Review: The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up because my wife recommended it. She said, “It saved fantasy for me.” That was high praise, but I can see now that it was worth it. I am also tempted to say that it saved fantasy for me, but I’m not sure I’ll find much else like it.

I do enjoy Urban Fantasy, but I confess I’ve never really enjoyed much traditional fantasy, i.e. epic sword and sorcercy, though I could never quite put my finger on it. The best I could say was that, “I just couldn’t get into it.” I figured that the genre simply was not for me, and I stuck to my science fiction.

After reading this book, I think I figured out my problem with most fantasy. It’s the long expository openings setting the scene and showing off all the world-building the author has done. I can’t really blame most of these authors, because this seems to be The Way It Is Done, in a mold set first perhaps by Tolkien himself.

Well, with all deference the old master, this usually bores me to death. It’s the kingdom of Blahdyblay, ruled by the Lords of Nuchinsuch since the ancient days of Dear-God-my-eyes-are-bleeding! We’re usually seven or eight pages in before anything actually happens, except in rare cases, where we start with some brief excitement, only to be followed by page after page of exposition. Look, I’ll give you the One True Ring if you’ll just shut up about the damned jibbenweed smoke for five minutes!

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter does not suffer from this problem. Admittedly, it starts with a now unfashionable prologue, but even then, it introduces a mystery. Then, chapter one starts with our protagonist, Paks, doing stuff. She’s in a struggle and is making a change in her life. She’s already five steps into the mythical Hero’s Journey, and she’s just getting started.

Yes, the book shows signs of quite a bit of world-building. There are old alliances, gods and saints, raging ogres, fallen kingdoms, and so forth, but it doesn’t come in a front-loaded infodump. Instead, it is revealed to us through the eyes of an wide-eyed foot soldier, one muddy step at a time. The narrator doesn’t tell us about the southern farm lands, the impenetrable fortress, or the honorable allies. Instead, Paks marches through them, butts up against them, and fights alongside them. We don’t so much see the world as we feel it.

Beyond that, the story is good, and it is both gritty and noble. People die, Paks gets hurt. Wounds heal slowly, and scars accumulate. But honor is upheld, and despite all the setbacks and painful losses along the way, the good guys win in the end. Since it’s also the first book in a trilogy, I should also say that powerful forces are at work in the world, and we see them moving slowly and at oblique angles. I don’t yet know where they’re going, but I can see that they’re going to pull Paks deeper into the crucible and explain the mystery that was laid out in that prologue.

So, it was very good – beyond five stars. It’s the first of a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to diving into them, even though they’re each about 500 pages long. And what’s more, Elizabeth Moon has returned to this world after several years, so even after I finish this trilogy, there will be more waiting for me. I’m tempted to dive in headfirst, but I think I’ll stretch it out a bit and savor this one for the next year or two.