Feb 29 2012 12:00pm

“Your enemy fled rather than face me.": Elizabeth Moon’s Echoes of Betrayal

I expected the third book in the Paladin’s Legacy series (after Oath of Fealty and Kings of the North) to prove the last. Blame childhood trilogy conditioning; I certainly do.

I was wrong, but I wasn’t disappointed.

At the close of Kings of the North, the intervention of a dragon brought an end to the war with Pargun, which caused devastation in the kingdom of Lyonya. But Lyonya’s troubles, and those of its king, the half-elven Kieri, are nowhere near over; and nor are the troubles of Dorrin Verrakai, now Constable of the kingdom of Tsaia, or those of Jandelir Arcolin, who’s inherited Kieri’s mercenary company and fief. And Arvid Semminson, Thieves’ Guild enforcer who (he insists) is not actually a thief, is nowhere near out of trouble.

At the heart of this book are two mysteries, which remain from the previous volumes and are not entirely resolved by the end of this one: the mysterious crown and jewels uncovered by Dorrin Verrakai in the course of Oath of Fealty, and the ongoing tension between the elven Lady in Lyonya, Kieri’s grandmother and his co-ruler, and Kieri himself, an unpleasant tangle of secrets and potential betrayals.

Dorrin, already distrusted in Tsaia on account of her magelord talents and her attaindered family, falls under even more suspicion on the part of the nobility when two of her squires, both sons of noble houses, are injured in the line of duty. The old betrayals that have dogged Kieri’s kingdom from the time of his father’s reign return to cast a blight on his betrothal and marriage to Arian, whom he loves. Arcolin deals with gnomes and meets a dragon himself, and in Valdaire in the south, home of mercenary winter quarters — and where Arvid Semminson has fetched up, chasing a stolen piece from the crown-and-jewel set — the plot thickens with regard to gnomes politics, and adverse interest in Arcolin’s mercenary troop.

I enjoy Moon’s work, as a rule, and this is no exception. But the epic mode has its downsides, particularly in a middle book: the number of characters who have screen time and the number of significant goings-on taking place — some, quite clearly, laying the groundwork for developments we are yet to see — exerts a diffusing force on narrative tension. Moon is a sufficiently skilled writer that the pace of events never feels leisurely, but for me the tension at times seemed oddly uneven.

There are also downsides to an epic mode wherein gods are, if not always active participants, at least frequently active hecklers. When a deified hero is whispering in your ear, there’s very little room for inner conflict: everyone’s better natures are most certainly on display. On one hand, a bad/good opposition can be refreshingly comforting: it definitely falls of the rubric of “consolatory” fantasy. On the other hand, gods who are good support the aristocratic status quo has always been an implication that socialist little me finds faintly disturbing, particularly when most of our main characters are — or become — aristocrats themselves.[1] And on the gripping hand — well, that hand’s for the crowd, because a digression on dualistic theology and soteriology has no place here today. Pros and cons, dear readers: what do you think they are?

[1] It didn’t bother me in the Paksenarrion series as much, because Paks is so very clearly a farmer’s daughter, a private soldier, an outsider who upsets the established order. And I do realise that Surrender None, the prequel about Gird, was a species of revolutionary fantasy, which is always slightly wonderful to behold. But the implication itself is so widespread in the genre that I’ve begun to feel a little leery of the thing even when it’s used by an author with a track record of undermining it.

Moon does an interesting thing with the gods’ interference, however, in Arvid’s case. Arvid has the hero-deity Gird leaning over his shoulder and whispering — and Arvid, avowedly, doesn’t want him there. There’s a great deal of emotional tension inherent the (not a) thief who doesn’t want to be “good,” but acts decently regardless: while the climax of Arvid’s story in Echoes of Betrayal may have (possibly, but not certainly) removed the potential for shades of grey, I’m still interested in seeing where he goes next.

Echoes of Betrayal isn’t a conclusion. Instead, it’s a series novel in the epic mould, an episode in a much longer story whose end is, as yet, out of sight. Moon still has some distance to cover in this world she’s made, and a number of stories yet to tell. I’m looking forward to following along for some time to come.

Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. In her spare time, she translates Greek (badly), falls off walls (painfully), reads books (avidly), and consumes copious amounts of caffeine.

Graham Hattersley
1. GrahamH
I am a huge Moon fan, I count The Deeds of Paksenarrion as one of my favourite series of all time. However, I am starting to really lose faith with the epic style of fantasy, it seems everyone is doing it with the success of George RR Martin. Although I am still enjoying it, this series pales in comparison to the deeds.

The earlier books in this series mainly followed Dorrin, which made for a more focused story. Now that she has come in to her powers along with Kieri, the dragon, and god protected arvid, there are too many extremely competent and powerful good characters running around. I think it's a good thing that Paks is largely MIA in these books, but she's been replaced with too many other characters.

I read both Echoes of Betrayal and Robin Hobb's City of Dragons recently and they both came off as filler books, because the attention was spread across too many characters and plot lines. I guess I subconciously expected them to be trilogies as well, which can explain some of my dissapointment. I am still going buy the rest of the books in the series, hopefully they will restore my faith in these authors.
Michael Grosberg
2. Michael_GR
I enjoyed the first three Paksenarrion novels, but it was always Paks itself that was the source of my enjoyment. Paks the soldier, paks the outcast - this was the character I was interested in, with Paks the uber-hero her just reward for her suffering. Oh, and the battle descriptions from the viewpoint of a grunt, especially the first ones. Those were very immediate and fresh. But the world itself always felt vanilla to me. It was the standard D&D world with the serial numbers filed off. And the adventure aspect was just so unoriginal, even archetypal - find the lost prince, get the magic sword, kill monsters, recover treasure, level up, repeat. Once Paks became a roving knight, righting wrongs and slaying monsters, all the innovation was lost.

Writing an interesting , nuanced story about interfering gods who are clearly "good" - not an easy thing to do, as you said. IMO the gold standard on this type of story is Bojuld's Five Gods novels - The Curse of Chalion etc. But it takes a Bojuld to pull it off successfully.
4. OtterB
I am enjoying this series. It does have a different feel from the original Paks books (which I also liked). They were, as Michael_GR says, very tightly focused on Paks herself. I tend to not be a big fan of sweeping epic fantasy because I inevitably like some POVs or subplots more than others and am annoyed to be pulled out when the author switches. In this case I find the switches mildly disruptive, but I like the character and plot momentum of all the major threads and so am okay with hopping over to another now and then. And the worldbuilding is richer; to me, things that were outlined in the earlier book and might have seemed fantasy-generic (like, say, elves and dwarves) are taking on a depth and uniqueness as they are unpacked.

Moon has said in her blog that the series is going to run to 5 books; she's just finished the fourth and has started on the fifth. A middle book like Echoes is at something of a disadvantage because it's continuing to develop more complexity than it resolves. I for one will be happy to continue reading to see where it ends up.

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