I’m rereading all 19 books set in the Tortall universe, as well as Tortall ephemera, in preparation for Tempests and Slaughter‘s release in February. In this installment, I’ll be talking about the fourth and final book in the Immortals quartet, The Realms of the Gods.
I’ve always thought this book was fantastic. My thoughts on some elements of it have been complicated over time, but it still remains that it’s a fantastic book.
I’m a huge fan of travel narratives. I love the natural forward momentum they have–the necessity of moving from place to place means you’re always experiencing new things, and I love travel narratives that take me to a place I’m totally unfamiliar with. In The Realms of the Gods, we’re travelling beyond the Tortall we know into the immortal realms, which is a big step up from just going to Carthak in the last book. The places and creatures encountered are really fresh and new, and it’s very exciting. I’m normally opposed to what I call a “scaling of stakes” in successive books or movies–where the first one is a city in trouble, then the second a country, the third the world, etc. That sort of thing is boring and repetitive, and this book could’ve fallen into the trap. However, it doesn’t feel as if we’re meeting the gods because there’s nowhere else to go; rather, we’re meeting them because that’s the natural evolution of Daine’s story.
The previous books have slowly built the idea that Daine’s father was a god, but it’s never addressed as explicitly as it is here, when Daine actually meets said father. It also coincides with a sort of peaking of her power; we’ve seen Daine’s powers grow and expand, and in this novel, they’ve become even greater. She can change shape as fast as thought and command thousands of animals with her mind; in this book it feels like Daine finally grows to fit the label of “god’s daughter.” Before she was an odd, magical girl, but with the destruction of Carthak in the last novel and Daine’s huge powers in this one, we really see how close to godlike power she has become. So it also becomes fitting that her surroundings are as epic as she has become–she no longer fits within the story of a simple commoner.
Despite this, Daine still feels very grounded; the idea of her being a thing of massive power is more left to subtext. Often, the amazing feats Daine performs are framed as strokes of luck, quirks of fate, or deriving from her deep love of the many people and animals she knows. Much of this novel seems to be centered around more of Daine’s emotional maturity than her magical maturity. There’s a particular scene that always sticks with me, where Daine is bathing and a tauros is sent by Ozorne. The tauros is an immortal based on the minotaur from Minoan myths–and, perhaps inspired by some of the weirder sexual aspects of that myth, the immortal tauros is mostly known for raping any woman it can find.
Daine ends up killing the tauros by hitting it with a rock. Rather than focusing on the fact that Daine is able to sling stones so hard that they crush an immortal’s skull, the scene ends with Daine dissolving into tears over the poor creature she’s slaughtered. There are no lady tauroses, so of course the animal goes after human women, who are the closest to what it instinctually desires. Look, I wouldn’t be this sympathetic after killing a giant animal that intended to do me harm, but that is how far Daine has come from the angry youth she was in Wild Magic–her natural empathy has become more complex and expansive.
It’s also expanded to include Stormwings, especially Rikash Moonsword. (I also love Rikash–back when I was 14 and my mom didn’t let me use my real name on the internet, I went by Artemis Moonsword.) Another really standout scene in this is where we learn about the origins of Stormwings, which I think is a really fascinating piece of worldbuilding. Each of these scenes adds to the message this book sends, which is that creatures cannot be innately evil. A lot of fantasy is based around evil animals, heck, Dungeons and Dragons is mostly built on evil creatures as a game mechanic. Tamora Pierce here wades deep into the idea that a thing’s nature doesn’t make it wrong–it simply makes it what it is, whether that is opposed to your goals or not.
The Darkings, of course, are a natural extension of this idea. Made from Ozorne’s blood, their progression to freedom, to “choosing,” is really beautiful. It also helps that the darkings themselves are funny, charismatic, and very useful to bridge plot gaps without feeling like a deus ex machina. (Confession: the horror movie Life contains a threat that functions very similar to a darking and that is one of many reasons that I only got through forty minutes of it before tapping out.) Tamora Pierce’s take on the fantasy genre is very often original, but the darkings in particular are so wonderfully inventive.
Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, which is the story of Daine and Numair. In previous volumes, we’ve seen the depth of their dedication to each other, but in this one, it blossoms to love–at least on Numair’s side. Rereading this, one of the biggest things I was struck by was Daine’s casual attitude toward the whole thing. She never tells Numair she loves him, unless I missed that somehow. She also is very surprised when she finds out that Numair wants more than a canoodle, and is resistant to the idea of marrying him. Daine’s whole attitude in it is that Numair is handsome, kissing him is very excellent, and that she wants to see where it all goes. She’s much less emotional about the whole thing than Numair is, and it’s kind of deeply hilarious.
When talking about the Immortals quartet, there’s a debate that always crops up: is Daine and Numair’s relationship creepy? After all, she is sixteen and he’s thirty, plus she’s his student, so it’s a big age and power differential. I understand that people are a little creeped out by this, and I will admit that I find it less believable the older I get. The unfortunate truth about reading YA fiction as a non-teen is that you’re often reading about children doing things children ought not do, and as you get older, it slowly becomes less believable and more horrifying.
That said, I don’t see Daine as a child. In the novel, it’s mentioned that a girl Daine’s age back in her hometown is giving birth to a baby. Tortall and the surrounding countries are heavily grounded in medieval society, and getting married at fourteen was pretty normal for commoners across medieval society. It was also pretty normal for couples to have a significant age difference; a man was expected to be able to support a woman when she came to his household, so often marriage came later, especially if there was a war on that took all the eligible men away. At sixteen, while Daine is still young and still in a junior position of student, she’s well into adulthood by the standards of her world. I don’t think there’s much that Tamora Pierce could have done to overcome the weird vibes many people get from this relationship–the number is just too important in modern society. She could have toned down Numair’s longing; I personally am most creeped out by his little bracelet, even though being a moody romantic is very on-topic for Numair. However, I have yet to meet a teenager reading these books who objected to it, so frankly, the move works for its intended audience.
Best parts of the book: Rikash, darkings, Broad Foot the duckmole god, meet-the-parents, weird god stuff, weird god lands, maturity themes
Weak points: age difference romance, I only vaguely care about Uusoae
I love this book! Despite being one of the more hotly debated books in the Tamora Pierce ouvre, it’s very fun, very interesting, and full of standout stuff.
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