In this recurring review series, I’ve been going over every Tortall book Tamora Pierce ever wrote in preparation for the newest book in the Tortall world, Tempests and Slaughter, which will be out in February. For this post, we will be going over the second book in the Trickster’s duet, Trickster’s Queen.
This book. Thiiiiiiis boooooooooooooook.
Okay, so, first things first in this book: it’s a lot better at not falling into the same pitfalls Trickster’s Choice fell into with race. Aly never masquerades as another race, and the subplot of Aly trying to avoid a massacre is much better done; Dove is also roped in, and the arguments for reconciliation make a lot more sense coming from a mixed-race character. This book also much more greatly emphasizes the raka (brown) characters; there’s a lot more of them, and the luarin (white) nobility are not given precedence over them. (It also helps that, of two rebellions, the one that’s actually effective is the raka one, while the luarin is described as a “complaint society.”) The tension between races felt much more subtly drawn and felt more real to recent events; riots are a central feature of the book, and Tamora Pierce’s description of state-sanctioned violence was right on track. I’m not sure what changed for her or the world between Trickster’s Choice (published 2003) and this one (published 2004), but it’s a lot better on that front.
I also feel that, overall, this is a much more interesting, tense book. In the other book, Pierce was working to maintain tension in a book set in a sparse, backwater fief; in this book, set in the capital as the rebellion rises, tension doesn’t need to be created, because it exists. Instead Pierce is working on balancing tension, violence, and joy. As much as Aly is involved in an extremely dangerous game, she loves spycraft, and her love helps this book from feeling overly dark and overly violent. Its darkness and violence is well deserved, and sometimes receives its well-deserved center stage, but diving into the intricacies of Aly’s many devious plans to set the city into chaos is very enjoyable.
If it weren’t for Aly’s lightness of spirit, this book wouldn’t really fit in the YA world; which is a shame, because YA needs more authors who can handle such realistic violence, and realistic fantasy, as well as Pierce. I love, love, love young adult fantasy novels, but there’s precious few of them that make violence, murder, and court intrigues work well. (Francesca Lia Block and Holly Black are both very, very good at this, if you want to know some other authors you should be looking up.) It either feels too light–and there is a place for light fantasy, I acknowledge, but I don’t always feel like it–or it feels too exploitative, as if the book is trying to force you to care by killing people. Pierce in her later-career works really relishes in the darkness of a world full of weapons, magic and battle-hungry nations, and I think it makes her talent for writing vibrant, aspirational heroes stand out all the sweeter–like a salted caramel of books.
I think this book also stands out in terms of having entire chapters that are so tightly and excellently written that at times it feels like you have to close the book and rest, because your breath is coming short and fast. “Dunevon’s Birthday” is a chapter that leaves me utterly wrecked every single time, and the next chapter “Mourning” always restarts my heart with its passion. The scenes at the Grey Palace, at the slave docks, the tense interstitials in the street or in the Balitang house—pretty much every scene has something truly special belonging to it, and they all weave together to create a strong whole. This book, thick as it is, almost feels like a short story; I always end up racing through it, propelled breathlessly forward by the excitement and gut-churning violence of the rebellion rising.
This time, I’m not going to list the characters that stood out to me, because they all do. My minor quibble is that the names in this duet stray a little further into the bullshit fantasy names territory than we normally get in the Tortall books. With characters like Dunevon, Elsren, Petranne, Nuritin, Jimarn, Vereyu, Imajane, Vitorcine, and so on, it’s very fortunate the book comes with a reference list for all of the characters. I just barely managed to make it through without consulting the reference list this time around, but I’ve had to consult it every other time I read the book, and I don’t really appreciate having to interrupt my reading. I appreciate the creativity that goes into these names–each feels very fitting for its associated character–but having so many of them in the same novel tends to make me feel very tired by the time I’ve untangled my latest confusion over who’s talking to who and who’s doing what. Contrast that all with Aly, who’s decided her fake full name is….Aly Homewood. I get that these characters come from different cultures, but it still feels like maybe Pierce had too much fun coming up with bullshit fancy lady names.
Lady Knight is probably my favorite single book out of all of Tamora Pierce’s work, but Trickster’s Queen comes in a very, very close second. This book has everything you could want and more from a darker-stakes young adult fantasy novel, and I feel like it actually does reasonably well in telling a fantasy story where race relations don’t in themselves come off as racist. (And I know I’m white and have every chance at being wrong about this; this is just my gut impression as a person who is Reasonably Woke, And Mostly Not Problematic.) It’s not for every Tamora Pierce fan–my sister, who loves Pierce’s other heroes, has no interest in spycraft–but I think it will absolutely delight anyone who gives the duet a try.
Do you have any thoughts about Trickster’s Queen? Please share them in the comments or on Twitter!
Also, some housekeeping: I thought when I started this series that I’d planned it so that I would be finishing the last Pierce book right before the new book comes out on February 6th. As it turns out, I actually did this a little too well, and we’re set to run out of books to talk about well before the new book comes out. As a result, next week’s post, about the short story “Nawat,” will be the last post in this series until after Christmas break. The series will resume January 12, when I will cover the three Provost’s Dog books and do a retrospective. After that, I will have my review up on Tempests and Slaughter the moment I read it! And after that we will move onto a new weekly project I’m tentatively calling COOL TRASH. So stay tuned!