Book Review: Tortall – A Spy’s Guide

tortall spy guideTortall: A Spy’s Guide
Tamora Pierce
YA Fantasy Guidebook
294 pages
Published October 2017

I was actually very disappointed by this one. I had high hopes – I love Tamora Pierce. I’ve read almost all of her books, and reviewed several of them on this blog, most recently Tempests and Slaughter. I was hoping the Timeline would place the actual books in the timeline, but it’s written completely in character, so only notable figures are named. (Beka Cooper, from the Mastiff trilogy, was not notable enough to get a mention, which I am quite sad about.) I knew this was going to be written in a guidebook style, not a novel, so I was prepared for that, but it still just didn’t mesh well.

There were certainly amusing parts – the Spymaster taking an inordinate interest in someone stealing the royal Chef’s recipes, because he loves the man’s soups, for one. Also infuriating points, like the letters between the King and the man he asks to become the new Knight trainer – a man who really dislikes Alanna and female knights in general. I found the “threat-level profiles” on characters to be mostly rehashing of things we already knew.

The few mentions of Emperor Ozorne do make me want to go reread The Immortals War set of books, which I’d already somewhat wanted to do after reading Tempests and Slaughter. Now that I know they also deal with Ozorne, I want to read them again even more!

So I don’t know. I could see it being a useful reference guide, but it’s not really a good read. I’m pretty ambivalent about it. I would read any other Tamora Pierce book rather than this one.

From the cover of Tortall: A Spy’s Guide:

The secrets of Tortall are revealed. . . .

As Tortall’s spymaster, George Cooper has sensitive documents from all corners of the realm. When Alanna sends him a surprising letter, he cleans out his office and discovers letters from when King Jonathan and Queen Thayet first ascended the throne, notes on creating the Shadow Service of spies, threat-level profiles on favorite characters, Daine’s notes on immortals, as well as family papers, such as Aly’s first report as a young spy and Neal’s lessons with the Lioness. This rich guide also includes the first official timeline of Tortallan events from when it became a sovereign nation to the year Aly gives birth to triplets. Part history, part spy training manual, and entirely fascinating, this beautiful guide makes a perfect gift and is ideal for anyone who loves Alanna, King Jonathan, Queen Thayet, Kel, Neal, Aly, Thom, Daine, Numair, and the unforgettable world of Tortall!

Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter

tempests and slaughterTempests and Slaughter
Tamora Pierce
455 pages
Published February 2018

(No Top Ten List today. I could only find one example of a character I liked in a book that I didn’t!)

A new Tamora Pierce book! About the origins of Numair! YES! I waited SO ANXIOUSLY for this book to make its way through the line of holds at my library and get in my grabby hands, and I was rewarded. Tempests is classic Tamora Pierce. It’s set in Carthak, not Tortall, but the themes and feel are exactly what I was expecting. I love diving back into my favorite fantasy worlds, and Tortall ranks right near the top. (It might be the top, I haven’t sat down and attempted to rank them – that would probably be a futile effort!)

My only issue with the book, really, is that it feels like an introduction. I know it’s the first part of a trilogy, but the rest isn’t OUT YET! So I feel like I’ve read the first third of a story and now I have to wait. Tempests introduces a LOT of story threads, and resolves exactly none of them. It managed to do so without leaving us on a cliffhanger, though, so there’s that, at least. I’m probably going to go re-read the books around Numair’s adult life to tide me over until the rest of this trilogy comes out!

I think my favorite character overall was Enzi – he was hilarious and obstinate and I’m looking forward to the rest of his storyline.

I was surprised but pleased to see a gay couple as side characters – and that it wasn’t mentioned the character was gay until his husband arrived on the scene. It wasn’t a defining point of his character, his spouse just happened to be male. I’ve said it before, but I love seeing the change in fantasy – it’s gone from “that’s strange or scandalous” to “absolutely no big deal, people have differently-gendered partners.” It will be even lovelier once real society reaches that point!

I was also surprised to see I have missed a Tortall book! Tortall: A Spy’s Guide came out in October of 2017, so that’s now waiting at the library for me. I can’t wait to read more about George Cooper, even if it isn’t really a novel as such. I’ve previously reviewed Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, the Lioness quartet, and her short story collection – like I said, one of my favorite worlds!

