something something Harry Potter soon mumble mumble
This month we’re looking at Tamora Pierce, a rather underrated young adult author who seems less well known now than she was when I started reading her stuff aged twelve or so. In many ways she is the first ‘young adult’ author, I suppose; her first book was published in 1983 and nobody was quite sure how to categorise it. Which caused a few issues, as we’ll see later. She’s known for decent female protagonists (before the world and his wife started throwing around the term ‘strong female character’) and for addressing everyday practical concerns such as menstruation and birth control.
Her books mostly consist of quartets following individual characters, and are set in one of two fantasy worlds, Tortall and Emelan. I’ve talked to a lot of her fans over the years, and without exception it seems that the ones you read first are the ones you like best. It has to be said that one of the reasons for this is probably because there are quite a few similarities in character and storyline between the two, but more on that later. Since I read Tortall first and Mitchell has only read Emelan so far [I did read the Alanna quartet also, just not the rest of them yet], you get both of us rambling at you this month. I’ll let him go first, under the cut.
There are currently three quartets of books: Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens, and The Circle Reforged. The first two of these are more tightly structured; the final one (currently incomplete) seems more like standalone novels that were retroactively decided would be squeezed into the structure. Like the Tortall series, Emelan is actually not the name of the entire setting but rather a single country in it where a majority of the books take place; that said, I have variously also seen them referred to as the ‘Circle series’.
Circle of Magic comprises four books which have been released under multiple titles (source, I had to look up the UK ones). In the US market they were named after the characters, as Sandry’s Book, Tris’ Book, Daja’s Book and Briar’s Book; in the UK market they were instead called, respectively, The Magic in the Weaving, The Power in the Storm, The Fire in the Forge, and The Healing in the Vine. I’m not sure which titles I prefer, really; the books follow a chronological sequence and all of the characters are present in all of them, so naming each of them after a single character is slightly misleading, but at the same time each book (except maybe Sandry’s Book) does bring that character into focus and spend more time on their arc, and the UK titles are descriptions of the respective characters’ magics. Honestly, it might have worked best if one were a subtitle for the other.
In a way, I almost want to introduce them as ‘the sort of books Harry Potter should have been’, at least to the extent they’re about children coming of age while learning magic amongst their peers. They centre on four orphaned children (aged ten at the beginning of the series, except Briar whose age may be ambiguous) who come from very different but equally tragic circumstances, before being rescued by the travelling mage Niklaren Goldeye and brought to Winding Circle Temple in Emelan to learn magic. (In case you’ve noticed already that the protagonists are three girls and one boy, Pierce did that intentionally to counteract the trend of mostly-male groups with a token girl.) The magic system in these books is fairly unique, focusing on ‘ambient magic’ which is already in things and manifests primarily through crafts (e.g. there are mages who work through weaving cloth, blacksmithing, glassblowing, tending gardens and so on, though not all of it is, as Tris gets hers from the weather); I seem to recall Pierce having said at one point that her inspiration had been seeing people do skillful work and thinking it looked like magic. There are also other forms of magic in the setting, though ambient/crafts magic takes the largest focus. It’s difficult to talk about the course the series takes without some kind of spoilers, but the four protagonists end up linking their powers and having to deal with serious consequences from it, as well as navigating the differences in their social backgrounds (which I think is very well done and ought to serve as a model of how to do diversity in fiction well). I think the Emelan setting can be best described as a sort of Renaissance-esque fantasy world, based on its level of technological development; the development of gunpowder weapons ends up being a major plot point in Circle of Magic, for instance. That said, that is probably an oversimplification, as it contains societies that are a mishmash of inspirations from real cultures across human history, and the characters’ attitudes tend to feel rather modern, so it may be better to consider it as its own thing rather than trying to situate it in a real-world time period.
