Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Oath of Fealty" by Elizabeth Moon

Oath of Fealty is the new sequel to Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion fantasy trilogy (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold) first published more than two decades ago. (Yes, confusingly it's also the title of a 1981 science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but I'm talking about the 2010 fantasy novel here.)

Beginning immediately where Oath of Gold left off, this is epic fantasy, with events spread across several lands already familiar from the previous trilogy. If you've read The Deed of Paksenarrion, you'll know exactly what to expect (and you do need to read that story first). It's fun and exciting, and I could hardly put the book down. But when I finished, I had a couple of problems with it.

First, let me talk about what I loved here. Rather than continuing with a typical sequel, Moon very wisely chose to focus on other characters in this book. After all, after the first three books, is there anything we don't already know about Paksenarrion? We followed her from her start as a runaway and an apprentice mercenary through all manner of danger and disaster, and eventually to her becoming a paladin of the gods. What could Moon add to her story at this point? Well, Paks is still around, but she's a minor character in this book.

And have you ever wondered, at the end of a fantasy novel where good has triumphed, what life is like afterward? Sure, you might see the hero riding off into the sunset, but what about everyone else whose life has been affected, sometimes drastically, by the events of the book? Oath of Fealty focuses on several people who must now accept new challenges: Kieri Phelan, who has become king of a land he doesn't know; Jandelir Arcolin, senior captain of mercenaries, who must unexpectedly take command of the mercenary company; and Dorrin, another senior captain, who returns to her despised family holdings in Tsaia as Duke Verrakai.

As in the previous books, there are all sorts of minor characters, too - and some not so minor - who have their own stories. They seem like real people, and their actions have consequences, with events rippling through society. No one acts in a vacuum, and no one person can do everything. Every character depends on others, and every action affects other people, too. It's really great. In this book, we see the effect of events in the previous trilogy, the effect on whole societies and the personal effect on individuals.

One minor problem at the end of the book is that it just... stops. It doesn't end in the middle of a sentence, but it's almost that bad. This is apparently the beginning of a series (a trilogy?) and the books will definitely not stand alone. As I say, there are a number of different threads in this book, widely scattered across many lands, and none of them come to any kind of conclusion, not even a temporary one. There aren't any cliff-hangers, either. Apparently, the book just ends because of length (471 pages in this hardcover edition).

That might not be a problem, especially if you expect it (I didn't). But I had a more serious problem with one of the story threads, where the person becomes so magically powerful that she's virtually another Paks. I'm not crazy about all-powerful superheroes, especially when they're born with an advantage that other people just don't have (and can't compete against). OK, this is a world of magic, but still.

One of the great things about The Deed of Paksenarrion was that it featured mercenary soldiers who relied on their training, experience, and hard work to succeed. The gods would help out occasionally, and mages were useful and/or dangerous, but in general, it was their own effort that mattered. Even a lowly sheepfarmer's daughter could join the troop and become a highly-skilled fighter. By the end of the story, Paks had become more than that, but it was, after all, the end of the story. And as I noted, Elizabeth Moon wisely chose to keep Paks as a minor character in this book.

Unfortunately, she then created another character at least as wildly overpowered as Paks (and probably even more so). It's not a bad storyline, but it's not to my taste. And it's too similar to what we've seen in the previous books. I would have much preferred a different direction to this story thread. I thoroughly enjoyed the other threads in the book, and even this one was entertaining, but I really don't like the direction it took. (My disappointment is probably greater because I liked this story thread so much at the beginning of the book. And the fact that her enemies are also supermen doesn't help much.)

So, while I was wildly enthusiastic about the book when I was reading it, at least most of the way, I wasn't quite so enthusiastic when I finished. It's still a very good read, though, and I do plan to buy the next book in the series, whenever it's released. If you liked The Deed of Paksenarrion, I'm sure you'll like this book. I definitely wouldn't start with this one, though. You do need to read the previous trilogy first.

PS. In a way, Oath of Fealty is oddly typical. I enjoy Elizabeth Moon's writing, but there's usually something that bothers me in most of her books. I loved The Deed of Paksenarrion, but I could have done without the torture scene in the third book. I loved The Speed of Dark, but I wasn't as fond of the ending. And Trading in Danger just didn't ring true for me, for some reason. But I love her characters. I always care what happens to them, and that's very important for me in any novel.

Note: My review of the sequel, Kings of the North, is here.

1 comment:

Rena said...

I really loved Oath of Fealty, and the themes you mentioned.

(And I agree about the other non-Paks books. I just don't like her science fiction very much in general.)