Tamora Pierce should be a household name. We should all be crowded around our TVs every Saturday night watching The Song of the Lioness show on HBO. Her works should be considered a cultural touchstone that inspire generations. Prog rock bands should be creating epic concept albums based on her stories. There should be Funko Pops of Alanna of Trebond, Numair Salmalín, and Keladry of Mindelan.
But there aren’t. (At least, not yet.)
There are times I wonder if I made her up. These books are such excellent stories that it boggles my mind that they aren’t known by everyone I meet. It’s always an absurd relief when I encounter someone who loves Tamora Pierce just as much as I do. Whenever I spot a list of the best fantasy novels, I hunt for her name and am always gutted if she’s absent. I feel like grabbing people in bookstores and shaking them, demanding to know if they have any idea of what they’re missing. Pierce is one of the most important writers in my life, and yet it sometimes seems as if that importance is only recognized by a select fandom. Those days are over if I have anything to say about it—it’s time for you to fall head over heels for this amazing author and the intricate, beautiful worlds she’s created.
Tamora Pierce excels at writing stunning works of fantasy full of themes and concepts way ahead of their time. From the start, her books were feminist and diverse at a time where fantasy was predominantly focused on the adventures of white men. They were YA before the genre really started thriving and independent heroines from Katniss Everdeen to Arya Stark owe Pierce a debt of gratitude for getting there first. Her Tortall books are impressive works of fantasy with a world that feels gritty, realistic, and lived in, and contains a magic system that is well developed and imaginative. Her characters are some of the best I’ve ever had the privilege to read, brimming with warmth, humor, and determination. These are characters that will stay with you for your entire life—I know this firsthand, since I’ve lived with one foot in the world of Tortall since I was a little girl.
There are some books that become a part of you. They help you become the person you are, and you are forever changed after reading them. Their words become encoded in your very DNA; their paperback bodies are the bricks building the foundation of your character. Tamora Pierce’s books are part of mine. As a young girl my family moved from New York to the wilds of Arizona. In an effort to keep her bookish daughter from losing her mind during a move that was deeply hard on her, my mother took me to our local bookstore and turned me loose. I found a display with books that had a lady knight on the cover, horse rearing behind her, sword at the ready, and I fell in love. I grabbed every book on that display, eight in all, and carried them to my mother. Knowing a losing battle when she saw one, she let me buy them all. The Song of the Lioness quartet and The Immortals series kept me company as we moved away from the bustling city where I had been born to a sprawling, strange desert. Alanna and Daine became my friends as I suffered from homesickness and the barbs of new classmates who didn’t like my East Coast accent.
I gathered the other Pierce books as quickly as I could and one happy Scholastic Book Fair brought the other Tortall series, the Protector of the Small quartet, into my life. I still own these original paperbacks and they are yellowed from time and creased from love. I would not be the person I am today without the incredible women characters Pierce wove into the beautiful, brutal world of Tortall. I owe a debt of gratitude to Tamora Pierce I’ll never be able to repay. Her books taught me how to stand up for myself, how to speak up even when I was afraid, and how to persevere even when everything looks hopeless. I still consider Alanna to be one of my role models.
First published in 1983, Pierce’s first series is The Song of the Lioness quartet. It introduces the medieval fantasy world of Tortall and a young girl named Alanna who wants nothing more than to become a knight. She disguises herself as a boy and becomes a page, earning friendships and making enemies while doing everything in her power to show that she is just as good as the men around her. Alanna is a once in a lifetime character, with a vibrant mix of stubbornness and tenacity that makes her deeply compelling to read. She’s incredibly focused on her goals and won’t allow god or man to stop her from reaching them. There is a hard-won wisdom in Alanna, gathered over years of fighting in wars and stopping evil men from trying to kill the people she cares about. Her ability to triumph over adversity is an inspiration to me still.
The Song of the Lioness series is amazing, considering the time in which it was written. It’s incredibly diverse, with characters who are meant to be from fantasy versions of the Middle East and Asia. It’s a struggle even today to find fantasy worlds that seamlessly incorporate a variety of characters from different races and ethnicities and yet Pierce was doing it back in the 80s. They are respectful depictions as well—never fetishized or cartoonish. The Bazhir, for example, resemble Bedouins and they are generally shown to noble, wise, and kind. Alanna spends a year with them and her experiences make for one of the best books in the series. As Pierce expanded and fleshed out her world, she added Tortall versions of Japan, Egypt, and Africa. Each new place is depicted thoughtfully and populated with new and intriguing characters, people of color who have their own arcs and agency in the story.
Pierce is also a trailblazer when it comes to the relationships that she writes. Alanna falls in love with her friends Prince Jonathan and George Cooper, king of the thieves, creating a love triangle long before Peeta and Gale were a twinkle in Suzanne Collins’ eye. It would have been so easy for Pierce to make Alanna cold and single-minded in the pursuit of her knighthood, stripping away her womanhood to focus on her knightly duties. Instead she allows Alanna to fall in love, to flirt, and to have sex. I’m pretty sure The Song of the Lioness series was the first time I ever read about sex in a book and it was shockingly educational and enlightening. Pierce’s characters are never slut-shamed for bouncing from lover to lover—it’s presented as a normal part of their lives. It isn’t wrong or right, it’s just a thing people do with people they love. Alanna also goes through other girlhood rituals that are ignored completely in other fantasy stories even now. She panics over her first period and has an awkward talk about safe sex and pregnancy with a healer who happens to be the mother of a friend. In the guise of a boy, Alanna’s affection for other male characters is sometimes misinterpreted as homosexual, but at the same time that perceived desire is presented as just a normal sort of thing in Tortall. A little unusual, maybe, but nothing shameful or illicit.
