Review: Tempests and Slaughter (Pierce)

A Review of Tempests and Slaughter

This is the story of how Numair, a beloved character in The Immortals series, became the (ahem; nerdy but a touch amorous) sorcerer we know and love. It’s the story you didn’t know you needed, with a quieter approach to a Hogwarts-like school and a simmering undercurrent of the disaster that is to come. It has a different tone than some of Tamora Pierce’s other YA novels, and I think it would be enjoyable for readers of fantasy as well as YA fans, and to newcomers to Pierce’s work.

Gladiators aside, this is not the violent story you’d expect from the name. The key word, in fact, is in the series name: The Numair Chronicles. There are animal gods, two kinds of magic, first love, dedicated friends, puberty and one prodigiously talented little boy who is about to grow up.

Origin story
Tempests and Slaughter tells the story of a young Numair (Arram Draper) and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” who will become the villain in The Immortals series.

Arram Draper has a Harry Potter-like knack for finding conspiracies and trouble. What he lacks that Harry excels at is the ability to fully pursue them. The future Numair is often told to stay out of it and keep quiet by his trusted teachers, who vow they’ll handle it. But the trouble and foreshadowing just keep coming. Sound frustrating? It is! But this also makes it realistic, interesting and very, very tense.

Arram’s first friend at a school for older mages-in-training is another prodigy: the “leftover prince,” Ozorne. There are peeks at a temper, but his bad side, including his biases, get written off due to his family’s tragic history. And after all, he’s just a boy mage. What’s the worst that could happen?

Tempests and Slaughter is full of slow-burn foreboding like that. It allows the reader to know better without begrudging the characters for not putting two plus two together; they can’t see the future, and the vast majority of the time, Ozorne is no different than any other good-natured but burdened kid. He’s is a protective, wonderful friend to Arram, like the perfect older brother for the vulnerable young mage.

Another perk of being friends with Ozorne is that Arram meets Varice, a sensible and increasingly elegant young woman whom Arram risks ruining their trio of happy friends over: he doesn’t know Varice for long before he has his first real crush.  To Arram, the far more mature Varice seems unattainable, even as he takes on a slew of tasks meant for older teens or an adult.

This book left me eager to read more, ready to re-read The Immortals series and, sometimes, very annoyed. There is no satisfying wrap-up in sight: readers of The Immortals know more trouble is down the road, and nothing that happens in this series will change it. The future is literally already written.

But the looser structure of the story, flying through Arram’s years of training and many growth spurts, leaves room for a lot of action and milestones. Very little of the problems he comes across get resolved (or can be resolved) in one book.

This is a story that just keeps opening further and had to pause somewhere, which means I feel a little tortured between books. Fortunately, it’s a great thing to be tortured by Tamora Pierce’s characters, and I will absolutely have to read what happens next.

Tempests and Slaughter is a classic coming-of-age tale with a dark, magical twist. While Arram undergoes many rites of passage throughout the story, his status as a prodigy (and friendship with a river god) means he also takes on many roles suited for an older teen or adult.

Tempests and Slaughter is never overly violent and focuses mostly on relationships between the characters. Fans of fantasy in school settings will really take to this one. Fans of The Immortals series will be happily glued to it.

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YA books that changed the game #4: Wild Magic (Pierce)

The series on classic (pre-Harry Potter) YA books continues with another book by Tamora Pierce.

Wild Magic (Pierce) Review

Sometimes you don’t need a superhero. Sometimes you just need a Daine.

Thirteen-year-old Daine is missing a lot in her life: her family, a home, the identity of her father, the reason she can interact with animals almost like she’s one of them…She’s a puzzle, including to herself. She also has a self-esteem level in the negative digits and needs to make her way on her own.

Fortunately, a job bringing horses to Tortall sends her on a far better path.

Wild Magic is full of scarier creatures, higher stakes and more warm and fuzzy feelings than Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book of Tamora Pierce’s previous series. In many ways, it’s Alanna‘s exact opposite.

Alanna comes from a noble family; Daine comes from the middle of nowhere. Alanna can read; Daine can’t. The list goes on, but in essence, Alanna is an empowered young person chasing her dreams by bucking gender roles. Daine doesn’t know who she is, what she needs, or the first clue how to get it. She’s a girl alone in the world. But she’s also very, very special.

Diamond in the rough: Daine has extraordinary abilities, no faith in herself and little self-worth. The adventures get more serious–and more magical–as the series continues.

In all honesty, I didn’t get as much out of a grown-up re-read of Wild Magic as I did Alanna. I was struck and almost annoyed by how very little self-esteem Daine had, and how she continually was shocked by kindness and the differences in Tortall’s culture from that of her homeland. She can’t believe someone lets her have a book. That wide-eyed, What? For me? But I’m just a peasant girl! bit gets trying after a while. But fantasy is full of female characters who, at best, only act like they have low self-esteem. Poor Daine is the real deal.

Daine has amazing powers of her own, to be sure, but she’s no powerful sorcerer like her new teacher Numair. She lacks training, strength and reliability compared to the lovely, chummy cast of characters from the Song of the Lioness series, plus Numair.

This means Daine is never reduced to her abilities. Many “nice” young female characters have their personalities defined by what they can do for others: become a hero in a battle, lead a movement, learn the conniving ways of the people in power and beat them at their own game. Daine is defined by her powerlessness, by the way she lacks control and can hurt others.

