Last month I visited my friend Jess, whom I had not seen for almost a year. Luckily we have that great kind of friendship where you can be out of contact for a long time and then pick up like no time has passed at all.
One of the things we discussed is how we missed having a book club. We used to belong to an SFF book club in Salem, NH, which is a) no longer convenient to either of us, and b) always had very different tastes than ours, anyway.
So we decided we were going to start our own book club. With blackjack! And hookers! It’d be a little bit different, though — each month we would each pick a book for the other to read, and then get together to discuss them.
For her, I picked Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, because I knew she’d liked The Lies of Locke Lamora and had read it four times, and yet somehow had not read the second or third books. (Strangely, our get-together is on the same day Lynch has announced that book four is going to be delayed until 2016 for health reasons).
For me, she picked the book I am reviewing in this article, which is a favorite of hers. She loaned me her well-worn paperback of the book — so well-worn she had to tape it back together before giving it to me.
Regrettably, I cannot say that I share Jess’ fond opinion of the book.
First, here’s what Goodreads has to say about it:
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.
What I Liked:
The prologue. Prologues are generally despised in modern fantasy, and for good reason — they have been wildly overused and abused. But I actually really liked this one. It’s of Paks’ family, years later, receiving a mysterious visitor who delivers her sword, with the equally mysterious message that she doesn’t need it any more. (Which of course leaves them wondering why). Overall, it sets the tone for rousing adventure. Reading it was comforting, like I was saying to myself, “Now here’s that good old epic fantasy I like.”
The details of military life and strategy/tactics. Y’all know I’m a fan of stuff like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels and Django Wexler’s flintlock fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns, so it should be no surprise I liked this aspect of it. Admittedly, the tech level is pretty generic high fantasy — say 1300s or so? — and this is not an era I know a ton about, so it’s possible there are inaccuracies. But it all seemed plausible to me, and moreover, mentally stimulating. (I’m weird, shut up). I enjoyed reading about the importance of mercenaries in combat, or tactics for short sword and shield in small cohorts, or how sieges work.
Paks’ asexuality. I doubt Moon had this word in mind when she wrote the book, but Paks vocally has no interest in sex or romance, and it’s refreshing in a female character.
What I Didn’t Like
Okay, let’s lay it out:
The worldbuilding. The world feels like a D&D or a Tolkien ripoff. There is magic, and it is divided into priest magic and wizard magic. There are elves and dwarves from central casting — beautiful and enigmatic elves, stocky, fighty dwarves who love treasure (who we only see from a distance). I’m told there is this whole elaborate world, laid out… in future books? On the wiki page? but it’s decidedly not in the pages of this book.
The characters. “Wooden” is often too generous for them. There are hundreds of names, and barely any of them matter, because they die and (with a few notable exceptions) Paks doesn’t give a second thought for them. (In fact one of them dies and comes back twenty pages later, through an unfixed continuity error).
Even Paks herself is wooden; we don’t feel close to her at all. Sure, she wants to be a soldier! She’s really good at it! She doesn’t want romance! She’s loyal to the Duke’s company! But… there’s not much more. She spends the first half of the book completely flat, not really feeling anything for anyone, even when people from her cohort die. She does later seem to grieve for a few close friends she loses, but she has no self-awareness about it. “Oh… I felt bad for a minute. I guess it could have been worse!” is the most we get.
The “head-hopping.” This is very much a style preference, I admit; modern fantasy tends to favor a close third- or first-person viewpoint. Mostly we’re in Paks’ head, but Moon occasionally decides we’re going to follow some other character, because they’re more interesting.
It makes some sense when, in the midst of the investigation that takes up much of the early book, we jump into Paks’ sergeant’s head — he’s the one with the freedom to act in that situation. It makes a lot less sense later on in the book when suddenly we’re in the head of some random dude we’ve never met before who exists only to get castrated and motivate Paks’ superiors. (I suppose that’s a refreshing alternative to the women in refrigerators trope…. okay, no, really it’s not).
The rapeyness. The investigation I alluded to in the first part of the book involves an assault and attempted rape on Paks, for which she is imprisoned due to a misunderstanding of the situation. I mean… I guess it’s tactfully handled, as far as these things go — I’d much rather have Moon writing about this than GRRM. It serves to show us both the way in which things are still tough for Paks as a female soldier, as well as the bureaucracy around proving her innocence. It reminds me of various military sex scandals, in this way, which couldn’t have been far from Moon’s mind.
But then at the end of the book, we get this castration thing with J. Random Dude we don’t even care about and it’s like… really? Really? It seems to exist primarily to tell us that the villain Siniava is a Bad Dude, and… we kind of knew that, since at that point we’ve seen him kill entire towns and sacrifice children on altars to some god of torture.
All of this, I could have forgiven, but the book committed the cardinal sin of fiction: being boring.
Let’s be honest. There were a few parts where I was able to enter that happy reader trance (Paks and friends’ wild overland journey; the stuff with the paladins of Gird; the final twenty-five pages or so), but on the whole the book was a slog. So many of the descriptions are just… ridiculously tedious. Five pages devoted to walking through one town (i.e. “We saw a wall and they looked like this and then we passed a woman holding a jar by a well and then we walked into a side street…”) Pages devoted to conversations that tell us nothing about the world (i.e. why some random mercenary captain isn’t here — it’s because his friend is getting married!)
I mean, if Moon was trying to convey that military life is a lot of boredom interspersed with occasional moments of all-too-interesting peril… she succeeded? It’s just not compelling to read.
By the end of the book, while Paks had changed and grown as a character, it wasn’t enough to be interesting to me. It’s hinted that she has this future ahead of her as a paladin, but in the final pages of the book she declines the chance to go that route, which felt a lot like walking away from the most compelling story.
Overall, I gave this book two stars — it deserved at least that for the stuff I did like. But on the whole this was a good example of a book that might have been revolutionary in its time, but which I am reading waaaaay too late to really appreciate. (Other books in that category include Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice, from 1982, which I felt shades of). I might have also appreciated this more if I read it when I was younger.
Sorry, Jess. I tried to like this one, but it just wasn’t for the Lise of Today. I doubt I will be reading more of this series, unless you strong-arm me into it 😉