by Elizabeth Moon
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although a fantasy, Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Elizabeth Moon's first novel, draws more from militaristic space opera and Moon's own experience in the marines than in does from J.R.R. Tolkien or other traditional sources for fantasy. In fact, Sheepfarmer's daughter seems to owe more of its ancestry to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers or Joe Haldeman's The Forever War than it does to mythology or medieval history.
Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first novel in the "Deeds of Paksenarrion" trilogy. However, this novel is something of a trilogy in and of itself, neatly dividing into three sections (although Moon herself did not divide the novel into books). The first section deals with Paksanarrion's (Paks) period in basic training after she leaves her father to avoid an unwanted marriage to Fersin Amboisson. The second section deals with Paks's flight from a beseiged castle to bring warning to her commander. The final section shows Paks's vengeance against an enemy.
The characters in Sheepfarmer's Daughter are well drawn for the most part, however they suffer from a little simplicity. The good characters are shown as good while the evil characters are shown as evil. This lack of grey area is reasonably normal in epic fantasy but Moon draws the reader's attention to it with a brief discussion of a character who Paks likes, but her friends point out she isn't as pure as Paks is.
Moon does a good job showing the strength of her female lead. Paksenarrion is not a superwoman, nor is she helpless. She shows the same strengths and weeknesses as her male counterparts. Yet she is not a genderless mercenary. Paks must deal with issues which result from her sex and she does so with dignity and ability.
The various aspects of military life are believably drawn, in no small part due to Moon's own military experience. Although many of the characters view battle as honorable, it is clear that Moon sees it as a necessary evil and she is not afraid to show the horrors of combat as well as the glory. Characters die, not just swift deaths on the field of battle, but lingering deaths after the fighting is over. Furthermore, these are not characters simply introduced for their deaths. These are characters who befriend Paks, move the plot along, and become a friend of the reader.
Perhaps it is because of the militaristic aspect of the novel, but Moon's world does not seem fully fleshed out. Civilians seems to exist solely to sell objects to the mercenaries, provoke them in bars or bilk them of their loot. With the amount of warfare which seems to rage across Aerenis, it is difficult to see how anyone can live peaceful, day-to-day lives. Moon provides many hints at other adventures in this novel, both for Paks and her comrades as well as the potential for stories which do not directly influence Paks. Similarly, some incidents in this novel may directly foreshadow events which are chronicled in later books.
There is a large difference between Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Moon's first published work, and her more recent Remnant Population. Although part of this difference is the basic difference between fantasy and science fiction, much of it shows how Moon has developed as an author over the years. Sheepfarmer's Daughter, however, remains a well-written novel, with few overt signs of being a first novel.
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