So, I’ve talked about Tamora Pierce’s works a lot here on this blog, but most of my attention has been focused on her Tortall universe works. But when I first discovered her writing, I actually read her Circle of Magic books long before I moved on to Tortall (and it felt like abandoning or betraying Winding Circle to do so). I am quite certain that these were the earliest books I remember reading where a large majority of the characters were female. And you know what that means? That means it’s time for gender-bending!
So, there’s a decently sized cast of primary characters, but I want to focus on the main four – Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar. They are four children, all with no family for a variety of reasons, but they all have strong and unique magic. They are eventually all brought to Discipline Cottage within the Winding Circle temple to learn magic from their teachers, and as you might expect, they become a family.
Sandry is a young noblewoman whose parents and nursemaids all died in a smallpox epidemic. Her magic manifests through thread and cloth, which means an alarming number of people underestimate her. Sandry is fiercely protective of her newfound family and as proud as anything, as those same people have found. She once ripped a murderer to pieces after catching them in a net woven out of pure magic. One of the best parts of Sandry’s character is that she is absolutely feminine and girly and she still is not to be trifled with. I think some of that would be lost if she were male, although I would appreciate seeing a male character whose power came through such a traditionally feminine medium. But as is, Sandry is a delightful subversion of the idea that “strong women” can’t be ladylike.
On the opposite side of that coin is Daja, from a seafaring Trader clan who all died in a terrible shipwreck, leaving her the only survivor. Her magic manifests through metalwork and smithing, clearly a traditionally male occupation. Daja is indeed the most masculine of the 3 girls at Discipline, but she usually doesn’t deny or outright reject her femininity in the way some authors would write a character like this. In The Will of the Empress, Daja realized that she is a lesbian, which is great, and none of her friend-siblings have any problem with this, which is also great. Good representation of queer women of color is super super important (oh, did I mention that these books are also very racially diverse?). Of the group, Daja is the stalwart one, the stoic, who never falters. To be perfectly honest, I think if this were a male character, he’d probably be super boring to me. Wow, a stoic male metalworker? Never seen that before, although I admit his desire to be accepted by his family again would be interesting since “family” is a typically feminine goal in fiction. And since that character would turn out to be a gay man, I’d probably be way more interested again. There’s alarmingly little fictional representation for queer people of color, no matter their gender identity, so no matter what Daja is going to be great.
Then there’s Tris, who is probably the one I relate to the most. She’s a fiery redhead from the merchant classes, whose family cast her out because her magic made them think she was possessed by demons. She also loves reading and is rather insecure about being overweight (wow, shocking that I relate to this girl). But her magic is probably the scariest of the four; it manifests through the weather itself. She can have complete control over weather of all kinds. She’s probably the least emotionally stable of the group (being tossed out by your family at the age of nine will do that to you). She is reserved initially, and comes off as cold or uncaring to most strangers. But she also loves deeply and has a very strong sense of compassion. I’m mixed on what Tris would be like as a male character. If handled well, though, I’m sure I would like him and sympathize, though perhaps not quite as much as for a female character (sue me).
Then there’s Briar, the lone boy of the group. He’s a street rat, orphaned for years, running with a gang as a thief. I have a terrible soft spot for noble thief characters and I completely blame Tamora Pierce for this. His magic manifests through plants. This could certainly be thought of as a typically feminine occupation, gardening and flowers and such. But Briar’s powers first caught his teacher’s attention when he cultivated a patch of moss in a prison cell, and he also once completely destroyed a city block with thorns and vines. He definitely shows some traits of hyper-masculinity (fighting, womanizing, etc), but he also counteracts this with a surprising amount of tenderness, concern for his sisters, and a very nurturing spirit. He’s almost like what I said I would hope for in a male Sandry, and if gender-bent, I do think Briar would be more Sandry-like in terms of narrative role. A girl who does feminine things but still kicks ass. But Briar would be a more masculine girl, whereas male!Sandry would be a more feminine boy.
Basically, no matter which way you slice it, you’ll get great characters eye-rolling at traditional gender roles and ignoring them to get things done. Because who has time for that when you’re busy surviving earthquakes, pirates, forest fires, plagues, murderers, gangs, and more? Tamora Pierce is an author who I trust to subvert traditional ideas of gender in pretty much every book, which is so great. It’s a mark of good writing that your characters are still strong and diverse and well-rounded no matter what gender they are, and I wish I could say the same for more writers.