Final verdict: Tempests and Slaughter was an excellent addition to Tortall, but if you like books that resolve their storylines, you might want to wait until the rest of the trilogy is published. If you can’t wait, just expect that you won’t get many answers from this first book!

Tempests and Slaughter is my pick for “weather element in the title” for the 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge.

From the cover of Tempests and Slaughter:

Arram Draper is on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting trouble. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram realizes that one day–soon–he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie. 

In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.

Book Review: Tortall and Other Lands

TortallTortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales
by Tamora Pierce
369 pages
Published 2011

This is a collection of Tamora Pierce’s short stories, some of which have been published in other collections. There are six stories set in Tortall, four fantasy stories set elsewhere, and one contemporary non-fantasy story. I really enjoyed getting glimpses into other parts of Tortall – seeing stories of a few ordinary people, not just the extraordinary ones that star in her sagas and trilogies.

In one story we revisit Numair and Daine from The Immortals quartet, and see their foster dragon, Kitten, get into trouble and rescue a wild mage and her son. In another we see an apple tree turned into a man as a consequence of Numair turning a man into an apple tree half a world away. Another story shows us the birth of Nawat and Aly’s children. (Aly is the daughter of Alanna from The Song of the Lioness quartet, and has her own duology, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen.) We see a girl learn to fight by watching animals squabble, and another girl learn to become an adult by rescuing a baby dragon.

I very much enjoy collections of short stories for a few different reasons; collections by one author show glimpses into rarely-seen parts of their established worlds, while collections around a theme introduce me to new authors. I also don’t feel bad about setting the book down between stories to go to bed! Tortall and Other Lands was a wonderful addition to the stories of Tortall, and has me even more eager to read The Immortals quartet and the Trickster set.

From the back of Tortall and Other Lands:

Years ago, the novel Alanna introduced fantasy lovers to the magical kingdom of Tortall. In Tamora Pierce’s subsequent fifteen books set in this medieval realm, readers have gotten to know generations of families; legions of friends, foes, and fantastical creatures; and much about the history, magic, and spirit of this extraordinarily well-drawn locale.

But epics do not always provide the smaller, more intimate tales. Collected here are six wondrous shorter tales from the land of Tortall, featuring previously unknown characters as well as old friends. These stories, some of which have never been published before, will lead old fans and new readers more deeply into one of the most intricately constructed worlds of modern fantasy. There are four more fantasy tales not set in Tortall. Two are historical and set in an unknown town; one takes place in a remote desert; and one is set in a very well-known town, New York City, in our time. 

And as a bonus, there’s one nonfantasy set in contemporary Idaho that proves that Pierce’s multilayered characters, finesse with dialogue, and impeccable storytelling are not limited to lands inhabited by dragons and magic. 

Book Review: The Song of the Lioness quartet

alanna1Song of the Lioness quartet
by Tamora Pierce
Young Adult Fantasy

Alanna: the First Adventure
308 pages
Published 1983

In the Hand of the Goddess
288 pages
Published 1984

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
304 pages
Published 1986

Lioness Rampant
400 pages
Published 1988

Alanna2The Song of the Lioness quartet is Tamora Pierce’s first set of books. I read her latest trilogy (the Beka Cooper trilogy) first, which didn’t exactly prepare me for The Song of the Lioness. It’s obvious, going from the latest trilogy to her first writing, how much her writing has matured since the 80s. My first thought upon completing Alanna: the First Adventure was “I’m very glad she’s gotten better at writing!” The story itself is still interesting and worth reading, but the style is a little difficult to read when I KNOW how well she writes now. The characters are mostly one-dimensional; few of the side characters seem to have plots going or events happening to them when they’re not with Alanna. Characters pop up, have a significant interaction with Alanna, and are gone again, with no indication they exist outside of their usefulness to the main character. This is in stark contrast to her latest work, where every character that has a significant role to play has a history of their own, and thoughts and feelings of their own. They’re much more fleshed out in her recent books.

