Dec 6 2011 12:00pm

“Tell no one where you’re bound” — being a review of Tamora Pierce’s Mastiff

Mastiff is the highly-anticipated third, and final, instalment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper novels, after 2006’s Terrier and 2009’s Bloodhound.* Three years have passed since the events of Bloodhound. Beka is still partnered with Tunstall, and still assigned as a Dog in the Lower City, where she has quite a reputation for hunting criminals, both in her own right and as the handler of the scent hound Achoo. The night after she buries her fiancé, the Lord Provost himself arrives on her doorstep, with secret orders: dress and pack in haste

Beka and Tunstall, together with the Lord Provost’s most trusted mage, an odd duck called Farmer Cape, are summoned to the Summer Palace. Four-year-old Prince Gareth has been abducted by people who didn’t hesitate to slaughter everyone in their way. The magic used suggests that this is a plot which reaches the highest echelons of the kingdom. Great mages and powerful nobles alike are annoyed by King Roger’s plans for taxation, and as Beka and her companions come to learn, the prince’s health has been magically linked to his parents’. His suffering is their suffering; his death, should he die, their death

Joined by Lady Sabine of Macayhill, a lady knight and Tunstall’s lover, Beka and her companions set out in pursuit of the prince, a long, difficult hunt, with dangers at every turn. Young Gareth has been disguised as a slave and taken north in a slave caravan

Beka and company are already days behind. More than once, they miss their quarry by mere hours. When they finally do catch up, it is to walk into a trap. One of their party is a traitor, and it is up to Beka to escape the trap and rescue the prince.

Mastiff is, I think, perhaps the darkest and most mature — in theme, if not in content — of Pierce’s books to date. Emotionally, it hits a lot of less than shiny and happy notes: Beka’s complicated feelings towards her dead fiancé, Holborn, wind about the narrative. It’s a very accurate picture of someone who’s fallen out of love — and feels guilty about the jerk they fell out of love with. The kidnapping of a child, too, is not a cheery event, and nor are the deaths Beka comes across in pursuit. Nor, either, the treatment of slaves.

Which isn’t to say it’s a book full of doom and gloom. It’s well-paced and well-characterised, and Beka is possessed of a sense of humour, although the conceit that this is her account written down in her journal is a little hard to believe. All the characters, including newcomers to page-time Farmer Cape, the mage, and the lady knight Sabine are fascinating (and in case you’re wondering, yes, I would read a whole book about Sabine of Macayhill: I’m biased towards people who start — and win — tavern brawls) and the foursome, or rather sextet (counting the semi-divine cat Pounce and the scent hound Achoo), have an interesting dynamic on the road north. The interlude at the castle of Queensgrace is particularly well done, I thought — but then I have a soft spot for capers, and ’do they know that we know that they know that we know’ types of maneouvering.

The truth of betrayal turns out to be heart-wrenching, in the end. It’s to Pierce’s credit that she makes it believably in character, as well.

Mastiff is an excellent read. It’s gripping from the very first pages, and it builds steam all the way to a compelling conclusion. With, of course, moments of humour and touching emotion along the way. I recommend it wholeheartedly: it’s not just a good YA fantasy, but a fine book in its own right.

*And you would not believe the trouble I had getting my hands on a copy. First one copy is nicked in the post. Then I discover my nearest bookshop has sold out. Finally one copy comes in late on the last Friday evening in November. Aren’t I lucky I was right there?

According to Liz Bourke, interesting things happen to other people. At least in winter. When it is too dark and damp to do anything else but stay in by the fireside and drink copious amounts of tea.

1. euphbass
I loved the book, although I found the second in the series to be more gripping. This one was a lot of going somewhere - it took a long time to arrive. I know that the book was as much about the journey, but it always seemed like it was just a very long prelude to a main point.

I didn't, however, think the betrayal was at all in character. Maybe, if I'd only read this book, but based on the knowledge of the character from two previous books, I found it very hard to believe, and it was probably my least favourite thing about this book. It just didn't work. It was very sad though, quite heartbreaking.

It's interesting to see Tamora Pierce's writing evolve of the years, from the Alanna books (which I'm currently re-reading following this) to here. Each new Tortall series is better written, more fully developed in all ways, and also, each seems to feature a slightly more mature / older protagonist. I have high hopes for the upcoming Numair books!

Speaking of Numair, Farmer reminded me a lot of him in some ways...
2. euphbass
PS I meant to also note - what's with the cover art? It looks like Beka's right arm is disjointed or something...
Rowan Shepard
3. Rowanmdm3
@2 Actually, I thought the cover looked like Beka has the whole exorcism thing going on. And I agree with you on Farmer seeming a preshadow of Numair.

Still, I enjoyed the book. I was a little dissapointed about the betrayel, but I do think it was in character. Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of the books was the epilogue with George :)

I preordered the book from a local independant store and was happily surprised when they called a week before the offficial pub date :) Tamora Pierce came and spoke at that same store a couple days after the official pub date and it was really fun. I highly recommend catching her speak if you get a chance. She also confirmed we will be getting another Kel book in the future, yeah!
4. curiositykt
I really wish that there had been perhaps a little more in the beginning with Holborn, or come up with a different reason for her being upset - as it was really confusing start to the book. I felt like I had missed a book between or at least a short story and I couldn't understand why Beka would be with a guy like that or why I should care at all about him or their relationship. It gave a bad taste to the beginning of the book. Once past that though, it was great. I was happy that there wasn't a great deal of contrived romance (though the little bit that there was, annoyed me) and I was entirely unprepared for the betrayal.
5. muddyfootprints
Argh! This has made me all the more annoyed that they don't sell Tamora Pierce in the UK any more! I'm going to have to wait ages for my copy :(
6. euphbass
@muddyfootprints: what do you mean? I had mine pre-ordered through Amazon UK (I'm in Scotland) and it arrived as predicted on it's UK release date (in fact, I'd completely forgotten I'd ordered it, so it was a very pleasant surprise!).
7. euphbass
(Indeed, it is still available on Amazon, published by Random House - was release in October.)
8. Jenny Thurman
I have to agree with Liz and Rowanmdm3 that the betrayal was in character. I wailed for a good hour or so after finishing that it *wasn't* but then had to conceed that it sadly made sense.

That's interesting, euphbass, that you found Bloodhound to be more gripping. I read the two back to back and found Mastiff to be more engrossing than Bloodhound - although both were quite enjoyable. For me, I think it partly had to do with the fact that Beka is much more mature and a more equal partner in this one, and so it felt more as though everyone's fates were really depending specifically on her. Rather than her just thinking that they did, and then her being vital to catching the bad guys. I also wonder how much our opinions of the betrayal are factoring into that as well.
9. euphbass
Jenny Thurman: I don't think my opinion of the betrayal influenced the fact that I fround Bloodhound more gripping - it only happened at the end, after all. I think just found Bloodhound to have a tighter, faster, much more dramatic plot which sucked me in much more. It was much more un-put-down-able, for me.

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