The Circle Opens (Magic Steps, Street Magic, Cold Fire, and Shatterglass) picks up with these same characters, four years later, having become accredited as mages and gone on separate journeys (Sandry remains in Emelan, while the other three travel to other countries with their teachers). They’re all vaguely standalone though, again, occurring in sequence; broadly speaking, they have similar themes, and each of them involve the characters meeting their first students (in-universe, there is a rule where a mage who identifies a person’s magic is obligated to teach them until/unless someone with similar abilities can be found) and struggling with the teaching role, and, separately, crossing paths with serial killers and using their magic to help with the investigation. This may seem like a contrived structure, and in some ways it is, but Pierce manages to make it work, and while the parallels are there, they are still four very different stories and coherent arcs for the characters involved. If anything, the fact that these stories end up so different despite a superficially similar structure ends up doing good characterisation work. The time skip also does a lot of good work here, and it ends up feeling rewarding to see the characters as competent and comfortable in their own power after the struggles of the prior series, while still feeling very much like themselves (though I have to admit that I think all of them end up coming across as older and more mature than the fourteen they’re supposed to be; that never bothered me as a teenager, but as an adult reader I find myself imagining them older unless the book reminds me). Speaking frankly, these four are my favourites of the Emelan books; I’ve reread them all many times, and every time the experience is not one of missing the characters who aren’t present, but rather being reminded how many reasons there are to like and want to spend time with the ones who are. It is very difficult to choose a favourite from among these four characters (even if, when pressed, I’d eventually have to say Tris). The biggest loss, if anything, tends to be the side characters, many of whom are important and compelling in the books where they appear, but due to the shifts in setting are largely forgotten afterward.
One thing I like about all of these books is that, while they definitely take place in chronological sequence, each book is largely self-contained, and the conflicts are varied and unconnected to each other. While there are definite antagonists in some of the books, there is no overarching series villain or anything of the sort, which makes everything feel more human and lends a greater degree of verisimilitude to the setting. There is also probably something interesting to be said about the power levels of characters and the degree of involvement they have in various plots; it could be argued that there’s a certain degree of Mary Suedom in how powerful the children’s abilities are, but that is as often a source of conflict as it is resolution, the adult characters are neither incompetent nor uninvolved, and there are explicit limitations which the books do not shy away from.
The remaining three books are probably best discussed individually.
The Will of the Empress is set two years or so after The Circle Opens, with the four being reunited and struggling to come to terms with the ways they’ve all changed while apart, while simultaneously dealing with personal issues and being sucked into political conflicts. Sandry is definitely the focal character here, as the political conflicts revolve around her noble heritage and inherited holdings in Namorn (where her distant cousin is the titular empress). Much of the conflict also stems from institutionalised sexism, and the conflict between Sandry’s roles as self-sufficient mage and a noblewoman viewed primarily as a marriage prospect. Feminist themes and class analysis are much more overt; in many ways the book is really about misogyny in its various forms.
Truthfully, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I did not enjoy it much the first time through, but it has grown on me a great deal since and on subsequent rereads and now I really appreciate it. I think it is a very good book taken in a vacuum, but I am less convinced that it fits well into the series, and I find the contrast often feels jarring. There are several continuity issues and retcons that are difficult to ignore (for instance, Cold Fire is also set in Namorn, and though it is handwaved as being a different part, there is no indication in it of any of the social or political structures this book would have us believe are typical of the country; likewise, characters seem to forget having told each other things they explicitly did in previous books). The characterisation is something of a mixed bag, and all four protagonists feel like they’ve regressed significantly from where they were in Circle Opens with no explanation; it feels like they begin as caricatures of themselves and then return to more nuanced persons over the course of the book. There was also some controversy about a character who realises she is a lesbian in this book, despite having previously been portrayed experiencing attraction to men (the actual arc was well-done, it’s just odd in terms of continuity). That said, outside of that it is very well done, especially the portrayal of gender and social inequality and the way the characters wrestle with it. I just don’t quite know how to recommend it, because I think the previous two quartets stand better without it and read in sequence it just feels off, but it also can’t work as a standalone because it relies too much on established setting and characterisation details.
