Revisiting Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Books as a Mother

Tamora Pierce’s most recent Tortall book, Tempests and Slaughter, focuses on the early life of Numair Salmalín, known then as Arram Draper, and his time at the University of Carthak. Once I finished that book, I knew I had to go back and reread The Immortals quartet, which introduced Numair. And then I went back to the beginning to remind myself how it all started with Alanna and suddenly, I was rereading every Tortall book—even Tortall: A Spy’s Guide, which I hadn’t read before.

I love rereading books and do so often. It’s a different experience every time. Not only do I catch details that I skimmed over the first time in my desire to find out what happens next, I also get to experience books from a different perspective. In the case of Pierce’s books, I started reading them as a young girl. When I first read about Alanna’s adventures, I would lose myself in a fantasy where a girl could become a lady knight, proving herself in a world of men and performing heroic deeds. It felt magical, adventurous, and above all, empowering.

The Tortall books repeat this theme, but in different ways. Daine makes her way in the world after tragedy to find friends and family and help save the kingdom. Keladry enters a world that repeatedly tells her she can’t and insists, I can, and I can do it better. Pierce built her entire career writing strong female characters that prove again and again that women are powerful and women can do anything.

When you truly love a book, its characters feel like friends, and rereading can feel like coming home. But of course, while the characters stay the same, the reader does not. And revisiting Tortall as not just a woman, but as a mother of a daughter, was a whole new experience. I found a world where women were actively fighting against the misogyny of tradition. Pierce trusts her readers to understand gender and class politics and doesn’t gloss over the realities of puberty, menstruation, and sex.

My daughter is only 5 and still years away from embarking on her first adventure in Tortall, but even now I think about how I’m going to explain the way the world can be for women to her. We want to tell our daughters that they can do anything, but society shows us again and again that while it may be true in theory, the reality is far from ideal. Just like Alanna and Kel, women are frequently told they can’t engage in the same activities or operate on the same level as their male counterparts, and society actively discourages them from challenging the dominance of men.

In the Protector of the Small quartet, Kel is the first girl to enter the page program after Alanna was revealed as a lady knight and the king decreed that girls can train to be knights as well. From day one, she is held to a different standard than the boys. She is put on probation for the first year, taunted by bullies and given weighted weapons for practice. With the odds stacked against her and those in power repeatedly encouraging her to quit, Kel works harder to prove herself. She wakes up early for extra practice. She runs when she could walk. She maintains her composure and always keeps her emotions in check, so no one can use those emotions against her or accuse her of being “weak” or “hysterical.” And she changes minds.

But while Kel pushes herself to be better than the boys, she’s still able to be a girl—a luxury that Alanna never enjoyed. And it shows in the way femininity is presented in both series and how each grows from girl to woman.

Alanna and Kel both started as pages at a young age, but with very different backgrounds. Kel grew up with a mother, sisters, and a close-knit, supportive family. Alanna lacks a mother and has an absentee father. When puberty begins, she is surrounded by boys and men. The only one who knows her secret is also a man, and though he is sensitive to the reality of her situation, he is in no way prepared to teach her the ways of being a woman. When she wakes up with her first period, Alanna is racked with fear. She is bleeding and has no idea why. She can’t see a palace healer for fear of revealing her secret and puts her faith in George Cooper, who brings her to his mother. Red with embarrassment, she explains her problem and Mistress Cooper laughs.

“You poor child,” she chuckled. “Did no one ever tell you of a woman’s monthly cycle? The fertility cycle?”

Alanna stared. Maude had mentioned something, once—

“That’s what this is? It’s normal?”

Alanna’s reaction—fear that turns to anger, anger that turns to frustration when she’s told her monthlies will happen regularly until she’s too old to bear children and that there’s nothing she can do about it—is an honest reaction. It’s the reaction of a girl who was not prepared for puberty, who chafes at the need to bind her growing breasts and scoffs at the idea that she may want to have children one day. It’s a reaction that many girls who receive subpar sexual education experience. Pierce helps fill in the blanks for those girls, acknowledging how much menstruation sucks.

Throughout the rest of the series, Alanna is confronted with so many different versions of femininity, while pretending to be a boy and then as a lady knight. In later books, she struggles with her identity as a woman. She comes to realize that a woman can be strong without a sword and shield. In Woman Who Rides Like a Man, Alanna is for the first time is in the company of women and learns—and teaches—the power that women hold in society, even if it is behind the scenes. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the series, Alanna encounters Princess Thayet and her bodyguard Buri, two more strong women who challenge her view of femininity. Buri is a warrior like her but knows how to care for a baby, laughing when Alanna does not. Thayet is a far cry from the simpering maidens at court trying to charm their way into securing husbands. She’s beautiful, but strong. She can fight, but also knows that her beauty makes her powerful. From the rich secondary characters throughout the series, Alanna learns, alongside the reader, that there are many ways to be a woman and all are valid.

