or any one of a dozen other fantasy series written back in the day.
I’ll be blunt: I don’t like the inclusion of good gods and evil gods. Their inclusion made this book feel very D&D, and not in the good way. I liked this book when there were morally dubious characters who weren’t presented as evil. When Paks was raped, it wasn’t because the evildoers were evil, it was because they were drunk and high on love potions, and not completely in control of their actions. One of them personally apologized for his crime, and accepted his punishment. That’s nuanced storytelling. That’s not evil.
As mentioned, there are gods of good and evil, and I didn’t like this fact. However, the black and white morality of some Tolkien clones isn’t completely present here. There is not ‘evil’ orcish race, and the ‘good’ guys include some rapists. In this way I’d compare it to A Song of Ice and Fire… but ASoIaF had even more nuanced storytelling and better prose.
The prose here was mostly functional, but the author occasionally pulled out a beautiful line or two. Overall, on the windowpane/stained glass window paradigm (windowpane glass=crystal clear prose; stained glass=artfully beautiful prose), this is firmly on the windowpane side. I thought there was a bit too much telling, as opposed to showing.
Characterization is this book’s biggest flaw. I was never invested into any of the side characters, a fact made worse by the fact that so many of them died. In the beginning of the book I wasn’t invested into the protagonist either. Many reviewers called Paks boring, and I can understand that critique. However, I began to like her after so many of her friends died and she got depressed. The fact she had the strength of character to keep fighting despite her depression was really endearing for me.
If I were this book’s editor, I’d say that Paks needed to have more of a motivation for revenge against the antagonist. As mentioned, the book could have been rewritten to have the antagonist burn down her village so Paks was motivated to fight him. This would have made the beginning of the book more tense in the boring first act (because we knew the antagonist was looming off in the distance), and would give Paks more of a reason to hate the antagonist (because he killed her family). And if Paks also saved a temple from being burned down, for example, then it would also explain why the gods favor her. Thus when she gave the villain a clean death in the end of the book it would have felt like she was triumphing over her own evil desire for revenge, as opposed to just doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.
Again as the editor, I’d bring in the villain and make him more of an on-screen presence throughout the novel. Have him participate in the various raids, have him talk to Paksenarrion so we get to know his motivations. Make him less of a mustache twirler, evil for evil’s sake bad guy.
I’m giving this book a pass on the generic worldbuilding. It’s from the era of pseudo-medieval European fantasy worldbuilding being mandatory, and while this has a good number of innovations on the classic formula, it didn’t have enough innovations for my taste. If generic worldbuilding bugs you, I guess this isn’t for you.
This book’s strength lies in the realism of everyday life as a soldier. Paks has her lessons pounded into her repeatedly (and we the reader inherit those lessons by proxy). Time and again Paks is forced to think like a soldier: where will there be enemy troops? How many? Can we avoid their patrols? Can we ambush them? This isn’t a story where the heroes rush brazenly into combat; this is a story where the heroes try to get the upper hand on their enemy by hook or by crook. Soldiers are expected to be honorable, but not honorable to the point of stupidity. In other words, like real soldiers in real militaries in the real world.
Overall, this is good book. It was made compelling based on the narrative choice of the author to portray a woman in a lifelike military. It was first published 30+ years ago, but I could see this being published again today with a few minor changes. It holds up. That said, it felt a bit rough around the edges, in the same way a lot of debut books feel rough around the edges. This makes sense, since I think this was her debut. I think I’ll read more in this series.