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.