So many of my peers cite Tamora Pierce as one of the foundational authors of their youth. I can’t blame them. Pierce writes strong female characters stepping boldly off the path patriarchy has laid out for them. Her books have helped girls see themselves and their role in the world in a whole new way. Her contributions to young adult literature is undeniable.
She was not, however, one of the foundational authors of my childhood. I’m not sure why. I suspect that it’s mainly because I didn’t read a lot of books designated ‘young adult’ when I was a kid. My sister was a full five years older than me and I was a bit of a copy cat; anything she read, I read, so I jumped past a lot of the traditional young adult literature and right into adult literature from a very early age.
This means I find myself, at the age of 28, introducing myself to a lot of that stuff I missed back then. I wonder at the way I am experiencing some of this young adult literature I’m reading. I remember books having such an impact on me when I was a young girl; when I found an author I loved, I wanted to consume everything I could get my hands on, holding on to that world as tightly as I could. I read differently now, and I know it. I get less attached to authors and the worlds they build; books stick with me less; sometimes, reading feels like work. So, I wonder. How would I have felt about Tamora Pierce’s books as a child? Surely, my perception would be very different from now. How much weight does my current perception of literature have when it comes to the critique of children’s books? Can I look past my adult understanding of a book to see the value in it for a younger person?
Anyway, on to my review.
By Tamora Pierce
Alianne is the daughter of one of Pierce’s previous heroines, Alanna, born into privilege, and desperate to work as a spy, a desire her parents deny her. Annoyed, Aly takes a boat to visit friends and, on the way, is nabbed by pirates and sold into slavery. Which – guess what! – turns into a spy mission when she is recruited by a god – the trickster – to play a crucial role in his plot of political intrigue.
I enjoyed this book. Really, I did. But, the more I think about it, the fewer good things I have to say about it. And the more I think about it, the more problematic the book seems to me. But, I do want to be clear that, in terms of entertainment, this book was decent. There are multiple strong female characters, which makes me happy, and Pierce managed to make me love the family Aly is sent by the trickster god to protect. At the end of the book, she set it up well for the reader to see and anticipate all the excitement that may happen in the second book.
But, the good kind of ends there.
Pierce writes high fantasy, which this is. It’s set in the Tortall universe, which is the same setting for a number of other works by Pierce. I used to love high fantasy, but, since high school, I’ve read less and less. At the end of the year last year, I read The Queen of the Tearling which was set in a fantastic world that felt like high fantasy but also felt completely original. Tortall does not feel original. Tortall feels kind of stale, medieval with magic thrown in and odd names for things, chosen just to make them seem exotic. The plot moved slowly, which likely contributed to this staleness for me. I found myself checking page numbers and chapters to go before the end far too frequently.
And then, there were the problematic bits, the bits that make me wonder if I want to give Pierce a second try or not. Aly – who is annoyingly perfect, by the way – is sent by the god to protect a family of luarin, and their half raka daughters, when they are banished by the king to a remote, predominantly raka area. The two elder daughters of the family, born to the duke’s first wife, are linked to a raka prophecy, a prophecy that will free the raka from luarin rule, and Aly is charged with keeping them alive so they can fulfill it. Aly, who is Tortall. Aly who, by appearances, is luarin. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Aly is a white saviour. I have serious problems with white saviours.
There was no reason why the trickster god needed Aly and not one of the raka themselves. Perhaps some reason may become clear in the second book, but so far, this bothers me. As wonderful as this book is for being filled with girl power and feminist ideals, it falters in its awareness of privilege.
Am I wrong? Am I seeing problems where there are none? Am I being unfair to this book and therefore to Pierce? Am I being too critical, too grown up, too academic, perhaps? I’m not sure and this is where I wonder that my own adult perspective has turned this book into something it does not need to be.
(In talking about this book with some of my friends, a few of them have suggested that I started with the wrong Tamora Pierce book, that I should have begun with her early works instead. This may be true, but that doesn’t necessarily address the problematic issues I noticed in this book.)
* Delightfully, I am falling behind on my goal to review every book I read this year, which means I have actually been reading, and reading fast! Next up, eventually, once I’ve sorted out my thoughts, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by the ever wonderful Neil Gaiman, who doesn’t have a wrong book to start with. I swallowed it up in just over 24 hours. Go. Get it from your library. Buy it. Do whatever you have to to get your hands on it and read it. I’m still swooning.