In this series, I’m reviewing every book Tamora Pierce ever set in Tortall. In this post, that book will be Trickster’s Choice, the first of the two books in the Trickster’s Duet.
Oh, Aly. My feelings are complicated about you. On the one hand, you’re a really excellent book. On the other hand, your handlings of colonialism…are weird.
The Copper Isles are the only land in the Tortall universe to be subjected to Western-style colonialism, provided we count the Carthaki Empire out (I’m not sure we should, but the race politics of the Emperor’s whiteness are complex, and more thoroughly covered in my post about Emperor Mage). The conquest described in the opener to this book parallels that of many Mediterranean and East Asian countries that came under white influence in the colonial period: merchants and gentlemen without money or power decide the quickest way to getting that power is to slaughter and enslave an island of people with rich natural resources. They are very successful at it, they do in fact get to be rich, and they live a blood-drenched happily ever after, until the local population gets violent a few hundred years down the road.
As we know, Tamora Pierce likes to draw on real-world cultural influences for her nations, but she’s gotten better at making them distinct from (and thus less likely to generalize) their inspirational cultures, and that’s true of the raka culture of the Copper Isles. Plenty of hints indicate that the environment and culture parallel that of East Asian cultures–clothing, wildlife, jewelry, etc.–but the set dressing is about where the similarities end. The only loan word from real life this novel uses is sarong; the rest of the words are original to Tamora Pierce, or their similarity to a real world word is a coincidence (Raka is also the name of a few towns in Slovenia, Tibet, and Estonia). The religious construction of the world is also original; previously, while other cultures have shared the same overall god system with Tortallans, they have worshipped in ways that parallel the culture that inspires them, or otherwise their culture was still affected by the religious sensibilities of the inspirational culture (i.e. Yamani forms of worship paralleling Shinto religious practices, or headscarves for women among the Bazhir). In the Copper Isles, the raka’s primary god is Kyprioth, a trickster deity who is a main character in this book. While many cultures prize the trickster characters in their religions, no real-world culture that I’m aware of places him at the center of their religion. Other ideas ostensibly borrowed from the real world (matriarchal inheritance, for example) are generic enough that it doesn’t really align the Copper Isles more with any particular real-world culture.
However, despite delineating this culture further than she’s done before, Tamora Pierce is still drawing on race relations that are very familiar in the real world. In the Copper Isles, the native raka have been conquered by the white luarin, and luarin kings have sat on the Copper Isles throne for three hundred years. The laws used to quell the initial raka rebellions have stayed in place, with mass slaughter and slavery keeping the raka, who outnumber the luarin, from outright revolt. This has created a tense, hateful political atmosphere, further enhanced by the paranoia of the luarin royal line. Oron, the king at the beginning of the novel, has banished the Balitangs, his close relatives, simply because he is afraid of how relatively close they are to the throne. Those who have been born and raised in the Copper Isles have lived with this for so long that they’re used to it.
All of this isn’t necessarily done badly; Aly’s interaction with it is. Aly makes several missteps in this novel, and they’re not always categorized as missteps. The most blatant one, one where Aly tries to masquerade as a raka in an all-raka village by darkening her skin, is discovered almost immediately and Aly almost receives a bad beating for trying to sneak around. While her disguise is implied to be foolish, it isn’t really examined from a “this is extremely racist of you to do, Aly” perspective. Later in the novel, Aly discusses what the raka’s rebellion might look like with several raka characters. Aly contends that they are going to have to refrain from drowning the island in luarin blood; the luarin have lived on the island for three hundred years, and attempting to get rid of them all would be foolishness that would only be tragic, especially if they start splitting hairs about mixed-race people. The sentiment is interesting, and complex, but it’s frustrating how little sympathy Aly has for the perspective of the raka, which boils down to “we’ll kill a bitch if a bitch is a white and likes having slaves.” Which is…pretty understandable, especially when Aly’s talking to Lokeij, an old man who’s spent his entire life as a slave. (The Balitangs try to free Aly the moment they know she’s a messenger for a god; Lokeij’s freedom is never considered.) The book lets the raka have their say, but it also more clearly sympathizes with Aly’s frustration. While Aly’s opinion isn’t necessarily wrong–they can’t really change the blood-drenched history of the Isles by slaughtering more people–the way she sees herself as absolutely right, and becomes frustrated when the raka only half-hear her ideas, is a little…patronizing.
