Book Review: Tortall and Other Lands, by Tamora Pierce

November 23, 2011 at 11:08 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Tucked away within the pockets of larger stories, taking place days, decades, or even centuries before or after the larger stories, are moments of life both staggering and small. Young women finding strength, finding family, finding direction, and most of all, finding themselves, fill these pages with stories that come to life and stretch across Tortall and other lands.

In some ways, this book represents some of the most brilliant potential of fanfiction.

Fanfiction?

Yep, that’s what I said. Fanfiction. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, this is the author’s own work, protected under copyright, fully approved of by her publisher. But here’s the thing: these stories do exactly what the best fanfiction sets out to do, which is fill in the gaps. It offers a snippet of life after the Daughter of the Lioness pair, gives us a tiny piece of daily life for Daine and Numair (and Kitten). It gives us another peek into the society of the Shang warriors (have to admit, I would dearly love to see a full set about a girl in training to become a Shang warrior). They give us more, in the most simple and beautiful way. Most of all, they give us a glimpse of the wider world, events and people that maybe aren’t momentous enough to have their own book or series but can nonetheless have a wonderful impact on us within this medium.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and I won’t talk about them all here, but I’ll hit some highlights.

Hands down, my favorite story was the first, Student of Ostriches, in which Kylaia al Jmaa studies the animals in the world around her to find a way to protect herself and her family. I’m a sucker for well-researched animals- a leftover from an earlier project- but what caught me most about this story was how Kylaia watched the animals and truly worked to make their skills her own. When she sees an ostrich use powerful kicks to drive off an attacking pack of hyenas, she immediately draws the parallels to when she was being attacked by a group of boys who wanted her ball. It doesn’t come easily for her- it takes work, patience, and practice, but she keeps at it. For a while, it’s enough to be able to defend herself and to win races that will put coin in her family’s purse, but then a circumstance arises that will put her skills to a far more risky use. One of the things I’ve always loved about Tamora Pierce’s books is how hard her heroines are willing to work and we really see that in Kylaia’s story.

In Nawat, we get a glimpse of life not long after the end of Tricker’s Queen as Aly gives birth and Nawat tries to reconcile what it means to be both crow and man. This story doesn’t offer any easy solutions. Matters are life and death and even in the smaller things, they’re significant. It’s about family, but more than that it’s about the difficulties that come with family. Like, melding two very different backgrounds and worldviews. Like, prejudice and deformity. Like, the reasons we make sacrifices to be with those we love, and the choices we make when those sacrifices start to seem overwhelming. It’s a look at a marriage, at how to raise children, which isn’t something we see too often in YA. Extra kudos for the birth scene; while it’s appropriately gory, it’s also accurately gory. No ripping placentas with the teeth, please and thank you, but it certainly shows what childbirth is like without hospitals and happy drugs.

Last one I’m going to talk about is Lost. It’s not set in Tortall but it’s in nearby Tusaine, where Adria is a shy girl with an abusive father and a gift for mathematics that approaches the magical. And, there’s Lost, a darking. I love pretty much any contact with the darking, I think they’re amazing creatures, and Lost’s rather black and white views on what is and is not appropriate allow us to see what Adria can’t allow herself to understand yet. And then there’s the math. I’m not a math person. Most of it is over my hear, it frustrates me terribly, and I there’s always that nagging sense of when the hell am I actually going to use this (not when can anyone use it, just when would I use it). For Adria, it’s like mysticism and poetry, like a spark of the divine. And I love reading that. I can’t make sense of half of it but I understand how Adria can be captivated by the dance of numbers across the page- and that’s because of the way Tamora Pierce writes it.

That’s not to say that I loved everything in this book unstintingly. I wasn’t particularly fond of Huntress, mainly because it felt like there was something slightly lacking in the balance between our modern world and the magic that drifted into it. The Dragon’s Tale taught me very plainly that I much prefer Kitten (Skysong) when I have no idea what’s going on in her head. I know she’s young. I know she’s immature. But seriously, she annoyed me. Testing I thoroughly enjoyed in retrospect but the strangeness of being in our world, in the middle of a city, without any magic or fantasical beasties or such was jarring. I kept waiting for it, but reflecting back on the story later, knowing that it’s based off the author’s real experiences, made for a pleasant switch. Still strange, though.

Those are small things, though, and did little to take away from my overall enjoyment. They give us strong young women- not all of whom start out that way- and real circumstances, and what I really love, the fact of consequences. For those who’ve read the Immortals quartet, you’ll remember when Numair turned an opponent mage into a tree. Afterwards, he noted that there was now a tree somewhere in the world walking around as a two-legger. Meet: Elder Brother.

This is a book that can be read straight through or savored story by story, but even if you’ve never read her works before, this is a fantastic introduction to a world that has captivated me since I was eleven years old.

And continues to do so.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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