Tortall, and Other Lands
Tamora Pierce built a world I didn't want to live in.
So many fantasy worlds are clean and beautiful. Whether they explain the mechanisms that keep them so pristine (house-elves, Bilbo's charming "bathing song") or not (who cleans the blood off the floors after a Red Wedding?) there's a lot of time spent on stunning vistas and immaculate surroundings.
And then there's Tortall, where the streets are made of dirt, and somebody's going to beat you up before breakfast.
Welcome to a delightfully grungy, magic-infused world of feudalism, knights, mages, scholars and royalty.
Tamora Pierce didn't set out to write a young adult novel, let alone over a dozen of them. She was working in a group home for teenage girls while trying to sell an epic novel about a teenage girl who becomes a knight. When her boss at the group home told her the story was inappropriate and that the girls wouldn't be allowed to read, Pierce edited on the fly. She started telling her charges the story of Alanna of Trebond, a born warrior with a foul mouth and a stubborn streak - and no way to become a knight unless she traded places with and pretended to be her twin brother.
Alanna chopped her hair off, bound her chest, called herself 'Alan' and convinced her guardian, a gruff guard who'd cared for Alanna and her brother their whole lives, to play along. For years, she hid, ducking away from swimming with the boys, and doing extra exercises to put muscle on her small frame. Pierce really digs into the sweat and tears required for knighthood, and caps it off with a terrifying ordeal in which prospective knights spend a night in a magical chamber that causes them to hallucinate - and confront - all their worst fears before allowing them to be knighted.
The girls loved the story.
Eventually, Pierce's agent convinced her to turn the novel into a quartet of shorter books for teenagers, and the rest is history. Pierce has been building the world of Tortall for twenty-seven books now, and shows no sign of stopping. The books span a dozen generations or more, giving us the stories of both Alanna's ancestors and her children.
As readers, we've seen Tortall change - not just through the years chronicled in the books, but we've watched Pierce flesh out its systems of government (both aboveboard and underground - her thieves and rogues are sometimes more fleshed-out than her knights.) We haven't just gotten to see Alanna's story, but those of wildmage Veralidaine Sarrasi, "dog" (Tortall's concept of police and detectives) Beka Cooper, knight Keladry of Mindelan, and Alanna's daughter, Aly, who becomes a successful spy.
She built us a lineage of women in this muddy, scrappy, magical world - women with faults, desires, ambitions, struggles, and triumphs. While I found I could identify with several of her major characters (Alanna's temper, Keladry's stubborn belief that she's not good enough, Daine's passion for animals) one thing was clear - I might want to be friends with the characters, but I would never want to live in Tortall.
Tortall may be a fantasy realm, but the realities of its politics and governance make it feel real. Sexism is real in Tortall. Elitism is real, and has far-reaching consequences. Sometimes diplomacy functions better than war; sometimes diplomacy fails. Pierce shows the tragedies of war better than the glories - in one book, a character remarks, "That battle should have a name," because it marks an impressive victory. The book's protagonist and commander in said battle - Keladry - hasn't even thought beyond the lives lost in the skirmish.
It also makes sense that a book written by a woman, about a woman, would pay attention to things that male authors ignore entirely. In Tortall, charms to prevent pregnancy are common; nearly every woman is offered one or uses one at some point in the story. (Pierce gets around medieval medicine by infusing most of it with magic, making it far more effective, than, say, leeches.) I'll never forget the scene in which Alanna gets her period for the first time - Pierce nails the combination of resignation, disgust, and shock you'd expect from someone trying to live full-time as a boy. (It's also, incidentally, when she gets her pregnancy charm, from a local healer she can trust with her secret.) She repeats the scene in her Protector of the Small quartet, Keladry's books, though Kel has a different experience of menstruation - just as different women do.
The power of this acknowledgment can't be overstated. Emma Louise Backe says it best in her essay, Fantasy and the Female Body
It seemed to me, at the time, as taboo and licentious as a sex scene; for all that I had read by that age, an inclusion of Kel’s “monthlies” seemed the most controversial and revolutionary. I had never before read anything that even mentioned a woman’s reproductive anatomy or her monthly cycle; I had never even had an open conversation about it with my friends. It seemed the sort of thing that should only be discussed shamefully, covertly, once the boys and the girls had been separated during health class. I was still young, and hadn’t yet experienced my own blooming, but it was a watershed moment when I realized that women’s issues can be talked about, in young adult literature and otherwise.
This is more than just, "representation matters." This is gender shaping an entire world in a way no one else has done to the same degree before or since. Pierce began her saga with a woman trying to make her way in a man's world - and for the rest of us, built the first true fantasy women's world along the way.