In this ongoing series, I’ve been reviewing the Tortall-based books of YA fantasy author Tamora Pierce. This post is about the first book in the Provost’s Dog trilogy, which is titled Terrier.
This one is interesting. It certainly tries new things.
For one, we’re not given a shifting, omniscient perspective; aside from Eleni Cooper providing a framing device and Beka’s mom acting as a prologue, this book is entirely the journals of one Beka Cooper, newly inducted Puppy in the Provost’s Guard, who are called Dogs once they’ve graduated to full-grown policing. These are the policemen and -women of Tortall’s Corus, and they enforce law in a world that’s a bit more lawless, medieval, and magical than our own. Beka’s journal tells of her struggles to keep up with the Dogs training her, and to unravel the mysteries plaguing the Lower City, where the poorer people of Corus live.
At first, I didn’t really enjoy the journal style. While I’m normally a fan of epistolary (presented as if it’s written by a character) fiction, I enjoy Tamora Pierce’s third person style. The way she write there has been mastered over long years, and she has a talent for building mood with a few subtle indications. In this new format, Pierce feels fairly obviously inexperienced compared to her relative mastery of third person. While her plot and themes reflect her maturity as a writer, Beka felt sophomorish…but then again, she is sixteen, a girl who’s having to learn a new world. Sophomorish is, ultimately, a good fit for Beka’s perspective in this novel.
The world of policework in Tortall is the biggest, new, aspect of this novel, however. We’ve never really been introduced to the idea that policework…existed, in Corus, much less that it was a dangerous profession full of murder, mystery, and mayhem. Of course, Pierce sets this novel several hundred years before the events of the Alanna quartet, sidestepping any questions about what crime and poverty look like under our noble heroes. Instead, we see an older time, and Pierce is free to show us every awful, nitty-gritty meanness without us concluding that the heroes of the other quartets ought to have done something about the various terrible things happening within the city. This doesn’t resemble policework of our world, either–the semi-medieval setting has a lot of ramifications for how justice is done, and the role of police. Hitting perps with weighted clubs is the first resort, not the last, and bribery, corruption, and bodily harm are all pretty much par for the course.
This is another Pierce book, similar to Trickster’s Choice, that has become more difficult to read since it was published. Police brutality is a hot-button issue that has come up more and more often in recent years, and Beka and the Dogs are far from innocent when it comes to this. While most of the violence of our protagonists is justified away–Beka gives a concussion to someone who was going to hit her, for example. Also, magical healing kind of curtails the idea that police violence has permanent consequences, since…it doesn’t. Short of death, Dogs can hit criminals all they want, because they can be fixed later. Justice, however, doesn’t have magic to excuse it, and the justice of Tortall is a little discomfiting. Slavery is a thing in this Tortall, and even in the time period of Alanna, Daine, and Keladry, work camps are a common punishment for criminals. Lady Knight is the only book to bring up the idea that perhaps criminals ought to be treated with basic decency; while this book covers criminals, Terrier doesn’t hold a similarly sympathetic view. Orva Ashmiller, a woman who Beka Cooper arrests for threatening her husband and children and then hitting the Dog Clara Goodwin, gets sentenced to 5 years work on a farm, and there is reference to how deadly such work is. It doesn’t help that, compared to real-world standards, justice and punishment is being passed down based on passing little evidence. Arrest warrants and evidence lockers get passing mentions, but when we see trials, they are decided on the words of the Dogs. And we know not all Dogs are morally upright.
It’s not that this isn’t an interesting world to dive into, and part of the point of it is that this world is imperfect. Beka Cooper makes waves in this novel by being a member of the Lower City, who cares about its people and who cares about the murders and disappearances. This book makes it clear through implication that it’s been a long time since the Dogs of the Provost’s Guard have done more than keep a barely-there order in place among the people of the Lower City; justice, peace, and answers have been harder to come by, and Beka is one of the precious few who cares about the truly disadvantaged. Compared to Alanna and Kel, both women of the nobility, and Daine, the daughter of a god, following the perspective of a commoner in this fantastic world is interesting and engaging. Pierce doesn’t peel the curtain back perfectly, but she peels it back, and that’s much more effort than many go to when creating fictional worlds.
I think much I didn’t like about this book could be refined in the other books in this series, Bloodhound and Mastiff. The journal writing style could mature alongside Beka, and with two more books, Pierce has the space to more fully delve into the ways the Dogs’ brutal methods and relative ease with which they earn convictions could be used to hurt the disadvantaged. Hopefully this complex world will be further complicated.
You can talk to me about books in the comments section or on Twitter. The header is made from a picture of my own very good dog, Ripley!