a spy's guide

Revisiting Corus REVIEW: Tortall: A Spy’s Guide

Revisiting Corus is normally a series of posts reviewing the books set in the Tortall universe. However, Tortall: A Spy’s Guide just came out on October 31st, so we’ll be interrupting our scheduled posts to review it!

I didn’t really know what to expect going into this; all of the pithy online descriptions call it “a great gift for Tortall fans!” Which gives the impression that it’s more of a fanbook than a book, without anything new to offer. It’s also presented in a library binding style (cover printed directly onto a hardback surface), which is generally done with these sorts of ancillary books. These types of books have become popular: There’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide, The TARDIS Handbook and Sherlock: The Casebook, among many, many others. These books are generally smaller and cheaper than art books or making-of chronicles, and are written in-universe, with characters compiling files for one reason or another.

In this book, it’s George Cooper, Baron of Pirate’s Swoop, husband to the famous Alanna and second-in-command to Tortall’s spymaster, who’s clearing out a room and going through some of his old files. As far as these fanbooks go, this is one of the more believable framing devices. (My personal favorite is the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is framed as a recreation of Harry Potter’s childhood textbook–complete with hilarious doodles and notes.)

I think the first and most important concern for Tortall fans is whether or not this book provides any new material about their favorite characters, or if it restructures existing material in a new and thoughtful way. The answer to both, thankfully, is yes. This book contains significant surprises and new delights for Tortall fans, so if you like knowing everything there is to know about the Tortall canon, you’d do well to pick this up. For example, a significant portion of the book is a recreation of the diary entries of Hobart Cusyner, head chef to Jonathon and Thayet in the first years of their reign. This is a character that must have existed, but whom we have never met in person, and his diary entries are delightful, unveiling the world of luxury food in Tortall. Much of the new information in this book is in that sort of vein; information we would never have been privy to in the course of a normal novel, which makes it feel all the more valuable. This really is the sort of thing we couldn’t have found out any other way.

The restructured information is useful, too; there’s a timeline of the history of the world within the book, as well as a section near the end where Tamora Pierce has provided a timeline for all the major events in her novels, helping readers to better establish the timing of the books. We also get some stories we already knew–i.e. that Aly, Alanna and George Cooper’s daughter, once got into trouble with her father at a spy meeting–that are further fleshed out in the epistolary style of the book.

However, there are shortcomings to this book. There is a brief biography section, where a few characters within the realm of Tortall are illustrated alongside their vital information–this is the first time we’ve seen a canonical depiction of any character apart from Bekah Cooper gracing the cover of the Provost’s Dog series. But by brief biographies, I mean brief; in most books of this kind this would take up the bulk of the novel, but it’s only a small snippet, covering a small sampling of characters. The majority of this book is devoted to the rules, structure, and practice of spycraft. Appropriate for the framing device, but I think this book overdoes it. The book includes the Workbook for a Young Spy that gets referenced in the Trickster duet, in its entirety of 15 pages, as well as a Royal Shadow Service Guide Overview that is a more thorough spy’s guide, and takes up 29 pages. Both of these passages well overstay their welcome, and unless you’re really fascinated by spies/the spies of Tortall, you’ll probably end up skimming like I did.

I get that these fanbooks are intended, in part, to be skimmable; they’re meant as presents from parents or relatives who know the child is “into that stuff” and don’t know which books in the series the child needs. It’s meant to suit minor and major fans, so it has a lot of information that can be unpacked with multiple reads. It’s not meant to be read in one sitting, like I did. But…it’s still a bit draggy and boring. I didn’t feel like my knowledge of Tortall was enhanced by reading about how Tortallan spies deal with double agents, which contrasted with the rich and delightful facts within every nook of the rest of the book. And other sections, like the illustrated biographies, felt as if they were kept short in favor of these other sections going long.

Despite my gripes, I think this book is pretty essential reading for anyone who’s a big fan of Tortall. The new insights it provides are, frankly, wonderful. For all that I wanted more out of certain sections, I didn’t finish the book feeling like I’d been ripped off. What there was to learn, and how it was presented, was funny, neat, and full of heart. If you’re not a hardcore fan of the Trickster duet, I’d recommend picking it up from the library rather than the bookstore, but it’ll be a fun read all the same.

I did not receive money, cookies, or anything else that could have influenced this review. If you’d like to talk about Tortall or this book, you are welcome in the comments section or on Twitter.

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