Melting Stones is the next one, and a bit of an oddball. It was released as a full-cast audiobook before getting a print version, and that seems to be the intended way to experience it. It seems to be roughly concurrent with Empress, following Briar’s student Evvy and his teacher Rosethorn on a journey, and is narrated in first person from Evvy’s perspective. I can’t say much about this one, not having read it: I tried the audio format and it just did not work for me, and between that and it being first person I was put off enough that I never got around to reading it properly.
Battle Magic is currently the most recent Emelan novel, released in 2013. It is a prequel to Empress, following Briar, Rosethorn and Evvy as they get caught up in a war (the events of which were alluded to in Empress). This is another one I will admit to not having yet read, having been discouraged by reviews; I don’t know all of the details, but apparently once again there are continuity issues with events contradicting how they were discussed in Empress, and it features gods playing an explicit role in the plot which they had never done before in the setting (despite the setting featuring multiple polytheistic religions, the previous books had never taken a stance on their existence or abilities) and seems a jarring choice to make. That said, both Empress and Stones have the characters experiencing post-traumatic reactions to the events of the war (which puzzled many readers since they occurred off-page), and this book purports to explain them. My understanding is that there is some disagreement on the best order to read them.
Pierce has occasionally discussed plans for another book, in which Tris attends the magical university of Lightsbridge under an assumed name, though it is unclear to me whether or not it is still in the works. I have no insider knowledge, but I’ve seen a few rumours that there might have been conflicts with the publisher leading her to cancel the project? I don’t want anyone to take this as definitive, because I don’t know; that said, I was really looking forward to this one and if true it’s very disappointing.
Despite having to say YMMV a great deal with the most recent books, I really do love this series and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, and to readers of all ages. I think the target audience is probably children in their early teens, when they would be roughly of age with the characters, but they can still be very rewarding for older readers.
[As for me, I’ve read the first two quartets. I enjoyed them well enough, but the repetitive nature of the format got a little wearying after a while and if Pierce wasn’t such a good writer I wouldn’t have tolerated it. There are also a few characters who seem a little too similar to Tortallan characters. Still, they’re good books and I like the magical stuff a lot, and if I happen to encounter the later three I’ll read them. I think I know what happened to the missing Tris book, too – see the end of this post.]
The Tortall books don’t have such a varied cast as the Emelan ones; each mini-series follows a single protagonist and a single point of view. Generally previous protagonists show up in later series as side characters.
The first quartet is the Song of the Lioness – Alanna: The First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, and Lioness Rampant. The series was originally written in 1983 as a single novel aimed at adults; a combination of literary agents and publishers led to it being broken down into four pretty short books aimed at this mysterious ‘young adult’ demographic. I’d love to know what the original book was like; it seems that a lot of material was cut.
I have to be blunt here – Alanna of Trebond is a terrible Mary Sue. I like her, but she is. As with just about everything I’ve put under the spotlight so far, I urge anyone picking the books up to cut the early books a great deal of slack due to authorial inexperience. Alanna pretty much checks every single box – she’s one of twins, she has unusually coloured eyes, she’s very popular, she has strong magic powers, she gains a talking animal familiar, the gods pay attention to her, she has close ties to the royal family… That said, her personality is (mostly) not obnoxious, and the world is interesting enough to make up for it. These are definitely the weakest Tortall books, but they’re still fun enough.
As the series opens Alanna and her twin brother are being packed off to the medieval equivalent of boarding school – she’s being sent to study magic and he’s being sent to become a knight. They switch places and Alanna spends the first two books disguised as a boy; very unfairly, Thom does not have to pretend to be a girl, not that we see much of him anyway. Once she gains her shield, she reveals her true identity, and in the second two books goes off and has heroic adventures. Doesn’t sound like the best plot in the world, does it? But it’s realistically handled; Pierce explores the logistical problems that would happen for someone in that situation, and some characters do find out by accident, and Alanna has to confide in others when it becomes impossible to keep going on her own.
