When Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter hit bookshelves in 1988, it boldly announced the arrival of a new voice in the genre. At the time, much of fantasy on the shelves, and specifically military fantasy, was written by men. What Moon brought to her tale was a deep and authentic military experience; she served in the Marines. The title alone could be seen as a play on expectations as many fantasies which leaned toward the Epic variety published in the 1980s involved farmboys and prophecies. This is definitely not the case with this trilogy. The Deed of Paksenarrion was written as one story over three novels, and many people (myself included) have encountered this series through the big blue omnibus Baen published in 1992.
Elizabeth Moon introduces readers to Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir, Paks for short; a young girl who wants nothing to do with the arranged marriage into which her father is forcing her. Despite her father having procured a dowry for her, Paks runs off to join a mercenary group. Much of the novel relays her experience becoming indoctrinated as a soldier through a measured, and very plausible build. While Paks seems to be all-too-perfect and dutiful, she does go through hardships this is the of three acts of the full story. An effective aspect of the narrative was how Moon glossed over months/weeks at a time then focused on the more important scenes, although there seemed to be a lot marching happening. The way in which Paks’s superiors seem more than aware of her growing importance and connection to Gird (a heroic savior from the past) came across quite well.
The title of second novel Divided Allegiance very much informs the plot of the novel. Paks splits with the Duke’s army over an ideological belief. She attempts to return home and encounters the creatures and races one associates with fantasy. Why these encounters become so effective is because of the groundwork Moon laid in the previous volume in the grit and reality of Paks’s military life, the honesty and straight-forwardness of Paks in particular. I think Paks’s frustration with the Girdsman through the conclusion of the novel is very plausible, even if she wasn’t tainted with evil. In an interview in 2011, Mrs. Moon indicated frustration with the portrayal of Paladins in the classic role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and went about writing how true paladins would actually act. Now I don’t know how much RPG experience Mrs. Moon has aside from what is mentioned in that linked article, but either way, one of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at these books is that they read like a series of Dungeons & Dragons campaign novels. Granted the stock fantasy races are present and a lot of the holy magic is, at best, similar, but the writing is clear, the characters are empathetic, and the story even in its resonance with familiar genre elements has an air of freshness to it that really, really worked for me. The book ends on a bit of an unsettling cliffhanger which proves out that these three books are one continuing story.
A caveat – I read the trilogy/omnibus after reading the first two installments of the Paladin’s Legacy novels (Oath of Fealty and Kings of the North, a standalone series sequel), so I knew where the final book was headed. Even if I didn’t, it was fairly obvious where Mrs. Moon was taking the story. So what, though? The journey and story was lots of fun. Specifically for Oath of Gold it was nice to see the payoff of who Paks became, after the promise who she might be in the early stages. My only criticism was how rushed the last couple of chapters of the book (and consequently, the whole trilogy) felt to me. It seemed the pacing was a little out of balance in Oath of Gold in that it took quite a bit of posturing, and Paks having to go through the (lack of any better terms) bureaucratic process and confirmations before arriving at the intended goal she sought to attain. Following that, there’s a bit of a minor caper plot that unfolds and wraps up before you could breath. Quibbles aside, the trilogy has a very satisfying ending.
One of the strongest elements of this trilogy was how that Moon chose to tell the story of Paks, not as the Hidden Heir Chosen to Rule, but rather she who finds the Hidden Heir Chosen to Rule. I liked nearly everything about the three books contained in the big grey/blue book published by Baen. What’s more impressive is that these three books are the first three published by Elizabeth Moon. I think she developed the character of Paks very well throughout the novels and the world came across as quite real, especially because of the solid and believable groundwork she laid down in the first novel Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. If you want readers to believe in the fantastic elements (elves, magic, etc.) the real elements must be authentic and true, it seems Elizabeth Moon takes that statement to heart. I’ve also seen the criticism leveled ad Paks that she’s too perfect, but a lot of her gains and successes are through hard-earned work and some suffering, she gives up part of herself in service to her goals and what she hopes to achieve, especially by trilogy’s end so it isn’t as if she just picks up a magical sword and becomes the greatest sword-wielder the world has ever seen.
Even if these three books are bit of a reaction to how Paladins are portrayed in Dungeons and Dragons, and as an experienced player of said game I see that, they are; however more than simply guidebooks for an adventure. For my reading sensibilities, the omnibus / trilogy that is The Deed of Paksenarrionf just simply worked on every level a story should work: believable characters, consistency in the world shown in the story, and strong narrative pull, among others. It stands out not just because it is a Military Fantasy written by a woman about a woman protagonist, but mainly because it is a terrific and engaging story. Moon is continuing the story set in this world in the Paladin’s Legacy series, which both stands apart from these books but also builds off of events in these novels.
In conclusion, The Deed of Paksenarrion is a fantasy story/series I’d point to if somebody was looking for what is now considered Classic High/Military Fantasy and the Hero’s Journey in Fantasy. A friend/member who visits the SFFWorld Forums where I moderate (and have reviewed books for the past decade) coined the term Omnibus Hall of Fame (Hi Pete). The Deed of Paksenarrion is most definitely in my personal Omnibus Hall of Fame.
(Note: I realize there are more books continuing the characters and history of the world first hinted at in this trilogy, but those two series – The Legacy of Gird and The Paladin’s Legacy – stand quite well on their own and events in The Deed of Paksenarrion are self-contained, which is why the trilogy is considered complete.)