In this series, I’m revisiting all of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books in order. In this post, I’m talking about the third book in the Protector of the Small quartet, Squire.
Again, one of Pierce’s favorite subjects is the transition from child to adult, and that is the underlying thrust of Squire.
This novel is very transitional; we see the storylines from First Test and Page wrapped up here, and the stage set for the story that will be told in Lady Knight. In the middle, there’s also a unique story, one of Kel maturing, experimenting with romance, and coming into her own as a warrior. Similar to Alanna’s narrative arc, her third and fourth books see her moving beyond the concerns she had as a younger person into deeper, more serious issues, and being caught up in greater schemes as she rises in importance. However, it does leave Squire as a transitional sort of book, which Pierce helps to mask by having Kel range all over the country as part of her duties to Raoul of Goldenlake, Knight Commander of the King’s Own. Because Kel keeps moving into new locations, her transition from someone worried about Joren of Stone Mountain to someone worrying about the impending war and the royal marriage feels a lot more natural. I think there’s also an instinct in human nature that says that any sort of journey is bound to change you, and Tamora Pierce seems to align heavily with that sentiment. Almost all of her characters take a journey somewhere as part of growing up.
That said, this is also where Kel grows from a fun character into a really beautifully fleshed-out being. Out from under the influence of Lord Wyldon, Kel finds out that the world of battle and war isn’t all honor and grim-faced men; there’s a lot of inglorious moments, jokes, and friends to be had along the way. Throughout the novel you can see the increasing influence Raoul’s jokes have on her outlook about how a knight, especially a legendary knight commander, can be. Whereas in First Test and Page Kel is called “The Lump” for her Yamani demeanor, when the Yamani princess arrives in Squire, Kel is described as being much more emotional than they are. We see an increasing number of laughs, smiles, and funny lines come out of Kel. Training under Lord Wyldon was a hard and thankless task for Kel, one that didn’t allow her much time to grow as a person or consider who she might become as an adult. In Squire, she has time to answer these questions, and she really turns out to be a wonderful sort of person.
On the stage of new characters (Tamora Pierce loves introducing new characters–which would be annoying if she didn’t breathe so much life into them), the Yamanis are probably my favorites. Shinkokami, Haname, and Yukimi are strong, self-possessed women. While they’re clearly exotic (and clearly drawn from a Japanese influence), Pierce veers away from racist caricature. Unlike her shaky tendency to describe Bazhir characters as proud and wild, the Yamani characters, while understated in their emotions, are otherwise diverse. I think it also helps that they’re well-versed in the naginata and shukusen; they’re very, very deadly women, and that adds a layer of steel to their civility. Kel’s moved away from outright worship of the Yamani way of life, but it’s interesting to see how happy she is to reconnect with her foreign childhood.
The griffin, of course, is also a favorite. It could hardly be a Kel book without her having to overcome a bullshit obstacle in life, and the griffin and Lalasa’s trial are central to that in this book. With the griffin, Kel learns the value of working through anger and pain even when she could give up; and with Lalasa’s trial, Kel learns the limits of chivalry. Kel has always previously thought of her code of honor as something hallowed, that every noble and knight knew in their heart of hearts, and she perceives in this book that that isn’t the case. Other nobles don’t see commoners as people, and their code of honor is as often as not an excuse to elevate themselves above others. She’s always had a strong sense of self-motivation, but now she sees that it isn’t just bullies, but the apathy of others, that makes her an outcast. It’s a strong person that remains pure-hearted and strong in the face of a grey-shaded world, and Kel molds herself into steel in this book.
Kel is still my favorite, obviously. I’d have to start highlighting passages to really break down why she is, mostly because Tamora Pierce has gotten even better at subtly weaving character threads. Simple things the way Kel thinks about jousting add enormously to her character; you can feel her strength throughout the book, in more overt scenes (challenging King Jonathan to change a law) as well as in the more subtle. Kel feels alive.
Let’s discuss this book in the comments or on Twitter.