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Adventuring Through Tortall

by Kylie Calwell about a month ago in review

Getting to know the awesomeness that is Keladry of Mindelan, and embracing those her journey through life alongside her, with blood, sweat, tears and laughter

I love the excitement that adorns faces when people meet those who have created the worlds they have embraced. Fandoms make me happy, I gave a lot of time to helping fans get close to those who created the material that is the foundations of such things - I volunteered in the photo studio for a pop culture convention (those stories can be found here).

There are many fandoms I like, and a few created worlds I love, for me though, my main passion is books. I am and always have been a voracious reader. Sinking into created worlds is my happy place and most of my ink is representative of that. My dream job is to be an author - and whilst I am published, (here) it doesn’t earn me enough to pay my bills yet.

Fantasy for me is a favoured genre. There is so much scope of enjoyment and entertainment to be found within the pages of these books. Worlds you’d like to travel to, magic systems to play in, cultures to experience and characters that make me laugh, cry and rage at - and yes some I’d love to invite to dinner. I have to say I am incredibly grateful to my days as a bookseller that enabled me to have so many literary adventures.

There is one world though that speaks to me in a more impactful way than I would have guessed at when I first picked up a book from one of the series set there. The world is Tortall, and the author is the incredible Tamora Pierce.

Alanna the Lioness, the King’s Champion, could hardly contain her glee. Baron Piers of Mindelan had written to King Jonathon to say his daughter wished to be a page. (First Test)

These are the opening lines of book one of The Protector of the Small Quartet, and there is so much to unpack in these two sentences. How does a King have a female Champion, and what an awesome kind of father must Piers be to support his daughter’s desire to train for combat? Very quickly we learn that Alanna had gotten to be a Knight by going through the training hiding her gender, and even though for ten years girls had been allowed to openly do that very same training, none had stepped forward, or at least had parents who would allow her to.

This set up provides the tone, a through line for the entire quartet about something many women and girls have come up against through the years, being pigeon-holed because of our gender. Here’s the thing though, this idea maybe the framework, but it isn’t told in a way that leads the reader to feel sorry for Kel, the girl in question. Kel herself, in fact, would leap off the damn pages and pound you to dust for even thinking that.

Kel, or Keladry of Mindelan, is one of my favourite female characters of all time, and it doesn’t matter to me that she is ten when the series starts. She is someone raised to be true to herself, with a loving family who support her. She is different and they embrace that, rather than try to curtail it. Which by the way is another thing I adore. The families Pierce writes are wonderful because they are normal, a mix of good and bad, but to be fair - the loving and supporting complete families are a nice touch. It seems far more normal to have fractured and dysfunctional families in fiction and other formats of entertainment, so much so that when I see a family such as Kel has, I almost cheer. Even right in the beginning her family support whatever decision she chooses only advising her to consider everything and not be hasty.

‘Don’t give your answer yet,’ Baron Piers said quickly. ‘Take the letter with you. Think about what it says. You’re not hasty, Kel – this is a bad time to start.’ (First Test)

The characters Pierce weaves her story with are varied, layered and very real. Their interactions play out on the page as clearly as if I were watching a tv show (Netflix, Amazon, and any other streaming service out there pay attention). The sneering arrogance of Joren, the determination and passion for justice of Kel, the humorous mutterings of Neale and the staunch, stiffness of Lord Wyldon, are just a few of the complex characters I could go on about. Reading their interactions really makes us feel as though we are the proverbial fly on the wall in someone else’s existence – which is an absolute credit to Pierce as an author.

Fantasy books are wonderful for the scope they present and these books are no exception. The world Pierce has painted for us is vast and each location has its own unique elements that serve to make the world so vivid. Cities, and towns, hamlets and farming communities all have their own traits; be it goat trails only the locals know about, secret ways to get from A to B, or the nooks and crannies those of a less than legal persuasion make use of. Sometimes it’s all in the details.

