They say never judge a book by its cover, but as a twelve-year-old that’s exactly what I did. Perusing the local library, the cover art is what first drew me to Tanith Lee’s Wolf Tower, Book One of The Claidi Journals. The cover showed a young girl, close to my age, holding a book, with a desert kingdom stretching out behind her. I also remember the blurb on the cover said, “For fans of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted.” Ella Enchanted was my favorite book of all time—surely this was a sign from the book gods; I checked out Wolf Tower from the library and quickly fell into my very first fantasy world.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, The Claidi Journals is a quartet of YA fantasy books detailing the adventures of a teenage girl named Claidi as she attempts to uncover her heritage. Lee creates a rich world that centers around a ruling hierarchy of noble Houses, named after various animals: Wolf, Raven, Tiger, etc. Each House’s power is centralized in a tower, such as the foreboding Wolf Tower, which lends its name to the first novel. Claidi is a slave who escapes from her House and travels throughout the wider world, while the reader follows the action via her journal entries.
In my experience as a reader new to fantasy novels, The Claidi Journals were a great introduction to the genre. You could say they were a gateway to fantasy for me. Through these books, I encountered many of the key fantasy tropes that I would eventually recognize again and again as I moved on to more adult novels. Lee keeps the tone of the books light enough for young readers, yet still fast-paced and exciting. For example, the ruling Houses have a complex family lineage that grows with each book in the series. Complicated family trees can be overwhelming in fantasy novels, especially in high fantasy. If you see a family tree branching out before you’ve hit the first chapter, you know what I mean…it can be a lot to keep track of. Lee, on the other hand, always manages to keep the characters and relationships concise and easy to follow in the Claidi Journals, while still instilling the books with plenty of family drama.
Worldbuilding is another fantasy genre standard that the Claidi Journals introduced me to. Lee creates a complicated world that is reminiscent of both Medieval European and Middle Eastern cultures. Claidi encounters a variety of people and civilizations on her journey. From simple villages to vast cities, the world that Lee built feels both familiar yet different enough to be exotic. Science and magic are also present in the story. This was my first introduction to the world of steampunk, in an interesting but not overly complicated way. Where do they get oil? Chalk it up to magic. Lee’s magic system doesn’t confuse young readers unfamiliar with the idea. By the second book in the series Lee ramps up the magical realism and it easily became my favorite book in the series.
Claidi’s agency as a strong young female protagonist was also a pretty new concept for me, at the time. A shy and quiet girl can break out of her shell and go on an adventure? My young mind was completely blown. This was my first taste of a heroine capable of saving herself and turning the tables on her enemies. It made me crave more. The Claidi Journals provided the first in a long line of strong female characters that would become my reading role models, starting me off on a reading spree of works featuring other YA heroines, such as Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.
What I especially loved about Claidi was how her character grew throughout the series. Lee puts her through numerous challenges, all of which Claidi overcomes, growing even stronger in the process. By the fourth book she has become pretty powerful in her own right. She’s also very relatable. Since Claidi is telling the story through her journal writing, we see her as her true self. We experience her sense of humor through her words and her kindness through her actions. She is not, however, a Mary Sue—she’s smart but not insanely clever; she falls into numerous traps and occasionally needs her friends to help her.
My only criticism of the series has to do with Claidi’s choice of love interest. Yes, there is a love triangle, but it’s not a constant irritation like many other YA love triangles. Lee also employs the “we are destined to be together” trope that so often appears in fantasy. But the main issue is that I hated the series’ main love interest, Argul. He’s a roguish bandit that Claidi meets in the first book; they then spend most of the series separated by outside forces. I just never felt that their relationship developed in a believable way. What can I say—I was a practical reader even when I was twelve. Luckily, Claidi’s relationship with Argul never becomes the central focus of the narrative.
The true focus of the story is Claidi’s quest to discover who she really is. The quest trope is, of course, pretty standard in fantasy; the hero must locate a physical item, or rescue a specific person, or go on a journey of self-discovery. Claidi does more of the latter. She must discover who she is as a person, as well as uncover her true parentage. Even though she was born a slave, Claidi is later told that she is of royal blood. She is conflicted about her feelings of wanting to be a princess while at the same time hating the ruling class and the way they treat others. Eventually, Claidi chooses to be herself and live the life she wants, rather than the life her family would have chosen for her. This decision resonated with me quite a lot, as a young reader eager for independence.
The Claidi Journals is not a perfect fantasy series. It has its flaws. But as a young woman just discovering the fantasy genre, it’s just what I wanted: a fun series packed with adventure in a far off land, with handsome bandits and evil princesses. Thanks to Tanith Lee’s storytelling, I learned the basic concepts of what makes a fantasy novel work, and was left with a love for the genre that will continue for years to come.
Top image: cover art from The Claidi Journals omnibus (Science Fiction Book Club, 2002); illustration by Mark Zug.
Sandra Gisi is a book lover and writer from Austin, Texas. When she isn’t reading books and comics, she passes the time binge watching Netflix with her lovely husband and plethora of pets.