Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the High Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016.
Some people really loved this book. Some people really hated it. I can see both arguments, but ultimately I came out strongly in favour of it.
Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is the story of a strapping young farm girl who runs away from a forced marriage at the age of 18 to join a mercenary company that serves a good-hearted medieval Duke. That’s important because it creates some unique conditions. Paksenarrion (Paks for short) is almost painfully ignorant about life and the world around her. Many readers have found her irritating, insipid, and flat as a result; and I won’t lie, I agreed. Ultimately I let it go for two reasons; one is that this is only Moon’s first novel; and the second is that few modern people can appreciate how genuinely ignorant of the world a peasant girl actually would be! It’s not like she would know anything about politics or history or even human relationships; it’s amazing she knew how to read, and it was made clear to us when she signed her name to the company contract that her literacy is marginal at best (which is still about a thousand times more educated than most farmers in medieval times). Paks’ ignorance is a literary device that lets Moon show us her world as if we’re just discovering it, because she is. It’s just applied with an exceptionally heavy hand, which I would chalk up to author inexperience.
The novel has been variously praised for its worldbuilding and denounced for its attention to the minutiae. Both are true. This grittily-real world of magic and fantasy in a medieval culture is vividly realized; but it often slows the pace of the novel to the point of groaning tedium. It took a long time for me to get into it, and I’ve read a lot of books in between.
I’ll give it a pass on that one too. It is the first of what is intended to be a trilogy, after all, and I understand there’s now a quintet of books that follow it in a different series. Anybody read the Silmarillion lately? You want to talk about glacial groaners? And yet, that book is the setup for the classics we know and love, and none of them would have been possible without it.
As a medieval recreationist (and generally well read person) with an interest in military tactics and history, I found a weird juxtaposition while reading this. This is not a medieval army. It is a modern army using medieval tactics, and I will be interested in finding out how this came about, because it can’t have escaped Moon’s notice, being as she is a retired United States Marine. There is some suggestion that the Duke that Paks serves took his Duchy by force of arms in the past, and older nobility don’t feel he’s a real noble. Moon’s details about life in the company and in the barracks is obviously drawn from her personal experience in the Marine Corps, and it’s sloooooowwwwww if you’re not into learning about that sort of thing. I think her main point was to illustrate that unlike in the storybooks, nobody is born an epic fighter, and armies have to train together with a lot of repetition to be effective as a unit. Medieval armies, however, worked more like they do in Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for the uninitiated); disparate groups showed up following the command and the banner of particular leaders, and they tried to work with each other as best they could.
On the other hand, the medieval battles are brilliantly realized, laying out the importance of unit tactics, pikemen, terrain, planning and archers, and why all of the components of the army work together to create the effective whole; unlike most other medieval fantasies, which inevitably feature the cavalry charging forward and slicing down the enemy even though they are vastly outnumbered; something that, in real medieval battle, generally resulted in a lot of metal-covered bodies and dead horses. Oh, and did we mention that Paks is a common foot soldier? She appears on a horse only a handful of times in the book, and the horses were all borrowed for a purpose. I love that about her; she’s just a common soldier, not anyone exceptional at all. Except that Higher Powers may have a purpose for her in the future, but that’s largely hinted at and not discussed, and she herself rejects it.
I have only one bone to pick, and that is that Moon never covers the logistics; how is the supply train maintained in enemy territory, if they don’t raid? (Although hunger becomes a problem when a small group is behind enemy lines.) Where do the three or four swords that were lost or destroyed in Paks’ hands come from? Swords aren’t cheap in medieval worlds! In the midst of all this other realism I find that absence glaring, and I suspect it comes from Moon’s service in the over-supplied and over-funded American military.
On the other hand there, the reason why the Duke runs a mercenary company is because he can’t afford to feed all of his soldiers in his realm. He rotates them out into the mercenary force to season his troops and to earn their keep. That’s refreshingly realistic.
Another reviewer in an otherwise excellent review claimed that he didn’t think that a mixed male and female unit was “realistic,” even with effective birth control. I would like to inform my American friends that the Canadian military has been completely co-ed in this fashion since the 1980s. While there certainly have been incidents of women and gay soldiers being harassed by their compatriots, it actually happens considerably less often than it does in segregated militaries. As my friend Graeme, who is a Sergeant in the Canadian Army, put it, “You don’t think of them as ‘women’ per se; they’re just soldiers, just like you.”
I must agree with some of the reviewers who have said that they don’t see Moon’s characters as well realized. They aren’t. I was complaining of just that myself; some guy named Sonnet appeared near the end of the book after having been gone for a while, whom Paks recognized and greeted as one does a friend, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me who the hell he was or why Paks should care about him. She didn’t even give the secondary characters a distinguishing feature so that we had a way to latch on to who they were (like the guy with the hooked nose, maybe; or the guy who always stutters.) My partner argued that this was part of the point, however; things happen like that in a military – people die, are transferred, wounded, promoted, demoted, and generally, all of the people are parts in a machine that shift around to where they are needed at the whim of the commander. Maybe you’re supposed to get that feel. But I found it difficult and jarring. I didn’t care when people died at all, except in a couple of cases, which I won’t tell you about because that would be a spoiler.
Except Paks. I disagree with the reviewers who said that she was flat and boring. She rejects a lot of the way the rest of the world does things. She doesn’t do it out of principle; she does it because it’s just not who she is and she’s too naive to understand that the world doesn’t like people who don’t accept the status quo and will punish them for it. She is happy enough to stab an unattentive soldier in the back when storming a wall (and way to go, Moon, for supporting the idea that it’s not dishonourable to fight intelligently!) but she won’t abide torture and she hates wanton looting and stealing from peasants. We expect that of our heroines, and it’s almost a trope, yes, but usually they make conscious moral choices. Paks just does what’s in her nature because she knows no other way to do things. And she has a bullheaded stubborn streak a mile wide that I am sure will get her into more trouble in the sequels.
The same reviewer who didn’t think that a co-ed military was realistic also did not think it realistic that an eighteen-year-old girl might not be at all interested in sex. First of all, Moon’s deities are more like Catholic saints than gods, and her morality is clearly modeled from a Judeo-Christian framework, in which case the Holy Virgin is a perfectly logical archetype. Paks is somewhat of a Joan of Arc. The second thing is that lots of people in the world are asexual, and they usually know as teenagers. I grew up with a friend who is asexual. Often life forces or manipulates them into having sex, but they still aren’t really interested in it, hormones or no hormones. And in the third case, often it’s a trope in fantasy literature to hyper-focus on the warrior heroine’s sex life (or lack thereof, until the Right Man comes along to show them what they’ve been missing). It’s refreshing that this shouldn’t be a problem for Paks, other than with people who don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and they seem few and far between.
Moon also had Paks face misogyny from soldiers of a different culture. Paks just kind of brushed it off and expected obedience (since he was under her command); eventually he just fell in line, when he realized his misogyny would have no support. That, my friends, is how we should handle it.
I have to say, though, that one thing I really liked a lot about her military characters is that they don’t whine. They talk like soldiers; killing people is their job and they talk about doing it in a rational way that you rarely see in fantasy literature. They don’t lament their fate. They don’t go off about their childhood traumas. Neither do they boldly proclaim they will go where no one has gone before!
About halfway through the book the pace picks up considerably, resulting in a final confrontation that satisfies the reader and keeps you reading. I won’t lie that I found the first part took me months before I got there, however.
Overall, an excellent book with some significant flaws. But I would still recommend it.