Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elizabeth Moon - Sheepfarmer's Daughter

I started Sheepfarmer’s Daughter in the hope of getting an easy, enjoyable read. When I turned to the first page, I knew no more than what I’d gleaned from the cover. The book’s opening lived up to my expectations. The writing was simple, but conveyed the author’s point, and Paks’s escape from her father and entrance into the mercenary company was entertaining. Once in the company, Paks’s training felt realistic.

And, were I to list every positive about the novel, I don’t think I’d be able to think of another one.

To say that characterization in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is one dimensional is to be far too kind. As the book opens, Paks has one goal in life: "'I don’t want to marry at all. I want to be a warrior like my cousin Jornoth.'" (p. 6) On the last page of the novel, Paks has one goal: "From a sheepfarmer’s daughter in Three Firs to a respected veteran in the Duke’s company, with friends who would die for her, or she would for them – that was enough….It was all she wanted, and all she ever would." (p. 506) And that’s Paks: she wants to be a soldier. It’s a goal that she accomplishes in the first ten pages, and her resolve never wavers. She is never faced with a difficult choice. In fact, her single minded determination is so extreme that we don’t even see her consider another choice. In the end, her one goal, the entirety of her character…never matters. She never has to overcome some part of herself, never to rise above a flaw, because she’s too shallow to even have a flaw. Like a mindless automaton, she just practices until she’s good at everything.

Compared to the secondary characters, Paks is a paragon of depth. Out of a desire to introduce us to every person who’s ever held a sword and called themselves a mercenary, this book has an enormous cast, but only three or four personalities to go around. You’ve got your tough but fair leaders: Stammel, Arcolin, the Duke, the Halverics, anyone above corporal. You’ve got your competent and friendly soldier: Saben, Canna, practically everyone in the book, etc. Next there’s the one category that could even conceivably inject something interesting to the plot: the arrogant misfit. This position is first filled by Korryn, a cocky recruit who acts better than the other recruits until he’s beaten up by the weapons trainer. A few hundred pages later Halek comes to fill the gap. He’s not quite as obnoxious as Korryn is, but from his first scoff at all the women soldiers, any reader will already be able to write for themselves the scenes where, a few pages later, Paks beats him up. The final category’s for the sadistic enemies, but we’ll be getting more into that later.

None of these characters interact with each other in any believable way. We are told that Paks has friends, but beyond the fact that we’re shown them laughing a lot more when around each other, the two don’t treat each other any differently than they do anyone else. When it comes to relationships, however, the book becomes truly awkward. No one falls in love, or even displays any romantic emotion. People simply “bed” (p. 34) one another, and I guess we are supposed to fill in the emotions for ourselves at that point. The best example of Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’s juvenile approach to sex is where the only made up word appears in the novel: "'Are you a sisli?...A woman who beds women. Are you?'" (p. 38)

Ironically, for a book filled with endless conflict, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter has no conflict. Or, to put it another way, no plot. After the soldiers are trained, they go off on campaign, on which they fight random enemies for causes that the reader doesn’t care about. Then they go off and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Like how the characterization ducks out after a dozen pages, the plot simply meanders, with quite literally no goal in sight, for hundreds of pages. I am not sure if I am supposed to be sympathetic towards Random City X’s trade routes or not, but it was certainly not enough to make me eager to hear about whether the Duke’s Company beat some random other company that never comes up again.

About halfway through the book, a clear antagonist finally arises, the sadistic Honeycat, who has thousands of soldiers and tortures his prisoners for laughs. The book does, to some degree, improve here, as the protagonists are at least marching towards some kind of objective, but there’s still no real sense of urgency or purpose. The book still takes the form of an endless series of unconnected skirmishes, the only difference being the similarity of the enemy’s colors.

Interestingly enough for a book where the only real events are battles, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter really doesn’t go into any detail at all about the actual fighting. Your average skirmish will be built up for pages on end, and then, when it arrives, you get a paragraph or two that’s basically a bland resuscitation of the events, no spark or drive at all:

Facing them were two lines of Rotengre guards in blue, and more ran from the direction of the gate tower. The Phelani advanced; the Rotengre lines retreated, even before making contact. When they pursued and engaged, the enemy still retreated, though their swordwork was excellent.

“Keep pressing ‘em!” yelled Vossik. “They’ll break. Keep at ‘em.” Even as he spoke, those on the inside of the wall tried to slip down a stair to the city below. Bowstrings twanged behind Paks; at least two fell from the stairs. Vossik told to a party to hold the stairs against an assault.

