Leading up to the publication of Tamora Pierce’s 20th Tortall book, I am rereading her Tortall books. In this edition of Revisiting Corus, I’m going over the third book in the Song of the Lioness quartet, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man.
Let me start by saying: I enjoy this book. Overall, especially with everything I’ve been through with Alanna, it’s good.
That said–it’s a weird book. And it has some issues for a modern reader.
As I mentioned in my In The Hand of the Goddess review, both Prince Jonathan and George Cooper, King of Thieves, are in love with Alanna, and not above stealing kisses from her as they declare their affections. It reads…weirdly, in that book, and it gets worse before it gets better in this one. In the last book, Alanna chose to start a secret affair with Jonathan that’s become not so secret in this one. Throughout that book, we saw how Jonathan’s stormy emotions often caused him to push and pull with Alanna, treating her hot and cold until they started consummating their relationship. As Alanna grows up and becomes more of an equal to Jonathan in maturity, his hotheaded nature gets clearer and clearer. In The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, Jonathan is outright misogynistic in his approach to Alanna. Early on in their reunion among the Bazhir, Jonathan asks Alanna to marry him–and proceeds to not understand the concept of “I need time to think about it.” Alanna has to repeat it, and finally fully reject Jonathan, for him to understand that her loving him does not automatically equal that she wants to become his wife. Worse, he expects her to be everything she hates; to accept the responsibility of becoming a princess, to produce heirs, settle down, and help run a kingdom. Alanna, a true knight errant, wants absolutely nothing to do with this, and Jonathan can’t look past his own nose long enough to see that she’d be miserable as his wife. Furthermore, Alanna astutely guesses that he may have only offered her marriage because he’s chafing with his own restrictions, and wants to marry Alanna in part because it’ll cause a scandal.
As a literary critic, I think Pierce does this brilliantly; as a reader, Jonathan makes me want to kill him. He’s such a perfectly done stuck-up prig in this book. Pierce does her best to frame this as the growing pains of a prince who has not yet grown into being a king, but god that does not help you as a reader, especially a modern one. Love triangles are a little frustrating by their own nature, and to have one of the suitors be such a bonehead makes it worse.
Especially when George Cooper, while a thief of kisses, has been nothing but respectful of Alanna’s right to choose. He’s guilty of reminding Alanna every so often that he still wants to marry her forever and ever, but he also doesn’t try to dictate how their relationship ought to proceed. When, towards the end of the book, Alanna runs away from Jonathan and into George’s arms, he even refuses, since he doesn’t want to be her consolation prize. Alanna, who has dealt with being tense and miserable throughout most of the book for one reason or another, finds her time with George idyllic and full of love and laughter. George is offering the better relationship of the two, and for my money most of the swoon factor is thanks to him.
I’m breaking this up with a picture of my tortoise Jimothy, because we’re about to get into some serious stuff.
The Bazhir are, however, the main weirdness point. A nomadic desert people living in the southern reaches of the kingdom of Tortall, they’ve come up before, primarily in Alanna: The First Adventure. Towards the end of that book, Alanna and her friends take a trip to the Bazhir’s only city, Persepolis, and get up to some shenanigans. As a result of those shenanigans, Alanna and Prince Jonathan have become legends among the Bazhir. Despite being a legend, when Alanna runs into the Bloody Hawk tribe, she has to earn her way among them, to prove her right to live and then, her right to be shaman later in the book. The grand majority of the book takes place within the tents of the Bloody Hawk tribe.
The Bazhir are obviously a fictional mish-mash of a couple of Asian cultures–primarily the Bedouin tribes of Africa and the Middle East. As with many fantasy writers, Tamora Pierce has chosen to write a culture that is enough like a real-life one to be recognized, but distinct enough to be fantastical–and to avoid offense. Pierce avoids out-and-out racism–while some of her characters are racist themselves, she makes it clear that those characters are in the wrong, and that the Bazhir are complex people with a culture that, if anything, outclasses Tortall’s medieval-Europe blueprint.
It’s hard to judge Pierce’s depiction of the Bazhir by modern standards; the Alanna books were written in the 1980s and the dialogue on how to portray other cultures has advanced rapidly since then. Even five years ago, I wouldn’t have the same vaguely wary feelings the Bazhir gave me on this reread.
Looking at the Bazhir as a possible problem point is very complex, because their place in the Tortallan canon is very complex. Pierce, if anything, does a whole lot better than you could reasonably expect for 1986. For one, the Bazhir’s clash with Tortall’s monarchy isn’t based on religion; the Bazhir and Tortallans worship the same gods, because the gods are very literally real in Tortall, so Pierce avoids one of the biggest pitfalls, which would be to portray the Bazhir as godless barbarians. Pierce is trying, especially in this book, to tell a tale of multicultural cooperation–however, her main characters are European-coded characters entering a faux-Middle Eastern sphere. Jonathan certainly strays near the umbrella of the White Savior–he’s with the Bazhir because their spiritual leader, the Voice of the Tribes, has made Jonathan his heir, in an effort to unite Tortallans and Bazhir. The Voice of the Tribes can see the future, and fears that the Bazhir will be slaughtered if they continue to try to fight Tortallan rule, so he’s chosen to force their acceptance, by making Prince Jonathan the spiritual receptacle of their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.
I’m, frankly, unqualified to make a definitive call on it. There’s a tumblr post here that references some drama re: Tamora Pierce that I’m not familiar with, and goes over a few things that I’ll be touching on as we get deeper into the series that they view as further white savior-type activities. This writeup feels that Pierce overall is very good despite problematic elements. They both cite that Tamora Pierce doesn’t ever really return to the Bazhir, aside from a mention in First Test that’s…not great. One of the tumblr post writers says she’s Malaysian-Chinese in her profile, but there isn’t a great, definitive POC take that I can just link you to and wipe my hands of the whole thing. I remember my Muslim friends liking Tamora Pierce in high school, but that isn’t enough to simply determine the thing once and far all.
I, ultimately, can live with reading this book. Tamora Pierce’s portrayal of the Bazhir rings as vaguely distasteful, but she published this book in 1986, and her writing of other cultures becomes more nuanced later in her career. That is not reason enough to excuse this book for many people, but it’s my own personal take. After all, I’m white and like old stuff; you have to build up a certain skin of forgiveness in order to enjoy pretty much any older media made by white people. And I’m a fan, and I’m trying to be a literary critic, not a Tumblr user. I’m going to be less absolute about this by default. You may not feel that way, and obviously, that’s fine.
There’s a lot more that’s worth talking about in this book, but I’ve hit on my major points long enough that I think we can save talking about larger themes for the final novel in the quartet. Until next time!
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