by velocibadgergirl

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tamora Pierce

Though many women my age grew up reading Tamora Pierce's Alanna books, published in the early to mid-1980s, I had never heard of her until my younger sister began reading her stuff in middle school. For her birthday back in 2003 (I think), my sister wanted to go to Louisville to hear Tamora Pierce read, and so we went. She was fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. Somehow, it still took me another four years to finally track down and read any of her books.

I'd meant to start at the beginning with Alanna, the story of a young girl who pretends to be a boy so that she can train as a knight, but instead my eye was caught by Trickster's Choice, the first of two books about Alanna's daughter, Aliane. I loved-loved-loved Trickster's Choice, which was my introduction to Pierce's richly textured world of the kingdom of Tortall and surrounding nations. Ali, daughter of lady knight Alanna of Trebond and her very cool husband (who I won't name, in case you want to be surprised when you read the first four books), is caught up in a net of political intrigue and unrest in the Copper Isles, chosen by the trickster god Kyprioth to serve a purpose.

Using the skills she has learned from her father, Ali sets up an intricate network of spies and agents, working to keep the girls who are heir to the islands' native royal line alive. The story blends the best of a spy novel, an adventure tale, a girl-power novel, and a historical treatise, examining the tensions in a country where the dark-skinned native people have been subjugated for generations by light-skinned newcomers. It is not an entirely gentle tale, and there are tragedies and unexpected twists. The first novel also ends with such a wicked cliffhanger that I did something I never do -- I called the library from work and asked if they would put the second book on hold for me so I could pick it up on my way home. Trickster's Queen is just as good if not better, and after finishing it, I considered myself a full-on Tamora Pierce convert.

Last year when I went to Alaska, I packed the four Alanna books for the ridiculously long plane ride. It's rather obvious that Alanna was Pierce's first book. The writing is simply not up to the level of her later books, though it is completely fine. I enjoyed getting to know Alanna and her fellow students, and her character arc was immensely satisfying, though I did like the Trickster books better. Even though they are not perfect books, there is a lot to be said about what is basically a real-girl action hero who came around in the mid-80s, before the "girl power" trend really came into its own. A friend of mine has a sister-in-law who went to West Point and became an officer in the Army, and she said that reading the Alanna books as a kid inspired her to do so. Also, I think the argument can be made that Pierce's quartet is trailblazing because Alanna sleeps with two boys before choosing to marry one of them. And amazingly, there's not a load of angst, there's no guilt, there's no drama. She chooses to do so, she enjoys their company, and then she makes a choice for her future based on her heart and her wants, rather than on expectations people have of her.

Earlier this year I picked up my copy of Terrier, the first book in a promised trilogy about Beka Cooper, ancestor of one of my favorite Pierce characters, George Cooper. I'd had the book for a while, but hadn't got around to it. That turned out to be a good thing, because as soon as I finished it I wanted to read the second one, but it wasn't going to be out for a few months. If I'd read it when I bought it a year or so ago, I would have been d-y-i-n-g to read more. In Terrier, Beka begins training as one of the Provost's Dogs, basically a watchman for the city of Corus in Tortall.

Written in the form of entries in Beka's journal, the story weaves together Beka's interactions with her fellow trainees (puppies) and her training Dogs, the respected veterans Mattes Tunstall and Clara Goodwin. Beka, like Alanna in later books, has a mysterious and talkative black cat as a companion, this one called Pounce. She also hears ghosts that ride on the wings of pigeons, and can catch snippets of conversation captured by the city's dust spinners. As in Pierce's other books, the magic is never heavy-handed or overdone, and it is the action and the characters that drive the story.

Last week, I got to read Bloodhound, the second Beka Cooper book. After losing yet another partner unwilling to keep up with her, Beka is placed back with Tunstall and Goodwin. She and Goodwin are sent to neighboring Port Caynn on the trail of a coin counterfeiter who is endangering the well-being of the entire kingdom. The story is a great mystery / crime tale, and Beka continues to grow as a character. Now I have to wait until next year for the third Beka book to come out, though in the meantime I can read Pierce's other books.

It's probably safe to recommend any of her work, but if you're an always-in-order purist, start with the Alanna books. If not, I'd recommend starting with the Trickster books or the Beka books. They are fantastic, and I plan to re-read them all someday.