Divided Allegiance by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I enjoyed this volume of Paksennarion’s story and despite some misgivings have become invested enough in the character to pursue her tale in Oath of Gold. Moon’s style matured much between January ’88’s The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter and this volume published in October of ’88. I noticed it most in the superior dialogue of Divided Allegiance. While it still had a long way to go before it would sound as good as it will in her later Esmay and Heris novels, it seemed to me a marked improvement over her first novel.
With the perspective of years, I found the abundance of DnD and Tolkien inspired tropes a bit tedious. At the time however, this was the rage and much of the book’s events could easily have been inspired by a table-top pen-and-paper RPG campaign. Acrya has many similarities with Lolith; the evil iynisin are but drow once removed, and her tombs and ruins are filled with ‘dungeon crawl’ fodder: demon possessed elves, traps, minions and magic. I usually go out of my way to avoid stories that rely heavily on Orcs, Elves and Dwarves but by the time they showed up in force, I was too deep into the storytelling to pull out. And even though this is a testament to her good characterization and plot, I do wish she could have woven a fantasy tale without the need for such. It’s what I enjoyed most about the first book.
I found myself reacting emotionally more to Pak’s clashes with other humans than I did concerning her encounters with the demi-humans. Moon’s writing seemed more authentic and considered in such situations. I wonder if this isn’t why I noticed the improvement in her dialogue. Paks in conversation with her human friends was much more convincing than when she was speaking to her demi-human companions. Indeed, I found myself more engaged and concerned about her relationship with “Socks” than I did about her encounter with the evil iynisin.
I think, there is a lesson here for my own writing.
While it is arguable that the presence of such archetypes and tropes is the very stuff of fantasy, they can come off as ineffective and redundant if handled poorly. For example, in many modern fantasies, The Sword of Shannara and Eragon comes to mind, these motifs are presented as if the author is counting on the audience to bring to the reading experience a whole set of preconceived ideas and notions about them, relying on the trope rather than on originality. This is a gamble if not handle in a more creative manner. On one hand those who love such things, those looking for a reading experience similar to, say, Tolkien, will accept it without question. On the other, the author runs the risk of alienating readers like myself who want more wonder, surprise and awe than another attempt at Tolkien. This is not because I believe Tolkien wrote the definitive version of orcs, elves and dwarves but because so many authors try to present them in Tolkienesque fashion.
I need to remember that it isn’t enough to present a wizard or a unicorn or a magic scroll to my readers and hope that they get it. Such things need to be carefully developed and fed to the audience with deliberation and forethought. For all that, Moon did a fare job of presenting her topes with budding originality and obvious care. Still, I hope she kept Pak’s encounters with them to a minimum in Oath of Gold.