The second Tortall series, The Immortals, introduces a girl with very little control over the wild magic that runs rampant through her blood. Daine Sarrasri is orphaned when raiders attack her village and her uncontrolled magic is mistaken for madness. She can speak to animals and, later on in the series, shapeshift into them as well. Daine meets Numair, one of the best mages of the age, and together they get a handle on her magic just in time for her to help save Tortall from total ruin. They travel together, fighting injustice in other parts of the world, with Daine’s moral compass always guiding her way even when it’s difficult and dangerous to speak up or take action.
The Immortals series builds on what Pierce started with Alanna in the earlier books. Daine is another amazing woman, strong and funny and undeterred by misfortune. She takes matters into her own hands instead of waiting around like a damsel in distress, and wants nothing more than to help those less fortunate than herself. She uses her wits and her magic to abolish slavery in a foreign land and comes back to pull Tortall from the brink of disaster.
The books are not completely perfect; they are still a product of their time, and there are some aspects and moments that haven’t aged well. The courtship and flirting that Alanna and Daine are subjected to are a touch uncomfortable in the current #MeToo environment. In one memorable instance, George traps Alanna in his arms and kisses her against her will, which is presented like it’s romantic and not, you know, sexual assault. On the whole, however, for books published in the 1980s Pierce’s early work is astoundingly progressive in spite of these occasional missteps. There is no rape in the novels, there is no fridging of any female characters. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that still hasn’t figured out that you don’t need these things to tell a good story or to show how a woman becomes strong.
Pierce’s fiction is gritty and the women face war, tragedy, and heartbreaking loss but the stories never descend into the grimdark basement of rape and torture that’s grown so popular in recent years. Each series focuses on a woman doing extraordinary things as they overcome long odds and daunting obstacles to become legends. The books don’t shy away from portraying some of the sexism that each girl experiences, using each instance to demonstrate how capable, courageous, and intelligent they are. They persist when others try to silence them and they rise above when others try to drag them down. It’s also important to note, moreover, that Pierce’s women aren’t infallible paragons. Each one makes mistakes and bad choices during their adventures. Each time, they must deal with the ramifications of their actions and face the realization that while none of us are perfect, we can all try and be better.
The Tortall books overlap and interact with one another and characters from one series often pop up in a separate storyline. I would consider Alanna to be the anchor character, since her story introduces the Tortall world and she usually appears a few times in each series. She even has a stubborn badass of a daughter named Aly, who eventually gets her own two book series in which she becomes a spy after being captured by pirates. Characters come and go, surfacing in an offhand reference or making a quick quip in a way that makes the world feel connected and real. It’s delightful to see a character from a different series show up, like running into an old friend unexpectedly at Starbucks and sitting down to discuss how they’ve been since you last saw them.
Alanna becomes a giant problem for one character, though. Keladry of Mindelan wants to follow in her footsteps and become a knight, and she is the first to try for her shield after a law is passed allowing women to join the knighthood officially. As is often the case with any male-dominated organization that has somehow let an exceptional, trailblazing woman slip into their ranks, Keladry is punished for Alanna’s success. She is doubted, hazed, and bullied. Undaunted, she squares her shoulders and plows ahead, forcing this restrictive masculine culture to make room for her. Keladry is less flashy than Alanna or Daine. She doesn’t have much magic, so instead she uses her almost preternatural patience and calm to forge her path. It is with grace and sheer bloodymindedness that she earns her knighthood and truly changes the paradigm in Tortall forever. Her series, Protector of the Small, takes great pains to prove to readers what can be accomplished even when others insist that your goals are impossible.
The world of Tortall has been going strong now for over thirty-five years and shows no sign of slowing down. And lest you make the mistake of thinking Tamora Pierce is a one-trick pony when it comes to setting, I should note that there is an outstanding non-Tortall series written the late ‘90s called the Circle of Magic. It has all of Pierce’s trademark wit and charm, as well as her wonderful women characters. Her ability to incorporate real world issues, like disability discrimination and race, into her narratives is again showcased with great aplomb and the characters written with great care and compassion.
Tamora Pierce and the women of the Tortall books made an indelible mark on me as I was growing up. They helped me through difficult times and taught me how to be confident, brave, and that being a girl didn’t make me lesser than any boy. Her novels are an embarrassment of riches that have never gotten all the attention and devotion they deserve. My hope is that new fans will continue to discover Tamora Pierce and spread the word, shining a light on these hidden gems until everyone can see the brilliance they contain. These books are pure magic, and you owe it to yourself to let them enchant you.
Originally published February 2018.
Meghan Ball is an avid reader, writer, and lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy. When she isn’t losing to a video game or playing the guitar badly, she’s writing short fiction and spending way too much time on Twitter. You can find her there @EldritchGirl. She currently lives in a weird part of New Jersey.