Elizabeth Moon - The Deed of Paksenarrion
This is one of my very favorite collection of books (there are 3 - Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegience, and Oath of Gold). It is due to these books that I met and married my wife. I recognized a name she was using in an online game, if you must know.
According to internet rumor, Moon's intention in writing the books was to show how a paladin should behave. She had been observing a group of role players (probably Dungeons and Dragons) and felt that they were playing the role of paladin incorrectly. These books were her response. They tell the story of a farm girl who joins a mercenary unit, and eventually becomes a paladin. The middle book in particular seems to draw very heavily from role playing games - the first half feels very much like a role playing campaign, especially the bit where Paksenarrion (the fighter), along with a rogue, a cleric, and a couple of other fighters clear out an underground fortification with traps and orcs and an evil mage. Makes me want to break out my d20.
In these books, Moon excels at world building. There is considerable detail about the sort of terrain her soldiers are marching over, and what sort of clothing people wear in different places, and the architecture and agriculture of various locales. She carefully describes the relationship between various nations, fantasy races, and religious groups. She's thought out what sorts of weapons different military units might use, and how those would interact with each other, it's all quite brilliant. Her characterization, however, is less strong in these, her first three books. Paksenarrion, of course, is well rendered, and Duke Phelan, certainly towards the end, is quite well presented as well. Most of the rest of the characters are relatively thin - some are stronger than others, but few are well rounded. Even moderately significant characters do not get last names, for instance. Moon kills off secondary characters in order to display a reaction from her primary characters - she is not callous about this, mostly, but there is a strong sense of "Paks is the one you readers should care about, the rest of these people are window dressing to make Paks look good." There is a scene, or a string of scenes, which still bother me - Paks ends up joining a holy order, and it always feels a little forced - Moon wants Paks in a particular place at a particular time, and pushes until the characters match the narrative.
Since publishing these books, Moon has gone on to become a fantastic author. These books are amazing, despite the minor flaws; later books are simply better.
Things I like: nostalgia, fantastic and consistent world building, strong story telling. Things I like less: weak secondary and (especially) tertiary characters, that one scene in Fin Panir.
Michael Thomas Ford - Jane Bites Back
This was a hoot. Ford's premise - Jane Austen did not die, she became a vampire. Now, she sells books in Upstate New York, while trying to find a publisher for the last novel she wrote when she was alive, which is rapidly becoming the most rejected novel in the history of writing. Ford writes a delightful send-up of the cynicism of modern publishing; the publicity campaigns, the shallow focus on best seller lists, the current practice of mining classic literature for quick profit (the Jane Austen Cookbook! the Jane Austen Workout Plan! the Jane Austen Guide to Dating!), the crap which bookstores stock which are only very tangentially related to books (bookmarks, ok. finger puppets of famous authors, less ok.). It was a fun novel, a romp, and a very quick read. I enjoyed it a lot.
Elizabeth Moon's Oath of Fealty
This is why I was re-reading the other Moon novels. Oath of Fealty starts amidst the end of Oath of Gold, and goes ALL over the place from there. Moon says she's been thinking about this novel, or series of novels, since she finished The Deed of Paksenarrion, and that's probably true. Her other pair of novels within this setting, The Legacy of Gird (which I reviewed a week or so ago), fills in some important background material for this novel. Moon suggests that this novel can serve as an alternative entry point into the world - I'm not sure that this is true, but if you haven't read the earlier work, perhaps it is. If you have read the earlier work, you'll probably want to go back and re-read before starting this one.
This book is fantastic. Beyond fantastic. Moon is a much more mature author here, and it shows in a lot of ways. She has a fully realized world, and has some partially realized secondary and tertiary characters from her earlier books - she takes those characters and starts rounding them out in all manner of delightful ways. First, they get full names - not a minor issue, really. We see Duke Phelan (spoiler for The Deed here: Phelan is revealed to be the long lost king of Lyonya. Becoming the new king unexpectedly is difficult, especially when the kingdom is evenly divided between humans and elves, who do not see eye to eye on many things, and have entirely different views on how kingdoms ought to be run. It is this new situation which Phelan must address, and in doing so, his character grows in interesting ways.) deal with a new situation. We see Jandolir Arcolin leading a mercenary company, and exploring the differences in which he does things, and the different social terrain he has to handle. We also see Dorrin Verrakai dealing with the residual unpleasantness of her family as she starts to grow in some interesting an unexpected ways. Finally, in a much smaller sense, we see a new Prince learning the ropes, and an old sergeant feeling his way into a new life. These characters get to experience lives only loosely connected to Paks (who shows up, periodically, but is in no way the primary focus of the novel). Moon continues to explore her world, filling in gaps, telling stories about how things work in different places and at different social levels. She also continues her exploration of the struggle between good and evil (and does so without making either good or evil boring, which is a neat trick). She also pulls off a brilliant bit of writing in that she looks at three different protagonists in three different locales, and does so without a) switching back and forth with each chapter or b) making the reader wish that they were reading about one of the other protagonists. There is only one point where the transition between protagonists is rough - she transitions mid chapter, and it's a bit jarring - but otherwise, Moon pulls off a very difficult literary maneuver, and does it with style. I enjoyed this book intensely, it was well worth the wait. My only regret is that now I have to wait for the next one.