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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I love Tamora Pierce and just

I love Tamora Pierce and just recently re-read a bunch of her stuff. She was my favorite author growing up, and we still have her books around the house. Her characters are kick ass! More posts about ya literature, please!

I also love Tamora Pierce and

I also love Tamora Pierce and read Alanna when it first came out in 1983 or so. (I've been using the handles olau76 and trebond98 for quite some time now.) Every summer I try to re-read one of the Tortall series.

There are two other series in the Tortall universe. The Immortals quartet takes place before Protector of the Small and Beka Cooper. The latter is the story of one of George's ancestors.

Love them!

I've loved her books for ages. I actually have the original set of 4 Lioness books from the library I read them from when I was growing up!

My daughter has really

My daughter has really enjoyed Tamora Pierce's novels thus far. In a similar vein, she also adores other speculative fiction like Zahrah the Windseeker and other YA & kids books by Nnedi Okorafor, Igraine the Brave and other books by Cornelia Funke, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede, and the Tiffany Aching novels by Terry Pratchett.

I am not sure if they've already been covered in other installments of this series, but when I was younger, the novels of Madeline L'engle, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula Leguin, and Esther Friesner were spec fic favorites of mine.

Amen!

Just wanted to agree with you that the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede are amazing. And LeGuin's Earthsea Cycle are great too.

Yes!

Nnedi Okorafor is my new favorite! I really liked The Shadow Speaker but haven't yet read Zahrah the Windseeker.
Her adult speculative fiction book, Who Fears Death, is soooo good I can't recommend it enough! It's not a warm fuzzy read, but it is really rewarding! In that one sense this book reminds me of Octavia Butler's writing.

I've liked reading some of Tamora Pierce's novels (Song of the Lioness series, Trickster duology), though reading as an adult is not the same, I'm sure, as reading as a teen or pre-teen. I was impressed with the observations made around romantic relationships and expectations, the contention that women can compete with men at physical levels, and the sheer grit, determination, and bravery of the main character.

I also wonder, if there had been more work on anti-racism within feminism (and a lot earlier), and if it was part-and-parcel of _most_ of the feminist speculative fiction out there, how would the landscape of feminist fantasy/speculative fiction be different now? For example, how would some of the things in the Song of the Lioness series been different (like the desert tribes being subjects of the non-desert tribe king)? And the books I liked the most, Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen, seemed to try to address some issues of race/ethnicity, tyranny, and imperialism, though still from what seems like a white perspective. Clearly Pierce was working with the lineage of her Song of the Lioness universe in these two books, and trying to do something different (and possibly better RE: race) --but are there not still other ways she could have written those two books, using the same characters?

Not that Pierce doesn't have plenty of company (obviously) in terms of (usually white) writers who have missed issues around race, ethnicity, nationality, etc, and other issues. Sometimes these include writers whose work I really liked (and sometimes still do) -- no doubt made easier by my being white and how I was comparatively uneducated about the race issues the writers were missing at the time. Trying to remedy my education now.

I guess I'm thinking about how feminism claims, celebrates, uses, and discusses works and figures who are necessarily imperfect... as so many of us are...

And how do authors deal with their legacy of ideas in print? And how do they try to grow, or even change themselves? (Reminds me also of how Ursula K LeGuin's feminist consciousness came after she'd already written the first books in the Earthsea series, and how she worked to address it in the later books...)

Indeed.

Such important questions! :)

I love Patricia Wrede's

I love Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles... Cimorene and Morwen are such awesome characters. :)

Tamora Pierce is hands-down

Tamora Pierce is hands-down my favourite fantasy author and quite possibly my favourite fiction author period for precisely this reason. She has a multitude of strong female characters (where "strong" means very different things for each character) all making their ways in the world and figuring out ways to do what they want to do.

Tortall seems to be everyone's favourite, but my favourite series of hers is actually the Circle series. I love the focus on familial relationships over romantic, and I love the racial diversity of the characters - of the four main characters, two are white and two aren't, similarly for the four main secondary characters. In Tortall it still feels as if the focus is on the white characters as all of her heroines are still white even if other primary characters in the books aren't (and I have to admit I'm kind of dubious about the Trickster duology these days), whereas for Circle Daja and Briar are equal with Tris and Sandry in narrative importance. And also, queer main character! :D

wild magic, too

I'm so happy to see Pierce appearing here! When I was eight, I discovered her Wild Magic series, regarding Diane, a realistically insecure young girl who possesses the power to communicate with animals and soon finds herself embroiled in vast battles alongside Alanna herself. I immediately informed one of my best childhood companions, and within a month we had both devoured the Song of the Lioness quartet, then Circle of Magic... our days were filled with the large-scale construction of backyard forts and twig swordfights in which we were actually heroes on our own.
But one truly precious element was the way Pierce inspired us: we realized how simple and exhilarating it was to invent tales of our own, and soon had our fantastic alter egos and long stories written into special notebooks, exchanging one another, imagining the end of the tale, sketching maps. Even after my friend moved across the country we sent one another pieces of our work, sealed with wax, just like in medieval times!
Today, I am a professional writer, and looking back I think Pierce holds such an influential place in my faith that I could do so, and all the ways to imagine a world both feminist and fabulous. (Plus, I still have my maps and a magic amulet!)

"Anything which lies in the palm of love is good."

I grew up reading Tamora

I grew up reading Tamora Pierce's books, but I have to say that I tend to prefer Robin McKinley. McKinley's leads in The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown are both women warriors, she's written a very good (and probably Buffy inspired) vampire novel called Sunshine, while Chalice and Spindle's End place women in more traditional roles without taking away their power. Overall, McKinley is a better writer.

Um, so this series is also super-racist

I am aware this post is old, but: as someone who kept trotting merrily around the blogosphere and seeing totally uncritical recs for Tamora Pierce, I was kind of appalled when I actually picked up Song of the Lioness and... found that it was full of trans*-erasure, coercive sexual dynamics and SO MUCH RACISM. SO MUCH RACISM. I have written about this in slightly more detail , but in summary: SO RACIST. And at least now you are warned. :-/ (Sorry for the link: I... kinda didn't want to post my minirant in comments here, as it's... several paragraphs long.)