And then there’s sex. Pierce presents truly progressive attitudes towards sex in the Tortall books. After Alanna is taught about periods, she is also told about and given a charm that will prevent pregnancy if she lies with a man. Mistress Cooper tells her honestly that women enjoy sex too—and with a charm against pregnancy, it’s possible to enjoy a sexual relationship outside of marriage, a novel idea. When Alanna begins a sexual relationship with Prince Jonathan later on in the series, she is force to navigate the complicated ways sex changes a relationship. Jonathan, stuck in the traditional patriarchal view of the world, assumes they’ll marry, but Alanna is not so sure. Alanna enjoys three sexual relationships in the books, with three very different men, before settling down and marrying George Cooper. As she has explored her femininity, she also explores her sexuality and when she makes her decision, it’s from a place of experience.

But Alanna acknowledges that she is not interested in the life of a noblewoman and the purity of virginity. Kel, training openly as a woman, has similar thoughts, but her beau cannot get past tradition. Cleon will kiss Kel with abandon, but never goes beyond that—though Kel has certainly considered it—because he is betrothed to another and wishes to remain pure for her. It is an arranged marriage and though Cleon considers trying to get out of it, he puts duty before love.

But while the Protector of the Small makes the choice to forgo sex due to both lack of a suitable partner and time, she is forced to acknowledge that her status as a noble and the power that brings allows her to view sex from a very different lens than other, less privileged characters, including her own servant. Through a well-timed interruption, Kel is able to prevent her maid Lalasa from being sexually assaulted by another noble in the page program. Though not explicit, it’s hinted that this is not the first time Lalasa has been sexually assaulted, and when Kel wants to report the violation, Lalasa begs her not to, saying no one will believe her, as a woman with no power. The storyline feels uncomfortably relevant in the #MeToo era, even though it was published nearly two decades before the current reckoning.

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring Bekah Cooper into this discussion, especially since her world, set 200 years before Alanna’s first adventure, is a very different one: more progressive in some ways, more oppressive in others. Bekah allows the reader to experience Tortall from a working-class perspective. Bekah lives and works in a rough part of town, a far cry from the comforts of the palace. Women work because they must. Sexual assault and domestic violence are a common reality for many, and law enforcement—the Dogs, as the Provost’s Guard are known—can only do so much to protect the people. The charms to prevent pregnancy that are readily available to Alanna and Kel cost money that women in the Lower City don’t have. Many have children they can’t feed and desperation forces them to make heartbreaking decisions, whether that means selling their own bodies to feed their family or selling their children into legalized slavery.

As a working woman, Bekah has more agency than many of the women she encounters. She can afford her own lodging and is able to buy a birth control charm when she chooses to have sex. But she knows that as a woman, she’s still vulnerable, even as a Dog. She’s alert, she can fight, and even weaves spikes in her hair as an extra layer of protection—anything to get a leg up when violence threatens.

Woven throughout Bekah’s tale is a thread of story about the way women are viewed, an explanation as to how Tortall changed between Bekah’s time and that of Alanna. Throughout the series, Pierce explains the power and worship of Gods and Goddesses. Alanna is in the service of the Great Mother Goddess, the Queen of the Gods alongside Mithros. The Great Goddess represents all women, throughout their lives as maiden, mother, and crone. But in Bekah’s world—a world where a woman can be a Dog or a lady knight—the idea of the Gentle Mother is beginning to take hold, forcing women into more limited roles: Women should yearn for the cry of a baby and avoid war and politics. Virginity is sacred and to be safeguarded until a woman becomes wife and then mother. It’s a belief that provides the bridge from Bekah to Alanna’s reality, where women have been marginalized, and have less rights and less power. This is the world that Alanna and Kel challenge and fight to change.

This pervasive thread in Pierce’s work is reminiscent of the abstinence-only sexual education that is taught in too many schools in the United States, where girls are told that their role as a sexual being is to be a source of pleasure for men. It’s reflected in the disturbing rhetoric that insists that a woman who is sexually assaulted is somehow at fault, because she was wearing a skirt too short or because she smiled too readily. The storyline is subtle, not part of the main plot, but woven persistently throughout the books. It feels like a warning to young girls: This is how women lose power over their bodies. This is why we have to fight for our rights.

My daughter is fortunate in that she won’t have to learn all about puberty and sex from any book. Though she’s only 5, we’ve started having age-appropriate conversations about her body and what it means to be a girl. She’s being raised to know that she can be whoever she wants to be and love whoever she wants to love. These conversations are ongoing, and I hope to always be here to answer her questions. But for all the girls that aren’t so lucky, thank the Goddess for Tamora Pierce. Rediscovering Tortall has made me look forward even more to sharing these books with my daughter one day.

Originally published in November 2018.

When not developing and programming conferences and events or reading, Shana Westlake writes about parenting, food and current events. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post‘s On Parenting blog, Mommy Nearest, The Establishment, and GOOD. She lives in the DC metro area with her husband and two kids.


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