Alanna3That complaint aside, the Alanna books are really the foundation that the rest of Tortall was built upon. It’s interesting to see how Pierce has fleshed out some of the concepts she touched on in the Alanna saga, and it’s fun to see where some of the things from the Beka Cooper trilogy originated. It also pays to keep in mind that though the Alanna books were written first, the Beka Cooper trilogy is based two hundred years earlier. We learn a lot more about the office of The Rogue in the Beka Cooper trilogy, something that isn’t explained very well in the Alanna quartet, even though one of Alanna’s main romantic interests is George Cooper (yes, a descendant of Beka!), the Rogue. Pierce also never explains the origins of Alanna’s cat, Faithful, in the actual Alanna books. That explanation lies in the Beka Cooper books as well.

The Song of the Lioness quartet is the story of a girl who decides to rebel against tradition and follow her heart to become a knight. In her time, ladies simply do NOT become knights. They learn to organize households and marry well. Alanna, however, is lucky enough to have a twin brother who does not want to become a knight; instead Thom wants to be a mage. So when they’re sent off to face their futures, they switch places, with Alanna becoming “Alan”, the younger twin. (Thom stays Thom; the school that ladies are sent to is the same school mages start at.)

Alanna4Alan/Alanna begins as a page, then moves to squire, and eventually a knight. Her secret is discovered, but due to her influential friends, most of whom knew she was a girl by then, she is able to keep her status. Her adventures take her from uncovering a plot against the royal family, to being adopted by a desert tribe, to recovering a magic jewel of prosperity, with many small adventures in between.

I love reading Pierce’s heroines; both Alanna and Beka have problems reconciling their feminine natures with the work they’ve chosen. The scenes where Alanna’s love interests see her in a dress for the first time, instead of her normal boy-garb and armor, is heart-warming in one case, and sad in another. In both womens’ lives it’s the man who can accept all of their aspects who ultimately wins their heart, which is a wonderful message.

Ultimately, the technical flaws in the writing of the Alanna saga faded as I became absorbed in the story. I’ll be requesting more Tortall books from the library in the near future!

From the back of Alanna: the first Adventure:

“From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.”

And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page. But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies. Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and make her a legend in the land.

From the back of In the Hand of the Goddess:

Still disguised as a boy, Alanna becomes a squire to none other than the prince of the realm. Prince Jonathan is not only Alanna’s liege lord, he is also her best friend—and one of the few who knows the secret of her true identity. But when a mysterious sorcerer threatens the prince’s life, it will take all of Alanna’s skill, strength, and magical power to protect him—even at the risk of revealing who she really is…

From the back of The Woman who Rides like a Man:

Newly knighted, Alanna of Trebond seeks adventure in the vast desert of Tortall. Captured by fierce desert dwellers, she is forced to prove herself in a duel to the death—either she will be killed or she will be inducted into the tribe. Although she triumphs, dire challenges lie ahead. As her mythic fate would have it, Alanna soon becomes the tribe’s first female shaman—despite the desert dwellers’ grave fear of the foreign woman warrior. Alanna must fight to change the ancient tribal customs of the desert tribes—for their sake and for the sake of all Tortall.

From the back of Lioness Rampant:

Having achieved her dream of becoming the first female knight errant, Alanna of Trebond is not sure what to do next. She has triumphed in countless bloody battles, and her adventures are already legendary. Perhaps being a knight errant is not all that Alanna needs…but Alanna must push her uncertainty aside when she is challenged with the impossible. She must recover the Dominion Jewel, a legendary gem with enormous power for good—but only in the right hands. And she must work fast. Tortall is in great danger, and Alanna’s arch-enemy, Duke Roger, is back—and more powerful than ever. In this final book of the Song of the Lioness quartet, Alanna discovers through fierce combat and ceaseless searching that she indeed has a future worthy of her mythic past—both as a warrior and as a woman.

