One of the most important authors in my formative years was the one and only Tamora Pierce. Her works influenced me to a huge degree, and I consumed them all in a very short and intense period of time. The good news is that these books have great messages for young adults to absorb. The better news is that I’m far from the only one who’s obsessed.
Pierce’s main works are split into two distinct worlds, that of the Circle of Magic books and that of the Tortall books. I know I picked up these books not long after I read the fifth Harry Potter book, probably within 18 months or so, because there was a period of a couple years where I only wanted to read kids-with-magic narratives. They’re both rather different in tone, but there’s still a lot of commonality between them. I read the Circle of Magic books first, which as far as I can tell from the fandom is not common. Later, when I had finished all of those that were published at the time and I was desperate for more, I picked up something from one of the Tortall series (I think I read Protector of the Small first; I know I read the series out of order).
The Circle of Magic series follows four children with magic; Sandry, Daja, Tris, and Briar, all from extremely different backgrounds who come to live together with their teachers, and their growth into a true family (as for some reason or other, all the main characters have lost their birth families). I know my description is not doing it justice, but these books span almost ten years and an entire continent, so it’s rather hard to describe well without spoiling the later books. And when I say “extremely different backgrounds” I am not kidding. Sandry is a white noble girl whose neglectful parents died during a plague; Daja is a black girl from a seafaring class known as Traders who are looked down on by well, most of mainstream society, whose family all died in a shipwreck, leaving her the only survivor; Tris is a white girl from the merchant classes whose early manifestations of power led them to believe she was possessed by demons, disowning her; and Briar is a mixed race street rat who never really knew his family, only his gang. The fact that these kids (all age 10 at the start of the series) come to not only respect and care for each other, but think of each other as family, is so meaningful. Even though the series as it stands now follows them through roughly age 18, there’s never a hint of romance between them, which from my wee baby perspective was pretty groundbreaking. And all the books deal with some pretty heavy stuff: piracy, plague, natural disasters, prejudice, murder, drugs, war, slavery, arson, mental illness, social injustice, etc.
After the first two series of four (one at age 10, one at age 14), we get a couple of stand-alone books, my favorite being the first, Will of the Empress, where the kids are reunited after several years apart at age 18. In this one it’s revealed that Daja is a lesbian, and that their teacher-mother figures, Lark and Rosethorn have been romantically involved since the beginning (my 12-year-old self fistpumping for being right). And if there’s anything I like more than being right, it’s canonically LGBT+ characters of color, because wow. These books were in a lot of ways my first introductions to a lot of these themes, because 1) people don’t write nearly enough kids books about murder, and 2) I had only just recently begun to foray into the YA shelves at the bookstore. And it would perhaps be overly simplistic to say that these books made me form certain opinions (being gay is chill, don’t be racist, friendship is more important than romance, and so so so many more), but I think they certainly helped along the way. I was 12, so I was already going in to my “rebel against parents conservatism” phase of life, but these books helped give me a direction for my juvenile activism. At the time I read them, Will of the Empress was the last one released, and I needed more; I was like a junkie with these books.
So naturally, I had to go and read Pierce’s other major series, the Tortall books. These are split into more distinct series, each following different protagonists, but there’s still a chronology, a lot of cameo appearances from past characters, references to things done in the past, etc. Now, I didn’t know that when I was 12, so I ended up starting with the third series, Protector of the Small. There’s five core series: Song of the Lioness, Wild Magic, Protector of the Small, Trickster, and Provost’s Watch. Each has its own protagonist, all very different women, but all of them relatable and worthy of a young girl’s admiration. They display strength (physical and emotional), intelligence, resourcefulness, ambition, kindness, compassion, bravery, and so much more.
To give a quick rundown of these series:
- The Song of the Lioness: Alanna of Trebond, a noble girl, switches places with her twin brother and disguises herself as a boy to become a knight and go on heroic adventures.
- Wild Magic: several years later, Daine, a poor, young runaway finds herself in the company of Alanna and a few other known characters when she is discovered to have powerful wild magic, thought by many to be imaginary, and her training with the most powerful mage in Tortall.
- Protector of the Small: Keladry of Mindelan wants to be a knight, the first to follow in the footsteps of Alanna the Lioness since the declaration that girls would be allowed to openly train as knights, and how she faces some of the same struggles as Alanna, and many different ones.
- Trickster: Aly, Alanna’s daughter, now a young adult in her own right, wants to stop living in her mother’s shadow, wanting to work in espionage, eventually finding herself shanghaied to another country and serving as the spymaster of a revolution.
- Provost’s Watch, centuries before Alanna’s time, a young woman, Beka, enlists to serve in the city watch of Corus, protecting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society and using her own relentlessness to solve crimes.
Yeah, I know, they all sound fantastic and you should go out and read them immediately. They’re all very different stories that deal with different issues and characters and generations, and everyone has a favorite, but truly they’re all great. Circle of Magic also deals with generational differences in a sense, with deuteragonists in the form of the main characters’ teachers, who are all also close friends and allies. The second series, The Circle Opens, has each of the four main characters becoming teachers themselves to younger students, and overall, I think mentorship is a huge theme in Pierce’s works. I think this actually may be the source of one of my core values, “women have to help and support other women”.
Actually, one of the things I think Tortall dealt with a lot more than Circle of Magic is both sex and sexism. Circle of Magic’s protagonists were three women and one man, and while sexism is definitely touched on (Daja takes up the traditionally male trade of smithing, since that’s what her magic is, etc.), it’s rarely the driving force of the story. In Song of the Lioness, however, the story centers on a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight, and the misogyny of the system and of many characters is brought up on a number of occasions. Keladry, who follows in her footsteps years later, likely deals with even more sexism in her training due to being openly female. And both of these worlds, but especially Tortall, are far more progressive than our own in terms of sex, birth control, and a woman’s ownership of her body. In the first series, we see Alanna being given a charm to protect against pregnancy when she’s like, 12. Over the course of the books, she takes three lovers, eventually marrying one of them, and she is never shamed or punished by the narrative for this. A lot of controversy in the fandom has arisen because Daine, the heroine of the Wild Magic series, in the last book, begins a romance with her former teacher, who is approx. 15 years older than her. Pierce has made no secret of the fact that she’s into the older men thing, and besides, in the world in which it takes place and in the constraints of the story, Daine is an adult woman when this happens. As much as I understand the concerns here, I can’t agree with them (in retrospect, this might be because I’m also into the older men thing).
I reread all these books pretty regularly, and I make sure to reread Squire, the third Protector of the Small book at the beginning of every school year. Keladry of Mindelan, from the time I first read her books, was always the type of person I wanted to grow up to be. Of all the core protagonists, I think she’s the most hardworking, the most compassionate, the one with the most integrity and more, everything I wanted to be. Saying this now, I don’t know how I didn’t see my true Hufflepuffdom sooner. At any rate, Kel has inspired me since I was 13, and probably will for the rest of my life. That’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from the rest of these characters, but Kel is the one that I nearly idolize.
I hear a lot of talk about there not being enough “strong female characters” and good role models for young girls in kids’ literature. To some extent I agree, but I have to wonder if they’ve heard of Tamora Pierce. I can’t guarantee it will work for every girl, but every Pierce fan I’ve befriended has seriously embraced the awesomeness and the messages of these books. Girls who act feminine are great and girls who act masculine are great. Girls who like boys and girls who like girls and girls who don’t like anyone and girls who aren’t always girls are all great. Girls of every skin tone and body type and age are great too. We all have our different favorites and different values, but with a spread of characters this excellent, there’s no wrong choices.