Nowadays, readers tend to give an author no more than five pages to impress them. More often, it’s one page. Sometimes, it’s even one line.
It’s too bad, really, because people who read that way tend to miss some real gems. I’ve been slipping into that kind of reading mode, if only because there are too many books to read in a short lifetime. But for whatever reason, I stuck with this series far longer than I normally would have.
First, the problems.
This is a chronicle, and sometimes it reads like one. Most of today’s fantasy readers prefer a deep, deep point of view, reminiscent of watching something on TV. The leisurely narration of classic fiction bores them. The Deed of Paksenarrion sometimes gets lost in such leisurely narration. It’s not entirely surprising. Paksenarrion, as a character, is very much a work in progress. She’s not very bright. She doesn’t think deeply (at least in the beginning). She has a very annoying tendency to let others dictate her actions.
These are not good qualities for a main character, and add to that her complete lack of interest in romance, and you have an odd choice for a hero.
But she’s earnest and good and she changes when she realizes her faults. For the better.
The account of Paksenarrion’s struggles and transformation is about as transformative a reading experience as I can remember. Book Three (Oath of Gold) is gut-wrenching, brilliant, amazing. It’s really what made the entire series worth a five star rating.
Outside of Game of Thrones, I have never had to experience the pain and suffering of a main character so viscerally. What Paksenarrion has to endure is martyr-like. But unlike Martin’s largely nihilist treatment of (basically) everyone’s sufferings, Elizabeth Moon is not afraid to explore how pain and suffering can have profoundly positive effects on a person. And she, unlike so many others, is brave enough to try to tackle the most difficult of all aspects of fiction–a believable system of divine intercession that doesn’t veer into Deus ex Machina.
Tolkien did this wonderfully. Some people don’t like the way Lord of the Rings ended. Tolkien explained that he purposely did not want a typically heroic ending, not because he did not value the idea of heroism, but because he understood the importance of grace, of divine intervention in the lives of his characters, occurring ineffably, but without doubt.
When dealing with ultimate evil, either your hero needs to be a god, an even worse monster, or a human being with the odds ridiculously stacked against you. There are few ways out of such a situation that leave the reader satisfied. Moon puts Paksenarrion into such a situation, with no way out. Then she delivers her in the most amazing way, but with no hint of hokey trickery. Everything that happens to Paksenarrion happens for a concrete reason that moves the plot forward. It is brilliant juggling by a capable writer.
But perhaps what I loved the best about this series is its treatment of “good magic.” Too often, in epic fantasy, the good guys can only beat the bad guys by taking more and more power for themselves. Yes, of course, they’ll use it better than the bad guys (allegedly). But in “real life” that’s rarely the case. Tolkien understood this too, making “Boromir’s solution” something that never ends well. But the paladins and saints of Moon’s secondary world wield power only when they humbly ask for it. It comes, or it doesn’t come, not because of their own will, but because of the will of the gods they serve. This is convincing, good magic, because the wielder becomes humble through lack of control, and is safeguarded from the temptation of abusing power. It’s brilliant, effective, and inspiring.
Elizabeth Moon’s trenchant understanding of the temptation and misuse of power, for me, is what makes this series, according to the back cover blurb, the “only worthy successor to Tolkien.”
Go and read it! But be warned, there are geldings, sexual peril, and explicit tortures. It’s worth it, though. With patience, the reward is great.