Asking an avid reader to name their favorite book is a bit like expecting a parent to choose a favorite child. But if I were absolutely forced to choose only one, I wouldn’t hesitate for long before deciding on The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. And I’d still be cheating a little because technically, it’s three books. Whatever; I read it as the omnibus three-in-one edition, and it’s really all one story, and there’s no way I’m whittling my choice down any further than that. So. Get ready for a long, rambling love-fest. I make no apologies.
When I was in college, I already knew that fantasy was my preferred genre, but I wasn’t as well-read in that genre as I felt I ought to be. I’d read plenty of children’s/YA fantasy, which, as I’ve ranted on before, is just as valid as any adult version of the genre. And I’d finally gotten around to reading the genre-defining Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I would sometimes wander through the fantasy section of bookstore (usually shelved together with sci-fi and labeled as the same genre, but that’s yet another separate rant), examining the massive books that were part of one or another Epic Fantasy Series, and I would wonder how to begin. Which was worth investing my time in? I’ve always been a whole-hearted reader. I dive into a story and rarely come up for air until the end. I just didn’t have the emotional energy to do that for every series. Or the reading time, for that matter, since I was enrolled in several literature classes every semester.
My husband gave me the opening I needed. Of course he wasn’t my husband then; he was a guy I had a crush on. He had spoken very highly of a class he was taking, a survey of the modern epic fantasy novel, taught by a law school librarian of all people. The reading requirements were the first books of several different series, so you could get a taste of various authors. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Stephen R. Donaldson, and of course Tolkien. He recommended that I try it out the next semester, so I did. Partly because, heh, I wanted him to like me, but also because I figured this would be a great way to sample some of those massive novels and figure out what I liked, all while earning college credit. It was successful in both regards. (It wasn’t the only reason he decided he liked me, but it helped.) And I went on to read more of the books by the authors I liked, while skipping the ones that hadn’t interested me.
One problem, though – all the authors were men. All the protagonists were men. Some of them wrote decent female characters; others not so much. But never a female protagonist. They were following in Tolkien’s footsteps in more ways than one. And while I love Lord of the Rings and realize that Tolkien was very much a man of his time and don’t condemn him too harshly for it, I don’t see why authors can’t branch out more broadly from his original model of Men Do Almost Everything That Matters.
A excellent answer to that concern is Paksenarrion. Again I have my husband to thank for introducing me to this book. By this point we were married, and we had done plenty of mutual recommending of our favorite books, movies and music. He thought I might like The Deed of Paksenarrion, and I finally decided to crack open the rather intimidating volume when our son was born – nothing like nursing a baby all day long to make you search for ample reading material. I confess at first I wasn’t too deeply engaged in it. The first book, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, contains a lot of descriptions of the non-fantastic, regular details of a medieval-esque mercenary company; marching, doing chores in the barracks, training and marching some more. Even when they actually started the fighting, it was still a bit of a slog for me, except for the few tantalizing bits that hinted of some greater destiny for Paksenarrion other than serving as an ordinary mercenary. It was also great to see a fully-formed female protagonist, with lots of other compelling female side-characters. It kept me reading enough to get to the next book.
And I was rarely bored during Divided Allegiance.This is where the flavor shifts from details of military life to something more like Dungeons and Dragons, complete with quests into underground lairs where each door opens to reveal another threat guarding a treasure. As I understand, fantasy role-playing was actually part of Elizabeth Moon’s inspiration. But not in a lazy or sloppy way, as if she just kind of transcribed a D&D experience into a novel. She breathes new life into it, with plenty of backstory for each quest, strong characterizations both of Paks and other lesser players, and world-building that is much more than a clone of Middle Earth. And all through each adventure those hints of Paks’s greater destiny become stronger and stronger. Eventually even Paks herself, stubborn as she is, can’t ignore those hints anymore, and she goes to seek training in one of the holy orders.
But it’s not as simple as that. I’ve heard that Elizabeth Moon was dissatisfied with the typical portrayal of paladins in role-playing, and she set out to tell the story of a paladin in its entirety. One thing this means for Paks’s tale is a heartfelt exploration of religion. It’s set in a fantastic world with myriad gods and saints, but it’s still an excellent metaphor for the real world, more than any other fantasy worldbuilding I’ve encountered. For one, there is the story of Paks’s conversion. She resists joining the Order of Gird in spite of being drawn toward it ever since she first joined those mercenaries. They are fighters who are sworn to protect the helpless, and she approves of that creed. But something is holding her back. After a long conversation with the Training Master, she realizes she resents Gird for not saving his followers. She’s had friends who were devoted to Gird and died painful deaths – why couldn’t he save them? The Training Master’s answer is heartrending:
Paksenarrion, you might as well ask why it snows in winter. I did not make the world, or men, or elves, or the sounds the harp makes when you pluck the strings. All I know is that the High Lord expects all his creatures to choose good over evil; he has given us heroes to show the way, and Gird is one of those…as followers of Gird, we try to act as he did. Sometimes we receive additional aid. Why it comes one time and not another…I cannot say. Nor can you. Nor will you ever know, Paksenarrion, until you pass beyond death to the High Lord’s table, if that happens…And I think that you blame Gird because you are still blaming yourself for these deaths. Is that not so?
One of the great mysteries of life: why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God protect His followers from pain? And there’s no easy, pat answer to that mystery, but rather a call to action.
