Thursday, 15 March 2012

Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce

I first read Tamora Pierce’s books when I was 11. As an avid reader I had somewhat outgrown the children’s section of the public library, so on one of our frequent visits my mother asked someone to recommend young adult books for me. One book they pulled off the shelf was Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in the Song of the Lioness Quartet. So began a love affair that continues today. Sitting on my bookshelf are two cancelled library books from that series that I bought at the whopping price of twenty cents each. I have read those books over and over again, and when anything new is published, well, I have to read that too.

The first series, The Song of The Lioness, tells the story of Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can train as a knight. Set in the fantasy kingdom of Tortall, it involves magic, meddling gods, and swords - all the classic fantasy stuff. Many of Pierce’s other series are spin-offs, involving connected characters; Alanna herself often appears as an adult in a minor role. Mastiff is the third of The Beka Cooper trilogy. It is also set in Tortall, but we have travelled back in time to tell the story of an ancestress of another major character from the first series, George Cooper.

Tamora Pierce set out to write strong female characters in her series, something she felt was lacking in many of the books she read as a child. This is probably one of the things I loved about the books growing up. So often fantasy aimed at young adults, even specifically girls, have weak female roles. The classics of the genre, Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, are often specifically criticised for this; however recent books can be almost as bad, such as megahit Twilight with pathetic Bella; even Hermione in the Harry Potter books is the ‘clever one’ and sometimes a bit of a wimp. One, otherwise good, young adult book someone I know has recently read featured a woman whose superpower is to read peoples’ minds - by having sex with them. Filling this void of characterisation are Tamora Pierce’s heroines; they are strong willed and tough, and yet remain feminine, even in the middle of a soldiers’ campaign.

As Pierce’s books often take place over many years, they can follow their main characters through adolescence into adulthood, exploring all the terrain that comes with that change. Relationships with the men in their lives are complicated, occasionally messy, but always portrayed as an equal partnership. Pierce is also admirably frank about sex as a natural part of healthy adult relationships. Sometimes the books probably even get ahead of their intended readers, as in the fourth Lioness book, when Alanna realises the difficulties of mixing having a family with the man she loves and her chosen career as a Knight of the Realm.

The books also tackle more universal themes. Loyalty and betrayal are a major theme in Mastiff. How the rich or powerful treat those weaker and poorer than them is a recurring theme in many of her books. And while her books focus on female characters, they don’t do this to the detriment of male characters. Platonic friendships between male and female characters are portrayed well. Some of my favourite characters are the men; and I’m pretty sure my first real literary crush is courtesy of these books too…

I’ve been reading Tamora Pierce’s books for well over half my life now, and I have of course outgrown them to a degree, but my respect for what she has achieved as a writer has only grown. I don’t love her recent books, such as Mastiff, in the same way I love the books I read as a child. But that is more a product of my development rather than a reduction in quality. So to those of you out there who might be wanting to give a book to a young adult reader anytime soon, I couldn’t recommend these highly enough.

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