Completed 9/2/2023, Reviewed 9/3/2023
I don’t usually like military novels. This one is about a young woman who joins a mercenary army, complete with basic training and detailed massive battles. However, I was pretty engrossed in this book. I was taken in by Moon’s skill at describing combat so well with enough details to explain what the character was engaged in while keeping me focused. Only occasionally did my mind wander during these scenes. This was partly due to Moon’s amazing prose. I almost never got tired of reading it. This is the first book in a series as well as Moon’s first novel. This book was nominated for a 1989 Locus First Novel award.
Paksenarrion, who goes by Paks, is an eighteen-year-old girl who runs away from home and a betrothal to a pig farmer to join a mercenary army. She’s very tall and quite strong. She loved hearing stories of battles from her older brother and always dreamed of being a soldier. Now she’s committed to two years of service after basic training. Despite an attempted rape by a despicable colleague, she successfully completes training and begins life as a soldier. For a medieval-like army, it’s rather modern with its military style and acceptance of women in the ranks. And Paks excels in her new field. The story continues campaign by campaign with Paks becoming a star soldier and discovering her possible magical nature.
What really jumps out at you in this book is Moon’s detailed yet engrossing battle scenes. Moon herself was in the US Marine Corps and her goal with this novel was to write accurate battle scenes and military life. She succeeds stupendously. At the same time, Paks grows as a soldier and as a person. She develops a sense of morality which is reflected in the type of army its financier, a Duke, wants to maintain.
What really helps in this are the prose and the world-building. I couldn’t believe how well-described everything was, from the fighting to the people to the landscape. Yet it was never boring or overly flowery. Moon kept it concise without sparing interesting details. And the world building was phenomenal. The detail in the cities and villages and even in the specifics of the road they marched through was amazing. It read like Moon had maps of all the land as well as detailed maps of each town they encountered. But it was rarely boring.
Paks and the cast of major characters are very well developed. Except for occasionally getting confused with the plethora of side characters, I felt I grew with Paks and her fellow recruits. Paks maintains a sense of innocence through her experiences but grows nonetheless. There’s a particular sequence where Paks and two others not near the fort where they are held mildly captive when the army of an evil lord captures their armies, torturing and decimating them. The sequence features the deepening of their friendship as they try to return to the Duke to warn him of what happened. I was astounded at how much I empathized with the three and was devastated by the tragedy at the end.
I give this book four stars out of five. My only complaint was that it was a little slow during the long marches during the campaigns. While things are revealed and clarified during these scenes, it did occasionally get dry. Aside from that, this book was terrific. And it astounds me that this was her first novel. I’m planning on continuing this trilogy, and possibly reading the extended series. For now, I’m sticking with the trilogy, as I already have a huge TBR pile. Elizabeth Moon needs to be considered for a Grand Master honor. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read of hers. She’s prolific and puts out great things. She’s become one of my favorite authors. I highly recommend checking her out if you haven’t already.