And so you are rejecting Gird because he has not acted as you would…You are not rejecting his principles, it seems, but the fact that they aren’t carried out?…Then it seems, Paksenarrion, that you ought to be willing to try to carry them out…If the rest of us are doing so badly.
People can disappoint us. They can be downright evil. We can’t always prevent that, or understand why God doesn’t just fix it for us. But we can choose to do some good in the world, to be part of a solution to the problem.
So Paks begins her training. Then something unbelievably awful happens, something with devastating consequences. And the book ends with her wandering through the bitter cold of winter, alone, afraid and despairing. Let me tell you, I immediately turned to Oath of Gold, the third book, in a frenzy of horror and concern (and let’s face it, annoyance with the author for such a cruel cliffhanger). The story went into places I never would have expected. Where and how Paks finds healing is unconventional and beautiful. There is an exploration of the true nature of courage and of compassion. And there is this perfect, lovely quote:
I used to wonder how the paladins of Gird could be considered protectors of the helpless when they had never been helpless. Rather like asking the hawk to feel empathy for the grouse, or the wolf for the sheep. Even if a tamed wolf makes a good sheepdog, he will never understand how the sheep feel. You, Paksenarrion, you are most fortunate. For having been, as you thought, a coward, and helpless to fight – you know what that is like. You know what bitterness that feeling breeds – you know in your own heart what kind of evil it brings. And so you are most fit to fight it where it occurs.
At the crux of it, Paks becomes a better paladin because of her suffering. That isn’t to say that the story glorifies or romanticizes suffering; it’s quite painful to read the sections when she is at her lowest points, and those who torment her are rightly condemned as evil. But it’s important that while she is weak and fearful, she is judged and derided. Because then she knows, she knows so very well in the very core of her being, no matter how powerful she ultimately becomes, she knows what it means to feel miserably humiliated for being weak. So she will never take part in that humiliation. She will understand the pain of those who suffer far better than one who has never suffered much.
I can’t express even a fraction of what this book came to mean for me. After my first read, I appreciated it as a beautiful, well-plotted story. I saw more of the value of the details of military life in the first book, how it lent a taste of realism to the world, fantastic as it was. (The author has a lot of practical knowledge, both military and otherwise, that informs her worldbuilding. They actually dig trenches in this world, and reference the need to relieve oneself! And clothing must be cleaned or mended; mercenaries need carts of supplies for themselves and their animals! Horses aren’t like motorcycles that whinny; they need to be fed and rested and cared for!) I recognized more of the hints and foreshadowings I had missed the first time around. I saw how the little things at the beginning, the discipline and the adherence to duty and the cheerful friendliness and a strong moral sense, were traits developing within Paks in preparation for something more.
I found it highly re-readable. And each time I saw more of value. I’ve said before that one of the strengths of speculative fiction is how flexible it is, how it can be seen as a metaphor for almost anything you want. Well, this might not make sense to anyone else, but Paks’s journey carried a powerfully familiar resonance for me as we discovered our son was autistic. As she realizes her dream has been stolen from her:
I always dreamed of being a warrior…Silly, childish dreams at first, of being the hero in old songs, with silver sword…My dreams grew…I dreamed of fighting as Gird fought – for right, for the protection of the helpless…And then you honored me, sheepfarmer’s daughter, poor commoner and ex-mercenary, beyond all dreams I’d dared. You, my lady, offered me the chance to become a paladin. A paladin! Do you – can you – have any idea what a paladin means to a child on a sheep farm at the far edge of the kingdom? It is a tale of wonder, all stars and dreams. A – a fantasy too good to be true…And you said ‘Come, be one of them. That is your destiny’…Now you say…I have opened a passage for great evil. But to chance all I can do, to chance losing all I’ve learned, all I am…and to think how long I must live if it goes badly…Could such a one as I be a – a potter, or a weaver? Oh, better to kill me, my lady, and quickly.
I had dreams of what motherhood would be like. And in my selfish moments, I felt that dream had been stolen from me. It has been a long, painful process for me to recognize that the path of my life was going in a different direction than the one I had planned. To spend all my energy mourning what could have been was keeping me from doing the good I should have been doing. I’m far from reaching a conclusion; it’s a process I’m still very much in the middle of. But I find inspiration in Paks’s story. She realizes it’s not really about her. It’s about the people she can help and serve. And maybe going through hard things helps to serve them better. It’s not about me and my assumptions of what motherhood would be like; it’s about my son and his happiness and well-being, and maybe there are other people I can understand better because I’ve been through something like what they’re going through.
Time and time again, when I’m feeling low, I have picked up the book and turned to section where Paks finds healing. It never fails to comfort me. Does this all seem absurd? This story of a paladin fighting orcs and finding magic swords; this tale of fantasy, is the one that I relate to more than any other. I doubt I’ve conveyed more than a part of what it means for me. I recognize the irony that Elizabeth Moon (whose son is also autistic, as it happens) wrote another novel that’s actually about autism, The Speed of Dark. Yet much as I appreciated that book, The Deed of Paksenarrion is one that that helped me on the deepest level when I was first dealing with my son’s diagnosis. I’ve worn through two separate copies of the omnibus. I’ve read the companion novels set in Paks’s world. And I always find what I’m looking for: hope, compassion and comfort.
This is why I read fantasy. This is why I write fantasy.