Inside its untouched, fifteen foot stockade wall, a third of Haresfield had burned to the ground. Other buildings stood but fire damage made them unsafe. The blazes had weakened support beams: roofs sagged, upper floors drooped into lower ones. Smoke drifted everywhere, burning Kel’s eyes and filling her nose with the reek of ash and burned flesh. Her stomach had already tried to reject her breakfast twice. (Squire)

We are fortunate to live in a time where we have access to many wonderful female main characters and a good number who totally kick ass. Kel for me fits not only into that category, even though she is so young, but she is so much more than it. All too often these strong females come from tragic, traumatic or broken pasts, Kel simply is. She isn’t naïve, she is hungry to learn and she has a focused drive to achieve no matter what the hurdles placed in her way. All too often with these characters they have to mask or ignore the feminine side of themselves and Kel doesn’t. She makes no apologies, nor does she make excuses. She deals with issues all girls/young woman face. To put it simply, Kel never stops being a girl; everything from getting her period to developing breasts and having sex are dealt with in real and sensible ways, never shied from.

she always wore a dress to supper, in case anyone had forgotten that she was a girl (Page)

‘Get a charm to keep you from pregnancy, until you’re certain you’d like to be a mother. Then if you do get carried away, you can surrender to your feelings,’ Ilane grinned wickedly. ‘Goddess knows your father and I did.’ (Squire)

To be fair it isn’t just the awesomeness of Kel and the other women around her, that I love, though they do deserve a mention here; Queen Thayet – who is combat experienced, Buri – who commands the Queen’s Riders, Alanna – the Lioness, and Ilane whose bravery is without question. Also worth noting are the men who support women as equals, acknowledging their abilities even when it isn’t in traditional fields. These are wonderful role models of men as we would like them to be. The matter of gender isn’t ignored, it is mentioned and summarily dismissed as an issue, in the face of believable ability.

‘Impossible, I will not be governed by a, shameless girl, a chit who’s no better than she ought to be!’ The insult to Kel, the claim she was nearly a prostitute, brought the soldiers growling to their feet. (Lady Knight)

How wonderful this image is, she could only get that kind of response if she truly was capable of command, and the men under her command, respected her for her ability to do the job.

This is Kel's response:

I am sure I could pull quote after quote out of this series and wax lyrical about the implications these words have and how empowering it is to see characters of so many walks of life treating each other as equal, but we do have a word limit. Like any real world, not every character is likeable, this is hardly some utopia; people suffer, struggle with work, the rules and structures that govern their lives, and the behaviour of others towards them, and there are some total assholes. In short, it is a reflection of life; the good, the bad and the ugly.

Added to the totally engaging characters, the story line is both overarching and broken into four acts. The big picture is Kel having the goal of being a Lady Knight and honouring that role she sees as serving the people. Each book is broken into sub goals: The First Test is her first year - an unjust probationary period no boy had been subject to; Page covers her other years of training; Squire is her last year prior to testing to become a Knight; and Lady Knight is the tale of her first command. All of which seems like such a simplistic way to describe such an alluring story.

The Protector of the Small is a series I always used to recommend when I was a bookseller, to parents of both girls and boys. For girls it is wonderful to see such characters we can identify with, and for boys it’s good to know that ability and determination should be what is noticed over a person’s gender, and to see men modelling behaviour that exhibits acceptance of gender equality.

Alanna sums up the breaking of the gender mould so well:

‘But you, bless you are real. Those girls watched you, and talked about your style in the saddle, and the things you did. They swore they would take up archery, or riding, or Shang combat, because you had shown them it was all right. I was so proud.’ (Lady Knight)

Pierce’s world building and character development don’t end there. In fact, the world of Tortall didn’t even start here; it starts with Alanna’s story in The Song of the Lioness Quartet, continues with Daine’s story in The Immortals Quartet, moves into this one, then branches out into the legends story of Beka Cooper (ancestor of one George Cooper - husband to the Lioness), and the Trickster stories tell the tale of his and Alanna’s daughter. Not to mention the short stories and The Numair Chronicles.

It is a vast, colourful, three dimensional world that deserves to be devoured, embraced and savoured. Then dived back into again. The action is gritty, and sometimes brutal, tempered with those times in life that are normal or boring. Some of Pierce’s books are considered middle grade fiction, yet they are never inappropriate in the way they deal with things. Neither are they written in any sort of dumbed down manner that means adults can’t absolutely enjoy them

I haven’t met anyone who has read her books and not loved them. We may have different favourite stories and characters but our love for the world is a unifying factor. Tortal is a place I know I will often revisit, and my copies of the books will become more and more battered, no matter how carefully I treat them. I have shared my love for this world with my non-reading children and look forward to the day I get to introduce my grandchildren to Kel and company.

Thank you Tamora Pierce for the adventures you have invited us on so far, and here is to many more.


Kylie Calwell

Book lover and writer of fantasy fiction and sometimes deeper topics. My books are available on Amazon and my blog Fragile Explosions, can be found here

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