Book Review: Beka Cooper Trilogy (Tortall Legends)

terrierTerrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper #1
by Tamora Pierce
592 pages
Published 2007

Bloodhound: The Legend of Beka Cooper #2
by Tamora Pierce
560 pages
Published 2009

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
by Tamora Pierce
608 pages
Published 2011

My husband has been saying for some time that I should read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, specifically the Alanna saga. While I haven’t gotten my hands on that yet, he did find this trilogy on a recent trip to the library and set them onto the library desk next to my stack with an expectant look. After reading them, I see why! These are GOOD. The world is well thought out and interesting, and the characters are lively. I will be looking into the other trilogies and sagas set into this world to see how characters and principles from these books wind their way through the other stories.

bloodhoundA little bit about the world and series as a whole, first. I believe the first series written about Tortall is Alanna’s story. The Song of the Lioness, as it’s called, is a set of four books. Alanna, basically, is a woman who decided to be a knight in a world where that simply isn’t done. So she disguises herself as a man in order to do it. The Beka Cooper trilogy, however, takes place about two hundred years prior to Alanna – in this time period, women are allowed to be knights and Guardswomen and any number of rough things. (In the third Beka Cooper book they talk more about the “Gentle Mother” religion that is starting to take hold, that says women are supposed to be gentle, sheltered things – I’m assuming by the time of Alanna that idea has taken root and spread much further.) Beka herself is a Guardswoman – or Dog, as they’re called. The Dogs of Tortall are guardsmen and women throughout the kingdom, usually based in cities. They call criminals “Rats”, men “coves”, and women “mots”. Having a unique vocabulary really serves to set the world apart. It’s not so many words that it’s hard to understand, but just enough that the first time or two they’re used you notice it.

In Terrier, Beka is serving as a “Puppy,” or Guardwoman-in-training. They spend their first year attached to a pair of senior Dogs, learning the ropes. By the end of the first book, Beka’s earned the nickname of “Terrier” for her refusal to let Rats go. She has some unique abilities to help her in her job – she can talk to ghosts and dust-spinners, learning things they’ve overheard to help her find guilty Rats. In Terrier she’s on the trail of the Shadow Snake, a Rat who’s stealing peoples’ children and killing them if they don’t ransom them back. Until the murdered children talk to Beka, most of the Dogs of the Lower City don’t think the disappearances are related to each other.

mastiffIn Bloodhound, Beka is a full-fledged Dog, and is sent to another city to track down a counterfeiter. A few years later, in Mastiff, she’s set on the trail of a kidnapped Prince and a far-reaching plot to cause the fall of the King. Throughout all three books she’s accompanied by Pounce, a black cat with purple, god-touched eyes. Pounce is no ordinary cat, but neither is Beka an ordinary Guardswoman! The books are written as Beka’s journals, read two hundred years later, to George Cooper, a descendant of hers who has a major role in Alanna’s saga.

The Epilogue of Mastiff has me itching to find and read the Song of the Lioness! The Song of the Lioness is not the only other set of books set in this world, either. The Immortals series follows the path of a Wild Mage in Tortall, while The Protector of the Small quartet follows the path of the first sanctioned lady knight after Alanna. The Trickster duology is the story of Alanna’s daughter. There’s also a book of short stories set in Tortall and other Lands, so I certainly have a lot of books to add to my to-read list!

From the back of Terrier:

Beka Cooper is a rookie with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard, and she’s been assigned to the Lower City. It’s a tough beat that’s about to get tougher, as Beka’s limited ability to communicate with the dead clues her in to an underworld conspiracy. Someone close to Beka is using dark magic to profit from the Lower City’s criminal enterprises–and the result is a crime wave the likes of which the Provost’s Guard has never seen before.

From the back of Bloodhound:

Beka Cooper is finally a Dog—a full-fledged member of the Provost’s Guard, dedicated to keeping peace in Corus’s streets. But there’s unrest in Tortall’s capital. Counterfeit coins are turning up in shops all over the city, and merchants are raising prices to cover their losses. The Dogs discover that gamblers are bringing the counterfeit money from Port Caynn. In Port Caynn, Beka delves deep into the gambling world, where she meets a charming banking clerk named Dale Rowan. Beka thinks she may be falling for Rowan, but she won’t let anything—or anyone—jeopardize her mission. As she heads north to an abandoned silver mine, it won’t be enough for Beka be her usual “terrier” self. She’ll have to learn from Achoo to sniff out the criminals—to be a Bloodhound….

From the back of Mastiff:

This is the third book in the Beka Cooper trilogy, and Beka is a full-fledged Dog now, but it hasn’t made her job with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard any easier. On this hunt, she’ll need all her resources, from her bare-knuckled fighting skills to her suspiciously intelligent cat, Pounce.