When I think about being sick during my school-years, it is with some nostalgia… twice a year, usually Autumn and Spring, one or two weeks without school, but with lots of hot tea and books. Now I shiver in bed, unable to attend traditional All Saints’ Day ceremonies (religious or not, it’s good to set aside a day for some remembrance… and graveyards looks beautiful today in Poland, with the lights and decorations…), and can’t understand what was so good about it 😉
All Saints’ Day… I don’t mind its secularisation, being a secular guy, but its infantilization. If a quiet day of remembrance and family reunion (Poles often travel far to visit graves of even distant relatives – and meet relatives still living there) is to be replaced by Halloweeen… I can imagine better occasions to put one’s Wookie costume on and beg for candies. Happy Halloween… years ago, my friends and I used to wish each other “happy holidays” before All Saints’, as a sort of black humour – and I remember our teacher being shocked when she overheard.
On a day like that, I’d rather read Ishiguro than Lovecraft.
Well, if I can’t follow holiday traditions this year, at least I try to follow the tradition of catching-up with my reading during sickness 😉 So now we can finish the seasonal greetings part and meet the paladins…
The book I read, despite flu-induced problems with concentration, is The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, very good epic fantasy about a female mercenary with destiny ahead. I will review it one day, it’s to soon, third of the way into the volume… but wait! It’s not. I have an omnibus edition of the first three (order of publishing, there are two prequels) books, and I’ve already finished the first one – Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, so a short review is possible.
Elizabeth Moon herself is a former marine (noncombat) that lives in Texas and writes military fantasy and s/f, often for Baen (publisher of, among others, David Weber). It’s no Cook and certainly no Abercrombie. I don’t mean in a bad way. We have military fantasy of highest quality – Moon knows her drills, and her description of medieval warfare is very good. What I mean is… it’s way more positive than today’s average. Good writing, real good guys – after book one we’re only getting there, but it seems she created a world with believable paladins and traditional elves. So – traditional fantasy that is also good literature.
Sheepfarmer’s daughter doesn’t want to get married to a pig farmer, so she runs away to join the military. Her family isn’t very happy about it, having already cashed in the bride price 😉 but in the North (not this entire universe, other parts are more serious about gender roles) everybody can enlist in one of the mercenary companies. Not that much trade or industry, so soldiers are the main export… not that unique a situation. Every year northern companies march south to fight in Condottieri-style wars of richer realms, civilised wars fought for limited goals, where prisoners are treated kindly and one season’s enemies are next season’s allies. At least, that’s how it usually goes. It would make a boring book, so situation dramatically changes.
And there is religion. We don’t learn much about it in the first volume, but our protagonist levitates towards lawful-good deity of Gird, god of paladins and other virtuous warriors. And being a paladin is taken seriously, it’s a calling, not a vocation, and apart from awesome weapons skills they are gifted with limited divine magic. Some background in D&D would be helpful – there are two main kinds of magic, sorcerous powers attained by years of study and divine magic given by gods (good and evil alike) to their most pious believers. Imagine a world, where a priest can really cure your cancer, or curse abortion-supporting politician with a shameful disease… Paladins are good guys and Moon’s books are often mentioned as a good background reading for rpg players choosing paladin as their character class.
But paladins are still in the future, first book is about military life in medieval setting and transformation of a naive farm girl into a seasoned soldier. She learns fighting skills, makes friends (and loses some of them), sees world beyond her village. And it’s only a beginning of her journey…
Modest single POV serves the story well, we journey with Paks and learn about the world and its peoples with her, the hidden machinations that shape the politics of great powers are hidden. But our knowledge advances with our protagonist’s, so there is an implied promise that mysteries will be revealed. And when other characters seem simplified in their descriptions and motivations – you get a sense that’s because of her perception, not author’s inability. Paks is even called out on that by a friend once. So – a warning to potential readers, just as Black Company is written by a non-objective and selective scribe, this story we experience through the eyes of a young soldier.
It’s not always sunny in Moon’s books. Good guys occasionally suppress the restive population of a conquered city, noble company commander shows a Machiavellian side when he needs to navigate through shady southern politics. And elves, while generally good, are often dicks. But there are quite a few likeable characters and a feeling of old-school, good-natured fantasy. Highly recommended reading.
Score – Sheepfarmer’s Daughter: 8
And if you want to brush up on your Italian, you can get an edition with these tasteful covers: