Book Review: Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce

October 26, 2011 at 11:38 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Note: this book is the third in the Beka Cooper Trilogy, so if you haven’t read the first two books, reader beware of what’s below.

In the wake of a personal tragedy, Beka is called to a Hunt unlike any she’s known before, where not just a few lives but the well-being of the entire Realm depends upon her ability to find a lost child. Across miles and weeks, she’ll have to face slavers, raiders, nobles, mages, and fellow Dogs, memories and betrayal, hopelessness and injury, all with the same fierce dedication and loyalty that has named her in the past. Only this time? It may not be enough.

This book starts out us out with the funeral of Beka’s fellow Dog and fiance, Holborn. Three years have passed since the end of Bloodhound, and Beka and Achoo, her scent hound, have been making names for themselves as Dogs. Beka doesn’t have time to grieve after the funeral though; she’s woken in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom, the Provost, and called to a Hunt where secrecy is of the utmost importance.

The Summer Palace has been attacked, and four-year-old Prince Gareth taken.

As with everything else in Tamora Pierce’s world, there aren’t really any easy black and white statements. Despite Beka’s dislike of it, politics stains through every move in this very deadly game. Inspired by his wife, the previously easy-to-manipulate party king has actually started ruling- and not just ruling, but ruling with a mind towards his common people. This has won him enemies from nearly every side, any one of whom could be responsible for the theft of his son. Even worse, the enemy is clever and very spendthrift with massive amounts of magic to both lay traps and erase the scent and proof of their passage. Lives mean nothing to this enemy, and the body count starts around 150 and grows from there.

Luckily, Beka isn’t alone. She has Achoo, of course, her loyal and mildly silly scent hound, and Pounce, her purple-eyed companion (really a constellation in the form of a cat). She also has her two-legged partner, Tunstall, a mage handpicked by Gerhsom who can’t possibly be as silly as he appears, and Tunstall’s lover and a fierce brawler in her own right, Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill. Being Beka, she also has other companions: the dust spinners and the ghosts who ride pigeon back to tell her things.

One of the things I love about Tamora’s writing is how rich her world is, not just in the building of it but in the telling of it. Beka is a Lower City girl. When she’s tired, her spelling and grammar slip back to atrocious, but from book to book you can actually see how she’s getting accustomed to proper writing. She has a rich Lower City vocabulary in which we’re immediately enmeshed, and she doesn’t shy away from basic bodily functions. In addition to her slum upbringing, she’s also a scent hound handler, so she knows the proper value of strong physical scents. Beka is not, in any respect, a delicate heroine.

What she is, is delightfully complex. She can be very shy, but also very brusque and forthcoming. She is incredibly loyal and relies on the loyalty of her friends, but she also knows that loyalty can be bought or corrupted. For all her disdain of noble honor, she’s got the same principle under less high-falutin’ names leaking out her pores. Even more than all that, she’s at a place where she truly has to question who she is and what she wants- and that’s because of Holborn. Holborn, who she tries to grieve because she knows she should, even though she’s secretly a little relieved. Because if he’s dead, she doesn’t have to call of the engagement and face all those questions. Holborn, who she loved for a while, but didn’t particularly like, with whom she fought frequently, Holborn who felt threatened- or perhaps outdone- by her skills as a Dog and died for trying to outdo her in turn. Holborn, who made her wonder if perhaps she really was as cold as her accused her of being.

And I am ridiculously grateful for Holborn for those very reasons. Beka is in such an interesting place because of him, a place where has the potential to grow in a number of different ways and we’re waiting with bated breath to see which path she takes. Beka is very accustomed to seeing the worst of humanity, and it’s hard to accept that sometimes there needs to be a little hope as well. Even more than that, I’m grateful that we get to move away from the whole “First love is forever” idea. Not that Tamora has ever particularly espoused that in her books- her characters nearly always have their share of heartbreaks growing up- but that’s certainly the idea that we see again and again and again and AGAIN in teen books right now. In a way, I get it- the characters are teenagers. If it’s not first love, they started early, and they want a happy ending, not a break up, so I get it. But it’s refreshing to see a circumstance in which first love isn’t forever, in which there are problems and heartache and an ending.

The characters are rich and alive, full of the contradictions inherent to mankind. Farmer Cape, the mage brought in by Gershom, is both silly and scary smart, powerful but with the appearance and apparent attitude of a yokel. Tunstall is a seasoned Dog, pragmatic and cynical, with profound superstition. Sabine is a noble and lady knight who rather enjoys barroom brawls and isn’t afraid to tell a king to piss off if he’s getting handsy. What’s truly stunning, however, is Tamora’s ability to make us deeply care for characters we see only for a page or two. We’ve barely met them, but we care what happens to them and we’re profoundly affected by Beka’s reactions to what happens to them.

When it comes down to it, I had two problems with this book, but they’re strange little problems (and one of them requires a significant amount of tap dancing around spoilers, so bear with me).

The easier problem? There was a severe lack of Rosto in this book. I want me some Rosto and it seems utterly unfair that there should be this amazing character and we barely get to see him. I definitely missed the Rosto.

The more complicated problem…There’s something that happens near the end of the book. We know it’s going to happen. We’ve been given the hints and clues, given the fears and the deep-dwelling dread. We know it’s going to happen. And by the time it happens, we can be fairly sure who’s involved in the happening. But it feels wrong. I don’t know if that’s because, despite all the clues, it still feels forced, like it’s out of character, or if we just want to call it out of character because we don’t want it to be true. I finished the book last night, and I reread that section this morning, and I’m still not sure. I can’t specifically say there was a flaw leading up to it but I also can’t be sure that it’s purely a gut reaction to a horrible event.

There’s a lot of grief in this book. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of guilt, and a deep inability to know who to trust. For all that, there’s also a lot of humor. Tunstall, Sabine, and Beka have a comfortable banter that they’ve developed over years of working together. Pounce, of course, being the pre-eminent cat, has more than a few pithy things to say. Achoo is adorable, and Farmer’s antics cross an entire range of ridiculous, all the more funny for the fact that he has very good reasons for doing so. One of my favorite things about this book was watching Farmer pull the tails on the other mages, no matter what side the mage is on. And there was a part that me very glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read it, because mixed with resourcefulness, squeamishness, and the pragmatism of seasoned Dogs was something that made me choke with laughter. I actually had my phone in hand to text my friend before I remembered it was one in the morning and she was probably sleeping. All I’ll say to that is when you hit page 490, just go ahead and put down any drinks as a precaution for the pages ahead.

It’s sad to see the end of Beka’s story, but finishing this makes going back to reread the Song of the Lioness quartet that much more interesting. Tamora Pierce always gives us good stories and brilliant worlds, but what I appreciate most is her real people and their real problems. Puberty. Heartache. Politics. Trust. Friendships. Betrayals. Sickness. Death. The whole range of human experience is brought into her books and she doesn’t shy away any of them, nor any aspect of them. Her characters are rich in personality, in contradictions, in virtues and flaws, and despite the rather legendary statures they eventually attain, they always feel like we could sit down next to them and know them. If you haven’t read Tamora Pierce, you need to.

Until next time~


  1. Fenny said,

    First off, I love love love Pierce’s works, love them. I especially loved Terrier, one of my favorite books of all time! I read Bloodhound, and it’s alright but it couldn’t hold up to Terrier. I had great expectations for the last book in the trilogy (waiting for two years after all..). That said, however, I felt thoroughly disappointed with Mastiff. The plot in itself was alright, but the characterization was horrible. Regarding old characters, Kora, Ersken, Anika and Rosto were not mentioned at all save Rosto in the beginning few pages following Holborn’s death. And I felt that Holborn was completely unnecessary to the plot. We never got to know him, therefore it was hard to relate to his death and Beka’s grief. And the only contribution it gave to the story was causing Beka some moments of loss which wasn’t all that needed as again we didn’t know him. And Tunstall, even if he loved Sabine would NEVER have gone against the law. In Terrier, that’s what made Tunstall Tunstall. He and Goodwin were characters that were presented as Beka’s future selves. I was so upset with that part of the story. And as to the new characters, I wanted to like Farmer, I think in the end I did, but the relationship between Beka and him feels so wrong. I felt that the romantic aspect of the plot felt undeveloped. There were barely any romantic indications between the two, if there was more it was too subtle and could have gone both ways. And coming from that, suddenly they’re madly in love with each other and want to marry one another??
    Overall, I feel let down by the last installment of the series. the characterization throws me off, even Beka doesn’t feel right. I almost get the sense that the novel is incomplete, and Tamora Pierce cut out too much. I guess in the end, it does get a reaction from me, albeit not one that I anticipated nor wanted.

    • Jennifer said,

      I definitely agree with that last comment- I am a big Tamora Pierce fan from way back. Like you I loved Terrier, thought well of Bloodhound but barely tolerated Mastiff. I just finished the book off feeling sad-which has never happened before, I was so shocked! I think it finished off the series on a really bad note-it gave Beka a rushed happy ending, and I felt how they tied it all in with George was wrong. The relationship between Farmer and Beka was also a really bad rush job by Tamora, but maybe that’s because I’m comparing it to the other books where she devoted a whole series to developing love interests between characters. I don’t think it was the gap in chronology between Bloodhound and Mastiff-after all she did it with the Circle series in Will of the Empress and I still loved it. It just left a bad taste in my mouth!

      • Mel said,

        I know how you feel but what really made me sad was how she made Tunstall the traitor

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