The books attempt to take a look at other cultures and races every so often, with varying degrees of success. More of a well-meaning effort than a brilliant depiction, really. On the plus side, Alanna gets to have multiple sexual relationships outside marriage without being horribly judged for it, and she’s far too busy for any tiresome teenage love triangle nonsense; she also has plenty of platonic friendships with boys without secretly being in love with them. All in all, this quartet is okay, but most of its appeal is in laying the foundations for later books.
[I have read these, and while they’re serviceable enough, I think part of the reason I never got around to the others is that I ended up associating my lack of enthusiasm for them with the setting as a whole. These books did do several important things – for instance, despite feeling rather Second Wave to me, a straightforward female version of the ‘philandering male hero’ tropes who is comfortable in her own sexuality still manages to be surprisingly subversive even decades later (sad as that is). I’m also less sure we want to go calling her a Mary Sue (even though she meets the criteria) simply because a male hero in her position probably wouldn’t be; there’s an extent to which a majority of YA protagonists tend to be overly-centralising in their narratives. Likewise, it doesn’t conflate Alanna crossdressing with being trans; the book consistently makes the distinction between her gender and the way she is forced to present due to external factors. I suppose it’s possible this could be interpreted as trans-hostile, but I think the way it’s done is more likely to be affirming than otherwise (but I don’t want to speak for trans people here, and I don’t know how trans readers actually experience the books). One thing I will say is that comparing the Alanna books to Pierce’s later works, it’s easy to see how much her writing improved over the course of her career. I don’t want to say they’re bad by any means, but I don’t think new readers should pick them as the starting point.]
Next in line is the Immortals quartet: Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and Realms of the Gods. These are the ones I picked up first, and they’re my favourites. Our protagonist this time is a girl called Daine, not a member of the nobility this time; she does have a few Sue traits but overall is a much better defined character. Side characters get a lot more development as well, and are more diverse – in terms of species as well as race. In the first series, Alanna’s friend Prince Jonathan gained the throne; this quartet deals with a threat from a neighbouring country, tied to the backstory of a side character who I’m sure nobody will be surprised to learn is my absolute favourite, eventually escalating to war on a vast scale involving non-humans and gods. This plot is built up slowly in the background of Daine’s own story as she learns to use her magic, which is very different from the usual magic of Tortall. She gets to talk to animals and shape shift, which is less flashy than anything Alanna managed to do but in my opinion a lot more fun. Daine’s a lot more independent than Alanna was, and more cynical as well.
Following this we have Protector of the Small, which is probably the best written series in this universe: First Test, Page, Squire and Lady Knight. We’re back with the nobility for our third protagonist, Kel, who is unique amongst Pierce protagonists for having no magical ability whatsoever. Tortall has become a lot more progressive since Alanna was young and girls are now allowed to become knights without needing to disguise themselves, but Kel is the first one to dare to try, meaning that oh my do these four books carry a hefty trigger warning for all the (sadly very realistically written) misogyny. There’s also another war in the background, though on a smaller scale; a lot of the humans on the losing side of the last one are a little bit upset about it and want another go. The title of the quartet pretty much sums Kel up: Alanna and Daine ended up dealing with some vast conflicts, but she just wants to go through life doing small good deeds that help people out at a grass-roots level and leave the world-saving to others. She’s stubborn and practical and doesn’t have time for romance, also uniquely for a Tortallan protagonist, and it’s a shame that (so far) she has yet to reappear in later books.
The pattern breaks at this point and the next series is a duology, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, starring Alanna’s daughter Aly. In terms of length it’s about the same as the earlier quartets; Pierce credits Harry Potter for showing publishers that children will read long books perfectly happily. I want to like these books but I’ve always found them a little forgettable and Aly never stood out to me the way the other protagonists do. I never got all that invested in the plot either, which is a shame – set outside Tortall in a nearby island nation, it explores slavery and caste issues and I really should give them another chance at some point.