She’s the ultimate underdog.

When I first read this as a teen, I was doing all the normal teen things, like negotiating my self-worth on a daily basis and figuring out myself and the world. Every other book had a girl empowered in some way. Sure, Daine has great abilities, but she doesn’t want them. They’re double-edged swords. She’ll use them to round up animals (also awesome), but she’s rightly terrified of hurting others, including her animal friends. Daine is trying to figure out how to be a good person and survive, and in the process almost diminishes herself into nothing.

If there’s a lesson to Wild Magic, it’s that even the meekest, most frightened of us are deserving of love. There are so many young people (and adults!) out there who need that message, and it’s why Wild Magic is still one of the best.

YA books that changed the game (#3 of 9)

I read this one 20+ years ago, and it’s stayed near and dear to my heart all this time. Which means I had to re-read it before posting this. I’m talking about the one, the only…

Alanna: the First Adventure (Pierce) Review

Alanna: The First Adventure, by Tamora Pierce (The Song of the Lioness, 1983, YA Fantasy/Adventure)

This one seems short compared to today’s YA fantasies, with a classic plot line and a wonderfully designed world (Pierce uses the same world for other series, including The Numair Chronicles and The Immortals—and often the same characters). The young, small hero(ine) overcomes her weaknesses through hard work, is brave and doesn’t back down as she strives to become a knight. She just has to pretend to be a boy to do it.

Alanna is a rough-and-tumble, capable and sometimes temperamental girl, and to her, it is completely not fair that she isn’t a boy. That honor goes to her twin brother Thom, her complete opposite: young Alanna is afraid of the magic she holds, while Thom loves it; Alanna is kind and considerate (one would say honorable and chivalrous), Thom not so much, though both twins have a mischievous streak; and Alanna loves hunting, sword play, riding horses, archery—you get the idea—while Thom sees little point to wielding things with points.

A switch is in order, with Alanna becoming Alan and going off to service at the palace, while Thom, destined for the same, goes to the City of the Gods to learn all that magic stuff Alanna hates. She doesn’t have to become a lady, and he doesn’t have to become a warrior.

But Alanna doesn’t get to leave magic entirely behind. She has a true gift for healing, and a warning from the gods says that she must heal to make up for the lives she’ll take as a warrior (you don’t hear anyone telling the real boys that; no wonder she doesn’t listen at first). For all her magic, even she can’t change her nature. Being a girl threatens to deny her everything she’s ever wanted; the strict gender roles of her time and country mean she can’t be herself.

Alanna’s non-stop adventure isn’t just a feminist tale, it’s a human one that every developing human could benefit from–and of course enjoy.

Many of the things Alanna thinks and says seem to suggest a transgender child; perhaps she would be if the story were written later, but that doesn’t appear to be Alanna’s theme. She always intends to reveal she’s a girl–after she becomes a knight, so they can no longer deny her. In a straightforward way that is part of (and not a high-horse diversion from) the story, Alanna is about the restrictions gender roles put on everyone, and how it affects a person’s destiny. Alanna defies it, but most of us struggle to, won’t or can’t. She’s a hero where heroes cannot tread. How many YA fantasies manage to show their readers that?

Other books in the genre, set in a prior period, manage a tough and adventuring gal on a horse—but like Ginger Rogers (she did the same as Fred Astaire, except backwards and in heels), YA fantasy heroines often have to do it all with long hair and a skirt or dress. Not Alanna. She fully embraces her kingdom’s male role, even if mother nature sometimes gets in her way. Even Aria Stark never has to pause for a period.

I wouldn’t have understood the value of all this, reading it for the first time as a young teen (I think the extent was: Girl becoming a knight! Thrashing the boys and proving herself! Yeah!). The way all of this is handled in Alanna is at just the right level for a young person, yet better appreciated as an adult.

At the same time, I can’t help wondering how much I already identified with Alanna’s plight when I was young, and how much every young teenage or pre-teen girl does. I didn’t remember Alanna’s lamentations about being a girl who’s not allowed to do things, which means I either thought it was just part of the story and had nothing to do with today, or on some level took it as true. Now it stands out. It almost seems too obvious.

Other parts of Alanna: the First Adventure I remembered clear as day, like a trip back through time (a truly great book, or song, can do that). I remembered reading one particular scene with the Thief King George on my grandparents’ couch one summer, like it’s a photograph. It very happily took me back. Still, on this re-read, the level of Alanna’s ire at being stuck as a girl surprised me.

It’s not just her, though: her brother Thom wants nothing to do with the path expected of him as a boy-slash-son, which is neatly done; he also has to pretend to be less intelligent and talented than he is, so he doesn’t earn undue attention and won’t be perceived as a threat. This isn’t a feminist tale, it’s a human one. And I would recommend it to any developing human.

All of that was just about the premise, which matters, of course, but doesn’t do it justice. Alanna: the First Adventure is also a lovely read, and Pierce’s writing can draw a person in and keep them there, even if you only give her less than a page. After all these years, I can’t stop myself from rooting for Alanna, an undersized, courageous and stubborn heroine, like she’s real. Then again, why would anyone want to try?

Up next in this blog series: Wild Magic (The Immortals), also by Tamora Pierce.