Now they were close to the gate tower; the rear ranks of defenders turned and raced for the tower doors as a heavy fire of arrows struck the Duke’s men from an upper level. Several fell. Paks and the others threw up their shields and charged, trying to make the tower door before it was slammed against them. The remaining defenders went down under the charge; Paks raced through a gap to hit the closing door with all her strength. Instantly several of her companions were there to help, and together they forced the door open, battling past the defenders. More of the duke’s men poured in the opening.
(p. 312-313)

That’s it, the much hyped battle, the culmination of several chapters’ siegework and anticipation. It’s a summary of what happened, more akin to reading a history of the events than living through them. Our avatar only did three specific things the whole time: have some arrows go over her head, raise a shield, and run through a gap. That’s it, the soul of the book, right there, so I hope you were unable to look away.

The discussion of combat brings us to the one thing that’s interesting in the book – or, more accurately, the one thing that’s interesting due to its absence. We’ve got an incredibly detailed and accurate portrayal of the minutia of military life, but absolutely nowhere in the narrative do we get a realistic feel of war itself. The majority of the character’s in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter view conflict as something akin to a game, and battles possess less horror than having to dig the latrine pit.

Yeah, the mercenaries can be hired by anyone, and yeah they fight for money, but they are, somehow, a completely honorable company. They treat prisoners well, avoid harming the populace, and are comprised one hundred percent of kind souls who would never stab someone in the face unless provoked. In fact, the mercenaries are so just that they can look down upon statements like: "'You think you’re so special, captain – just because you mercenaries fight for money instead of honor…'" (p. 432) Of course, barring the imbecilic first part, that’s completely true, but hey, we’re the Good Guys, man! Because!

Or, at least, this all holds true save for the one bizarre exception, where everyone decides to loot the city of Rotengre. Without warning, I found myself reading a totally different book. Characters are smashing desks to find the jewels hidden inside (why are jewels in a desk?), are ransacking dwellings, are running off with as much as they can carry, etc.

The really interesting part comes about during the house to house search. Paks comes across a servant holding a crying baby. She takes the baby from the woman and tries to lead them away, but is attacked by the family. Who she and her allies massacre. They cut down the father, the sons, the daughters, everyone. Afterwards, even the baby is dead, "having caught a stray backstroke." (p. 322) I don’t care that the father fired a crossbow at them, they were looting his house. I don’t care that he tried to kill them with poisoned blades (though I do wonder where he got them), as Paks was holding his infant in one hand and a sword in the other. I don’t care that he has a "dangerous" (p. 323) amulet from some god I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t care about if I did. The simple fact of the matter is that the main characters just killed a baby.

I’m not condemning them for the act. It’s a terrible thing, but these things happen in war, and from the time that the father fired at them, there was no other way that it could have ended. What I most certainly am condemning them for is the fact that none of them care. They never bring it up again, never agonize over what they had to do. It’s just forgotten. So the characters kill innocents, and children, and feel no remorse. If I wasn’t so apathetic about this book, I’d be hoping for their painful deaths right about now.

Then we get to the true hilarity. On the march to go fight the Honeycat, one of the Duke’s allies is caught looting, and the Duke’s soldiers have the rank hypocrisy to almost kill them for it:

"Concentrate on [killing the Honeycat], and not on making trouble. Plunder Siniava’s camp, not some poor peasents who hardly have a spare tunic." (p. 433)

Excuse me for a second, but didn’t you just sack a city a few pages back? Killing the innocent and taking their belongings? Yes? So please get the fuck off your high horse. Though, then again, this is a book where the final moral victory is achieved by deciding to not castrate the villain, so I guess is should stop expecting anything more complex than a Disney movie’s concept of morality.

Despite the last third of this review, I did not find Sheepfarmer’s Daughter to be offensive – merely offensively bland. There is nothing in this book that you haven’t seen before, and none of what you have seen is done well. There’s no reason to read this.


  1. Jesus, that sounds like a godawful read. Hats off for managing to get through it.

    How did Moon actually get that published? It sounds like bad fanfiction.

  2. I'll admit that, by the halfway point, I was only continuing out of sheer stubbornness.

  3. Thank you so much for this review. I have very little time for reading and this is exactly the kind of review I like so as to avoid accidentally reading something so bland and trivial as this.

  4. I had the fortune to have this book and nothing else for a Friday evening away from home/civilization.

    Therefore, I have to say that you forgot to mention enchanting descriptions of scenery and flowing, emotive dialogue.

    Oh wait... you didn't.