The first thing I think of when I hear Tamora Pierce’s name is Girl Power, although sometimes Mother of Kickass Heroines in YA Fantasy comes to mind, too. In my opinion, Pierce’s books have had a significant impact on both teens and YA fantasy.*
But, I have to admit, I don’t think Pierce is a great writer. While I do generally enjoy her books and find them readable, her writing lacks subtlety and some of her heroines are such earnest but admirable do-gooders that, as fictional characters, they occasionally grate on my nerves.
Despite its title and the six stories set in the larger universe established in the various Alanna/Daine/Kel/Aly books, I don’t think any of the stories in Pierce’s latest, Tortall and Other Lands (Random House), take place in Tortall itself. In any case, for readers unfamiliar with Pierce’s oeuvre, this is a suitable introduction to her body of work. As for a longtime readers like myself, I thought it perfectly representative of what I find both admirable and exasperating about Pierce’s books.**
Tortall and Other Lands is a collection of 11 short stories, eight of which were previously published. I hadn’t read any of the stories prior to picking up this collection, but even if I didn’t know the author’s identity, I’m pretty sure I could have easily figured it out. Pierce’s voice and writing style remain remarkably consistent throughout, even though one story was first published in 1986, the other 10 between 2000 and 2011. Even the last two stories, an urban fantasy (“Huntress”) and a contemporary piece with no fantasy elements (the semi-autobiographical “Testing”) do not depart much from themes found in her usual high fantasies. All the short stories, even the ones told from a male point-of-view, share many of the same traits found in Pierce’s novels—promoting diversity, tolerance and feminism, and celebrating strong-willed females with generous souls, many of whom are animal lovers. These are values I share and applaud, but I often think Pierce’s messages are conveyed in too heavy-handed a manner.
The collection opens with “Student of Ostriches,” about a girl who teaches herself to fight by observing animals and uses her skills to defend her sister’s honor. In “Elder Brother” and “The Hidden Girl,” a pair of connected stories with heavy parallels to certain strains of Islam, a tree is turned into a man, and the daughter of a traveling priest is determined to share her knowledge with other women. “Nawat” continues the story of Nawat and Aly from the Trickster books and is told from the titular character’s point-of-view. The dragon in “The Dragon’s Tale” is Kit, from The Immortals Quartet, who wants to help a young woman, without any help from Daine. In “Lost,” a girl with a gift for math struggles against her father’s abuse and a teacher’s jealousy. A “Time of Proving” turns out to be a time of teaching and learning for a young woman. “Plain Magic,” although predictable, was probably my favorite in the collection.
In some ways, I thought “Nawat” the most beautiful story in the bunch, but as I read it, I was reminded of the discomfort I felt upon listening to the Trickster books on audio, with the people of the Copper Islands seemingly unable to successfully rebel until (the white-skinned) Aly appeared, as if they were not smart or capable enough to do so on their own. The rest of the stories were, again, consistent in quality. I didn’t find any of stories particularly dull or disappointing, but I didn’t think there was anything especially outstanding either. Though if you’re more of a short story fan than I am, or don’t have the same problems with Pierce’s writing style as me, you might disagree.
* Amy Pattee mentioned wanting to see Christopher Pike win the Margaret A. Edwards Award. My pick for the Edwards is Tamora Pierce, despite my issues with her writing. How she has not yet won the award boggles my mind.
** Well, her Random House Alanna, Daine, Kel, Aly, and Beka series, since I haven’t read any of the Scholastic-published Circle books.
Trisha Murakami blogs at The YA YA YAs. She read her first Tamora Pierce book in middle school and just can't quit her. She is looking forward to the upcoming Mastiff (Random House, 2011), part of the Beka Cooper trilogy, and hopes that Beka will finally get together with Rosto.