Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Divided Allegiance, by Elizabeth Moon

Divided Allegiance
Elizabeth Moon
Baen: 1988

Following Sheepfarmer's Daughter (my review), Divided Allegiance is the second volume in The Deed of Paksenarrion.  The first volume was very much a military fantasy novel with a heavy dose of realism in the portrayal of characters and the military campaigns, despite the occasional supernatural elements.  Divided Allegiance picks up shortly after the ending of that first book, which places it some three years or so from the beginning of the series. Paks is still a private in Duke Phelan's army, but she is a much more experienced soldier with combat experience and the emotional scars the prove it. 

It is worth remembering the beginning of Sheepfarmer's Daughter with the section set years in the future letting the readers know that Paks will become a legendary figure, and that the legend is all the family has left of her.  It is a reminder that what Paks had accomplished in Sheepfarmer's Daughter was only putting her feet on a much longer road.  Divided Allegiance contains the next steps of that road as she leaves Duke Phelan's company to train with the marshals and paladins of Gird, a militant religious order dedicated to serving "good" and combating "evil".

There is some lip service paid to this ideal of "good" and it certainly tints the overall impression of the novel, but I think that Moon is doing more than tweaking the epic fantasies of the 1980's (the three volumes of The Deed of Paksenarrion were published in the late 80's).  She seems to be playing in this world where characters talk in a formal heroic manner of upholding virtue, and purport to act in that manner as well, but the reality is that things are much nastier on the ground and the lines of "good" and "evil" are muddied - and that following the path of "good" can still lead into bad situations from which there is no clean escape.  But it is those characters in positions of authority, moral or otherwise, who talk about serving "good".

It raises questions of the moral purity of organizations purporting to have just that, which in fantasy written in later years would be the most corrupt organizations of all, but here shades the white into a bit more gray.

But despite Moon's tweaking of some fantasy conventions, Divided Allegiance has several aspects and instances of being a very traditional quest fantasy novel.  The outcomes of those quests are very different that we might expect from when this was written, but the trappings have this as a much more formal and traditional novel.  It is those trappings that date the novel and cause it to feel like a much older novel than it actually is.

The initial quest portion of the novel after Paks leaves Duke Phelan's army is one of the weaker aspects of the book, which was disappointing given how strong Sheepfarmer's Daughter was as a whole. When Paks travels with the part-elf Macenion, they do some exploring and it feels like a poor novelization of a different role playing campaign.  This section is at odds with the previous novel and even with the rest of the novel, because when Paks later arrives at Brewersbridge the storytelling begins to settle down and sell itself to the reader. I wonder if part of this has to do with my own interests in this book (and others), where the closer Paks is to any sort of organized military the more I appreciate the novel, or if there is a more distinct difference in the novel.  But, from Brewersbridge on through the training with the marshals and paladins of Gird, Divided Allegiance picks up steam and doesn't let go.

I suspect that one should read Divided Allegiance with the concluding volume Oath of Gold close at hand, because Elizabeth Moon does not pull any punches with how she ends the novel.  There is a point late in the novel where some very significant things happen to Paks and I spent the remaining pages trying to figure out when Moon would lay off her protagonist and give her even a small break, but still Moon kept digging the dagger in and twisting. It was absolutely brutal, but so well done.  Moon makes you care, and then kicks you in the face. And even though Divided Allegiance was published some twenty six years ago, it's something better saved to experience rather than being told right off how it all happens.

But, that's why I think having Oath of Gold on hand might be a good thing. Moon ends the novel with some serious darkness (Empire Strikes Back has nothing on Moon) and causes you to wonder how it is possible Paks can get from where she is at the end of Divided Allegiance to anything that would cause her to be considered a "legend".  I should probably take my own advice and pick up Oath of Gold far sooner than I had originally planned, because I feel upset Fred Savage in The Princess Bride because the story isn't going the way he expected / hoped / wanted it to and I want Moon to tell the story right. Except that she is, and it's painful and brutal, and it leaves me hope that Paks will somehow be able to recover and become the legend I expect that she will.  It's just that bit doesn't happen in Divided Allegiance, and the book gets very dark in a hurry nearing the end. 

The best praise that I can give Divided Allegiance, though, is that I stayed up extra late finishing the last hundred pages because I just couldn't stop before I found out how it ended and if Paks was going to be okay. 

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