These are ultimately small parts of a larger novel, but it’s hard not to let them color your overall opinion of Aly and her mission. She is a white woman literally imported to help save people of color, and while her mission is justified (she’s been raised to manage a spy network and the raka don’t have the resources and know-how to start one on their own), her position, coupled with these incidents, can make her feel…weird. She views slavery as a convenient cover, and she sees herself as an outsider able to help better fix issues thanks to her fresh perspective. Again, nothing she believes is wrong, but so many things about her seem insensitive considering the real-world implications of White Saviors and larger race relations. Tamora Pierce sought to wrestle with a real-world dynamic, but seemed to fail to consider how this might play to more sensitive readers.
That said…god, this book is good, even if you find yourself out of sorts with its main character. This is a darker world than the Tortall we’ve come to know (except perhaps the Tortall of Lady Knight) and it’s really, really refreshing and interesting. The political tension and intrigue throughout the book is interesting and helps the book feel dynamic even when Aly spends about a third of it waiting for the next piece of intrigue to occur. Moving to a culture that hasn’t already been extensively fleshed out over twelve previous novels and several short stories is also a great move: it lets us dive deep into new ideas, and to move towards new characters. It’s also funny to see Aly realize that, although she’s Alanna’s daughter and the goddaughter of some of the most powerful people on the planet, their fame and importance is pretty relative. Aly has to recontextualize herself away from Tortall, and it’s interesting to see how much not being famous by association helps her to grow up. At the same time, however, we see regular “dream letter” scenes of Tortall, which is nice, because at this point we’re reading more Tortall books at least in part in order to see more of Tortall. And again, the book feels fresh because it focuses on spycraft, which we haven’t seen well-used in other Pierce novels. It’s also relatively rare in YA fantasy, so extra bonus.
Despite my misgivings with Aly, it’s also nice to see her grow up over the course of a few months. Again, a major factor in that is how she’s no longer famous for being famous, and can’t claim her heritage without a near guarantee of being kidnapped. On the other hand, it’s also because Aly has been given, for the first time in her life, reasons to care about other people, to invest in the larger stakes of the world. In the role of a slave and servant to the Balitangs, Aly has a chance to become invested in the lives of other people, to realize what it’s like to serve others and to live in a position that is equal to, or lesser than, others. Aly had a huge amount of privilege and position in Tortall, and thought becoming a spy would be exciting, engaging. She finds out that it is, but she also finds out that it’s hard, and simple willingness to do the work isn’t enough. Aly starts to see how the actions of the privileged affect their peers and those below them. In Sarai, a privileged, headstrong young flirt with the boys of court at her feet, Aly sees a reflection of herself, and realizes she’s assumed she was a good person without actually making any effort to be one.
As always, there are some stunning side characters. Ulasim, Fesgao, Chenaol, and Lokeij, the quartet of conspirators at the heart of the raka rebellion, are all vivid, fully-dimensional characters, as are all the raka. The Balitang family, especially Sarai and Dove, are all interesting, complex reflections of nobility and privilege. Nawat is a standout, a crow turned man-shaped who loves Aly with the simple devotion of a crow. Their relationship could veer towards borderline-very weird, but the book helps it feel realistic and human, even if Nawat is not.
So…I guess I don’t know how I feel about this book. I adored it when I first read it, and I still really, really like it. It has a lot of what I really enjoy in Pierce’s later work–the adult feel, the way she can make a world complex without dragging things out like many other writers would. However, Aly’s hard to love, a character in transition, and all of her mistakes of a girl becoming a woman aren’t properly examined. Like much of Pierce’s books that handle a race-related topic, the way it’s handled has become dated and can make the sensitive reader uneasy. I guess I’ll let Aly’s behavior in Trickster’s Queen determine how I feel about the duology as a whole; I remember her behavior being more nuanced then, so I can only hope that the memory holds up to my current impressions.
If you’d like to talk about this book, we can talk about it either in the comments or on Twitter. The image used for the header is from kaag tihar, the first day of the Nepalese Tihar festival where crows are honored for their role in Hindu religious texts. If you’re a fan of dogs, looking up “kukur tihar” is a good use of your time. 🙂