Iconography: Tamora Pierce and All the Feminist Fantasy Heroines You Could Want
Tamora Pierce is every feminist fantasy fan’s favorite, hands down. She writes engaging adventure stories with, for a nice chance, substantive engagement with social justice issues. Born in Pennsylvania in 1954, Pierce started writing her fierce teenage girl warriors when she couldn’t find them in the books she read. Thanks to Pierce, millions of readers don’t have that problem. I discovered her when I was twelve after a classmate just wouldn’t put the Alanna books down. I’m only sorry that I didn’t discover them earlier, because the intervening years have been full of fan-ish joy.
Pierce’s first series was The Song of the Lioness. It follows Alanna of Trebond, a girl who badly wants to be a knight. She swaps places with her brother, disguising herself as a boy in order to train at the Tortallan palace. Alanna struggles to negotiate becoming a knight, her magical abilities, the affections of Prince Jonathan and the Thief King George Cooper, and surviving her nemesis, Duke Roger. For the first female knight in a century, it’s a difficult life of proving herself, trying to save Tortall from various malevolent forces, and eventually becoming the King’s Champion. Pierce has created a really cool heroine in Alanna, to whose fights against misogyny, while fantastic, girls can nevertheless relate, without them becoming incongruent with the story’s context.
It’s been a while since I discovered Alanna, and, writing this piece, I thought it’d be fun to see what else Pierce has been up to in the Tortallan universe. There’s First Test, and the next girl to try for knighthood once doing so becomes legal, Keladry of Mindelan. She’s subject to some awful hazing, and can’t complain lest she be kicked out of knighthood training. Kel becomes a champion of all those young pages being bullied by the older trainees. It’s a lovely change of pace from Alanna, and, indeed, Pierce’s work is dotted with sharply differentiated female characters, where a lot of women in fantasy are discouragingly similar. Kel is quiet and kind and fierce, and I shall have to read the rest of the Protector of the Small quartet to see what becomes of her.
And then there’s the Trickster duology, following Alanna’s daughter, Aly. Aly wants to be a spymaster for Tortall, but, when her parents refuse, she decides to briefly run away from home. Instead, she’s captured by pirates, and sold into slavery. Aly wages with a trickster god that she will keep the heirs to the throne of a subjugated neighboring kingdom safe for a time in return for her way home. Probably almost uniquely for this sort of plot, it never becomes about the white girl swooping in to save the colonized nation and lead their revolution. She’s never in control, and she’s not even the focus of the piece (those would be Sarai and Dove, the heirs to the kingdom). Aly does have a wince-worthy tendency to explain how the revolutionaries ought to act, but she’s firmly reminded of her place.
I mentioned at the start of this series that I had trouble coming up with non-white icons, and how much that troubled me. Where pseudo-medieval fantasy universes are usually European ones, Pierce never lets readers settle into such a monocultural convention. (She keeps a So Not White Medieval Europe Booklist on her website.) Just as swords and sorcery doesn’t have to be about the boys, stories about knights don’t have to be all about the white people. Pierce manages to construct cultural and racial dynamics paralleling the power differentials of our world. She contrives to do it without crossing the line into appropriation, which is a rare thing. Pierce takes a particular kind of care with how she does social dynamics that shows a real ethical engagement with her writing. I have a lot of respect for that, and for Pierce.
I’ve written about just a fraction of what Pierce has published. There’s a lot more to the Tortallan world, and you must go find the books of the Circle universe. I love the beautiful friendship between Briar, Daja, Sandry and Tris, and no character makes my heart sing in quite the way it does for Daja, a young, queer, black smith mage. If you’re looking for wonderfully feminist young adult fantasy, Tamora Pierce is your first stop.
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