Whenever January 1st rolls around, I find myself getting excited about the number of new books I’ll get to read during the coming year. I ask for recommendations from friends, read the end of the year book reviews, and make a promise to myself that I’ll discover at least 10 new stories before another January hits (a promise that seems inordinately difficult to keep once finals season begins). Right now, though, instead of asking friends for their favorites I’m going to be that friend for you, Daily Geekette reader, and tell you perhaps the most important tip you’ll receive all year:
Read Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books.
I could end my article right there, just because I have such total faith in the work of Tamora Pierce to draw in a reader from the first sentences (“I don’t want to be a knight! I want to be a great sorcerer…Do you think I want to be a lady? As if that’s all I can do with myself!” Perfect setup for twins and trouble). But in case you need a little more persuasion — who is this Tamora Pierce? What will I be getting myself into? — here are 5 reasons that Tortall is the world for you in 2015:
5. An Expansive World
The world in which Tortall is placed, while not as thought out as, say, Middle-earth, is a completely satisfying and in-depth fantasy world. Like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, political intrigue features heavily in the stories, with wars threatened or breaking out between various countries, and each locale feels unique and rooted in its own culture and location. The Carthaki Empire, with its lavish court, traditions of slavery, and focus on military might, contrasts heavily with Tortall and its more obviously recognizable feudal society.
Each book series — The Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, Protector of the Small, Daughter of the Lioness, and Provost’s Dog — centers around a different area, so that you always have new territories and peoples to explore. Keladry’s journey in The Protector of the Small, for example, traces the relationship between Tortall and Scanra, while Ali’s path in Daughter of the Lioness takes her to the far-off Copper Isles. This is a world that can encompass many different stories, each one with its own tension and conflict.
4. All Your Favorite Fantasy Tropes, Combined and Energized
The universe of the Tortall books has everything that a fantasy nerd could dream of wanting, and it has it all in one place. Too often, fantasy novels have to choose between medieval realism (á la A Song of Ice and Fire) or magic and dragons (á la Dragonlance), but the world of Tortall features an in-depth feudal system, complete with squires, knights, champions, and kings, alongside a realm of gods and a magic Gift honed by sorcerers and warriors alike. Demigods, black robe mages, Bhazir shamans, dragons, mythological creatures like Stormwings and basiliks — all interact with, fight, help, and hinder one another in a way that doesn’t seem chaotic or overdone.
Part of the reason it all works together is that each story takes a particular, and personal, focus on a different aspect of the fantastic: Alanna interacts heavily with only one god — the Goddess — and learns about her magical Gift as she grows older. Daine, the daughter of Weiryn, a hunting god, is much more seriously involved with the mythological aspects of the world and uses a magic that is wild, rather than beholden to specific rules. Each woman has her own sphere of interest, which makes it feel as though everything has a reason for being there; dragons aren’t just present because it’s cool to have dragons, but rather because nurturing a young dragon helps Daine learn more about who she is.
3. Stories That Don’t Shy Away From Reality
Too often when women are present in fantasy, they exist in a kind of bubble – they’re the nice versions of themselves, shielded from the true violence, from sexual desire, from harassment and abuse, even from their menstrual cycles. But not the women of Tamora Pierce’s books. Alanna, Daine, Kel, Ali, Beka, these are girls who become women and, in doing so, face the struggles of puberty (there are few other fantasy, or even fiction, novels in which I have seen the arrival of one’s first period so accurately and sympathetically depicted), inequality in a world dominated by men, being taken advantage of and underestimated, abused — gender-focused struggles, yes, but also universal ones, like discovering that you don’t love someone in the way you thought you did, or watching a friend die in battle, or having to sacrifice yourself to save those around you.
These are women who become stronger exactly because of their contact with the dirty and ugly side of everyday life, not because they are sheltered from it. Pierce does not give us a feudal system that accepts women as warriors — this is fantasy, after all, so anything can happen — but one that has as much prejudice towards the female gender as a warrior society in our own world might, and Alanna must not only work to become King’s Champion, but also continually battle to have others accept her as such. These are women that face many of the same decisions and trials as their female readers, and are made better for that fact.
2. Women That Influence, But Don’t Limit, Each Other
What I love perhaps most of all about the Tortall books is that they are all interconnected. The characters from one appear in the others, with the decisions they have made in their own story influencing the ways in which the world now works in the current series. Daine’s path is made a little easier for having had Alanna do so much before her, and Alanna is there to offer Daine advice when she needs it. Kel is able to train openly as a woman knight because of the path that Alanna blazed, while Ali is able to plan a rebellion based on the combined talents she has inherited from her strong and stubborn mother, Alanna, and cunning spymaster father, George. Each woman has an effect on the people and places around her, an effect that can be seen reverberating throughout the books that precede their own adventures.
What is most important about this, though, is that each woman takes her own route towards fulfillment — just because Alanna did things a certain way does not mean that Daine must do them similarly. Pierce’s novels thus preach one of the most important messages of modern feminism: that women must support each other, and that our own actions can positively influence the lives of the women that come after us, but that this does not mean all women must succeed in the same way. Many paths are open to us, whether it be the paths of the knight, the mage, the spy, or many others, and the journey of a single woman does not limit others to follow in her footsteps. Not all women have to be knights, but Alanna’s knighthood can still help those who are finding their own way. A woman can be many things — what a novel idea, huh?
1. Female Protagonists That Can Hold Their Own
The best reason to read the Tortall books is that they not only feature female protagonists, but that they feature female protagonists that break all the rules for how lead women are supposed to behave. Not one of them is saved by or succeeds only through a man — most of them actually turn the men around them into better people through their interactions. Jonathan certainly learns to be a more worthy king because of the time he spends with Alanna — and Alanna refuses Jonathan’s hand in favor of a man who suits her more as a person. The women of Tortall can make their own decisions, can have sex with and desire who they want without being punished or bound by those decisions. They can overcome abuse and make a significant contribution to society (Onua Chamtong was physically abused and almost killed by her husband, but survives, finds Alanna, and becomes a leader in the Queen’s Riders). They can fight on the front lines or in the background, can succeed through cunning or strength or both and more — they are not, in other words, ever one thing; they are, as suprising as it may be to those of us who have gotten used to reading ‘woman’ as a particular character in so many novel, people.
Alanna puts it best in The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, when, in response to the Voice, the spiritual leader of the Bhazir people, telling her, “You are a terrifying creature…you do not take your place in your father’s tent, letting men make your decisions for you. You ride as a man, you fight as a man, and you think as a man…”, she says quite succintly:
So, what are you waiting for? Go pick up Alanna: The First Adventure and get ready for the best fantasy journey you’ll have in years.