The other Tortall books leave this main timeline and start looking at the history. The Provost’s Dog books – Terrier, Bloodhound and Mastiff – explore the life of Beka Cooper, ancestor of a side character who’s been in the series right from the start of Alanna’s arc. I don’t think the link is necessary, but it’s a nice touch. Beka is essentially a policewoman, and while the plot is on a much smaller scale than we’re used to seeing, it’s fun to read. Unlike all the previous books, these ones are first-person, in the form of diary entries.
There are various Tortallan short stories scattered around as well but I’m not going to be discussing them here, so let’s end with the most recent book – Tempests and Slaughter, part one of what is probably going to be a trilogy but has at various times been touted as a quartet, a duology and a standalone novel in the FIFTEEN YEARS Pierce has been promising it. (Bitter, who me?) In a first for Tortall, we now have a male protagonist; this series shows the backstory of Numair, a major side character in the Immortals who’s made cameo appearances in Kel’s and Aly’s books.
I have a lot of feelings about this book. Numair’s my favourite, for a start, and his history ends up being extremely plot significant. And I have been waiting for his story for literally half my life. And I can’t decide if I actually like this book or not.
As a standalone, it’s great. Numair is very different to the other protagonists of this universe – he’s younger, both in age and emotionally, and more naive, which is still true many years later when he joins the main storyline. He also lives in a very different country to Tortall and faces a very different society. And more than any of the others he is a mage, so there’s plenty of magical nerdery for me to enjoy.
But there’s just too much that I don’t think would lead to what we see in Daine’s arc – one book in particular deals with a lot of characters from Numair’s past, who are mostly very different to the way they’re shown here. And there are a lot of side characters who seem very important to him who either don’t show up at all in those later books (I’m sure a few of them are going to be killed off, but surely not all of them) or who are glossed over as casual acquaintances at best (looking at you, Sarge). A lot of the magic we see him doing here doesn’t match up with what we see from him in the other books either; there is a narrative explanation for this, but I don’t think it justifies all of it.
There are also several scenes and sub-plots that very, very closely mirror things we’ve seen in the Emelan books. I am side-eyeing this. Combined with the title, that really makes no sense, I suspect this might be what happened to the now non existent Tris book. [It’s certainly an interesting theory; it hadn’t occurred to me at all until you suggested it but it does at least seem possible. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on this, really.]
There are still (probably) two books to come, so I’m reserving judgement for now, but overall I am very unsure. I like it as a book, but I’m not sure I like it as a prequel. So far, everyone I’ve spoken to about it agrees. [This sounds almost exactly like how I feel about the later Emelan novels.]
My fangirl problems aside, I really recommend Pierce as an author. Though given Mitchell’s issues with the more recent Emelan books and mine with the more recent Tortall books, as well as the increasing length of time between publications, it does seem as though Pierce has rather lost interest in her writing, which is a real shame. Her publishers seem to be of a similar mind, as well – it’s getting more and more difficult to get hold of her books outside the US. Mitchell had to pre-order the latest one for me and ship it over to me himself because Amazon wouldn’t do it.
As far as other content goes, there are audiobooks of most of the Emelan series, and the Immortals quartet – mostly narrated by Pierce herself, with full character voice acting from the Full Cast Audio crew. And Mark Oshiro has done a full read of all her work, complete with the lady herself showing up to cackle at him frequently and enjoy his reactions to things. Nothing else – it would be nice to see media adaptations of some of these stories but I don’t think it’s going to happen. There was at one point a fan project going on aimed at creating comic book adaptations, but I haven’t seen anything about it in years, and honestly 90% of the art was dreadful. So it goes. I hope more people read her books, it would be a real shame if she ended up fading out of awareness.