Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writer's View: The Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon


From Goodreads: Paksenarrion — Paks for short — is somebody special. She knows it, even if nobody else does yet. No way will she follow her father’s orders to marry the pig farmer down the road. She’s off to join the army, even if it means she can never see her family again.

And so her adventure begins . . . the adventure that transforms her into a hero remembered in songs, chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne.

Here is her tale as she lived it.

The Writer's View

This is a very hard review for me to write. I want to start by saying I read this book about twenty years ago when I was in junior high. Paks is one of the great heroes of my childhood. I idolized her. I even considered joining the military for a while, I was so inspired by her character. So I have twenty years of love behind this book.


Reading it now, with my critical adult eye . . . I have to admit to being underwhelmed. There is absolutely no character arc to speak of -- Paks is the same person at the end of the book as she is at the beginning, and we cover 3 years of her life in a miliary corps. While the battle scenes are great, the pacing for 2/3rds of the book is agonizingly slow. There are pages and pages of the book devoted to the corps marching and all the surrounding scenery. I even found myself falling asleep during parts of it. The secondary characters are somewhat fleshed out, but not in a way that made me invest in any of them.

Beyond the critical eye, my reaction to the story and its elements has also changed. Like I said, when I read this as a kid, I wanted to join the military. When I read this as an adult, I kept thinking I would have preferred the life of a sheepfarmer (Paks's previous occupation) to that of a soldier. All those days and days of marching through rain and mud, sleeping outside in the rain, facing death nearly every day, sacking cities, etc . . . it all just sounded, well, awful to me. Not a life I would chose. Seriously, I'd take the sheep farm. Not sure what that says about me!

This part of the story blurb: And so her adventure begins . . . the adventure that transforms her into a hero remembered in songs, chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne. Well, this never actually happens in this book. It's misleading. This particular book isn't about a chosen warrior who restores a lost ruler. It's about a soldier and her adventures over a 3-year period on military campaigns.

All that being said, the story is an excellent piece of military fiction. I experienced what it was like to be a soldier, from the fighting, to digging latrines, to keeping watch, etc. I did enjoy the authenticity of the story. Elizbeth Moon spent some time in the military, and her first-hand experiences really inform the novel.

I am left with the memory of a great love for a piece of fiction. That love has been tarnished by my adult eye. I'm a little sad at this.

Secondary character POV served as a pie slice

There was a very peculiar POV technique employed in this book. 90% of this novel is written from Paks's POV. I imagine this as a big cherry pie with a few slices already eaten.

There are two significant points in the story told from the POVs of minor characters. The first is in the beginning, when Paks is attacked by some of her comrades. This part of the story is told by her commanding officer as he investigates the attack. I imagine this as a single slice of lemon pie. Later in the book, we get another POV from a high-ranking officer who is kidnapped and tortured by the main antagonist of the novel. I imagine this as a slice of blueberry pie.

All told, we have a pie that is 90% cherry, 5% lemon, and 5% blueberry. It is an odd mix. I couldn't really see a compelling reason to deviate from Paks's POV. Neither of these secondary characters have a character arc. Neither plays a crucial role in the story as a whole. The overall effect was rather odd. I can't see employing this technique in my own novels, but it was unique enough that I thought it worth discussing.

What would have worked for me is if the story had consisted of three complete pies -- that is, three fully developed characters with three unique stories to tell.
Anyone else ever encounter secondary character POV served as a slice of pie? What do you think of it?

(Despite all my gripes, I have nothing but respect for Elizabeth Moon as a writer. I just think I've out-grown the Paks series. If anyone has not read Speed of the Dark by Moon, I highly recommend it. It's a near-future novel about an autistic man who has the opportunity to be "cured" by science. It's a fascinating, poignant read.)

12 comments:

  1. Don't you hate when this happens? For some strange reason, books you read as a child and adored sometimes don't shine as bright when you read them again as an adult. This happened to me last year. I searched high and low for a book that I'd read as a child and remembered to be amazing. Then when I finally got hold of it (and spent a fortune) I couldn't even finish reading it.

    I don't see the point to minor character POVs either. Especially if they're not at least essential to the story. I am not a huge fan of even two POVs but at least this one minimizes the disruption.

    It's sad when this happens but maybe just chalk it down to growing up and your tastes changing. I know I'm going through something like that with fantasy books.

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    1. @ Lan - Okay, at least I am not the only one! So sorry to hear about that book you searched high and low for!

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  2. I do this all the time! I've almost sworn off reading books I loved as a kid just so I don't get disappointed anymore. Sometimes the book was just written for a younger audience so when I return to it as an adult it's not as good. And sometimes I've just changed too much as a person to enjoy it anymore.

    I just read a book where there were these random unnecessary POVs! Argh, I can't remember what it was now...anywho, it drove me nuts!

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    1. @ Jenny - I have to admit, I was expecting to love it all over again! Definitely caught me by surprise. Now I have to think a little harder before picking up an old, beloved book.

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  3. I haven't returned to any old childhood reads I enjoyed, or even anything I read 10 years ago. But, I bet the same thing will happen to me when I do. We change in our tastes and our critical eye becomes sharper over time, especially when we study the craft. Or, maybe we read books that are far superior later on, and when we return to the old loves, they seem less than stellar.

    I think injecting a few POVs is fine as long as it makes sense why they are there. So long as they are necessary and give the reader a perspective they need and can't get from the MC. But, it's not so good when it's pointlessly done.

    Sorry this story disappointed you all these years later. That is such a bummer! But, look at how much your critical reading skills have grown. ;)

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    1. @ Cathy -- I like your take on POV. Sometimes there are those instances where the MC just can't capture something essential . . . but it's definitely got to have a point, like you say!

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  4. I have absolutely nothing intelligent to add to this discussion! Ha! But I will say that I truly enjoy your reviews. I'm sorry this book didn't hold up for you.

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  5. Eep slow pace like this with not much in character building... not for me for sure. Otherwise it had a promising premise. I've never read a military type book.

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    1. @ Giselle - I know, the premise is good! Too bad it didn't really describe what the book was about. :(

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  6. I read Speed of the Dark for school, and it was one of those stories that really stuck with me. Definitely a good read.

    I remember really wanting to like the Paks books (think I picked them up after devouring all of the Black Company books), but they just didn't grab me, and I don't think I finished the first one.

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    1. @ Lindsay -- thanks for stopping by my blog! I don't think I would have finished the book either if I didn't have such fond memories of it.

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