The Deed of Paksenarrion

February 4th, 2006

This one I read, basically, on a dare.

Elizabeth Moon is, depending on whom you ask, best known as either the author of The Deed and related works, or (as is how I always think of her) the better half in some co-written Anne McCaffrey novels. Sassinak, co-authored by Moon and the best of the sequels to McCaffrey’s Dinosaur Planet, is well above average for military SF, and stands out for its good characterization and legitimately strong female characters. I was so impressed by it (you know…when I was fourteen…) that I went out and acquired one of her fantasy novels, Surrender None, but found it nowhere near as compelling. In fact, it left such a poor taste in my mouth that I didn’t pick up another of her standalone books until the above “dare” motivated me to borrow the book from a friend. It’s not a decision I regret, but I can’t say I’m entirely converted.

Originally published as three books, Sheep Farmer’s Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold, I read this in a collected Trade Paper but the thematic divisions are clear between the three sections, so I’m sure they’d make good standalone reads if that’s how you acquire them. The first section is in many ways very reminiscent of Sassinak’s days at the Academy and early soldiering, except that obviously here we’re dealing with a medievaloid fantasy setting. Paksenarrion (or Paks, as she goes by for most of the book) is (as implied) a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter who runs away from home rather than marry by arrangement and against her will. Strong as and taller than many men, she meets up with the recruiting party of a mercenary company in a nearby village and signs up for training and two years of service in the field. She shows great promise in training, but although the differential between men and women in physical capabilities seems to be less prominent in her world than in ours, there are still some who will cause trouble for a woman who exceeds their potential in a “masculine” profession, and she faces (but eventually overcomes) some hardship as a result. She soon heads South into combat for her new Lord and the master of her mercenary company, Duke Phelan.

This book presents an interesting contrast to most fantasy representations of mercenary corps, as Duke Phelan and most of his associates are strictly ethical and honorable leaders of highly disciplined and excellently trained troops. There are companies which are not as well reputed, but we never actually see much of them. In the course of normal combat, Paks runs up against some servants of Dark Gods, and finds herself fighting alongside priest-warriors of Gird (a peasant-turned-Warrior-Saint). She admires some of what the Girdsmen profess as their beliefs, but has a great deal of difficulty accepting any God (or Saint) that allows its servants to die so readily and seemingly so senselessly. Although she genuinely loves life in the Company, after her two years and a few too many close-call experiences with Girdsmen and his infernal opponents to be coincidental, it becomes apparent that she is destined for more than the life of a simple soldier. She heads North for adventure and more advanced training.

While the first portion was more than moderately interesting as an establishing novel for the characters and the world, it was somewhat dry, as one might expect the life of a rank-and-file soldier to be. This next portion is, sadly not nearly so interesting, although significantly more action filled. This book is largely a series of quests of a distressingly canon D&D flavor. First there’s the side-quest with the chaotic-neutral half-elf mage (complete with phat loot and illegible scrolls), then there’s the “protecting the village from the dark magician with a dilapidated fortress at the edge of their territory” mission. That done, she finally admits to the continued influences of Gird in her life, and Paks heads North again to train with their Paladins, eventually converting in truth. Unfortunately, while still in training, she heads off on yet another quest, and is captured, drugged, tortured, and ensorcelled by servants of the Dark Gods. Although eventually she is rescued, she is damaged in both mind and spirit.

The third book details Paks rediscovering her courage and faith, and sets her up to be the truly heroic and powerful character that justifies a large trilogy’s creation, and is probably the strongest of the three. Here it is made clear what Moon has hinted at all along, that this is in truth a story about Faith, in a world where miracles can restore the truly faithful even from death. Paks learns the value of submitting her fate and life to the will of her Gods in their service, no matter how dire the consequences to herself might be. The parallels to a Christian ethic accepting Christ as absolution and salvation is clear, even without any hint of a Judeo-Christian structure to her world’s belief system whatsoever. It never quite crosses the line into preachiness about the value of absolute faith, but it does come closer than some (not me) might find comfortable.

This is a pretty good trilogy, with a far better than average handling of the concept and practice of Religious faith than most of the Genre even attempts and a strong, well-developed and multi-dimensional primary character. Sadly most of the other characters presented are not as well-rounded, and the people and world that Moon shows us is more clear-cut and lacking in Shades of Gray than I would otherwise prefer. Likewise, often her plot and characters seem unoriginal or even caricaturesque representations of genre stereotypes. It’s more than good enough, though, for me to understand why many find it so rewarding, and it’s even good enough that I figure I’ll re-read Surrender None (the story of Gird) one of these days. If what I describe sounds like your bag, then I’ll recommend Deed. Check it out.

3 Responses to “The Deed of Paksenarrion”

  1. jim says:

    One of my favourites, along with the Chronicles of Narnia and The Gormanghast Trilogy the Deed of Paksenarrion is one of the few book sets I never get tired of rereading.

  2. Skwid says:

    Apparently you’re not alone. It’s surprising how many SF stories dance around ostensibly religious magic without truly addressing the principle of Faith, and this series went a long way towards filling that gap.

    Thanks for posting, Jim.

  3. Liz says:

    This is one of my favorite books (or trilogies of books, I suppose). But I haven’t re-read it for about a decade, and first picked it up as a 12-year-old, so I’m not sure how unbiased and clear my opinion is. Therefore I am always curious to hear other people’s opinions of it.

    I’m glad you found it worthwhile. I enjoyed the basic soldiering details in the first book. And, as much as I don’t want to say anything negative about the trilogy, that whole bit with the half-elf (Macenion? something like that.) did seem a little pointless and not too interesting.

    I think I need to pick it up again, and maybe give one of her new books about Kieri Phelan a try. (I think she’s two books through a new trilogy. The first came out in 2008 or 2009.)

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