As I promised after vomiting out a lot of words about Star Trek the other day, I’ll do two book recommendations today. One of them is actually several series set in the same universe, even. It’s YA, but when has that ever stopped me?
I have mentioned the author a couple of times before, and my recommendation includes a little bit of backstory as to how I discovered her as a kid.
I am the oldest child of my family with two sisters right behind me in age. I am a bit of a black sheep in the family makeup; they both grew up with a wider variety of interests and hobbies than I did. Horseback riding, piano, singing, photography, so on and so forth. Piano was the big one, and the piano tutor was far enough away that my mother did not feel particularly comfortable leaving me home alone as an 11-12 year old in the middle of nowhere, especially in hunting season when grouchy men with guns would routinely prowl through the acres of forest around us.
So I spent a lot of time on the road or in waiting/lounge rooms while my sisters did their thing. Sometimes just flopped in the back seat of the car with the windows cracked for air. I went through a lot of books during those years. My first read of Dune, the entire Redwall series multiple times over, and eventually I ran out of my own stuff and pilfered my siblings’ book cabinets and found Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness.
I read the original quadrilogy, and then her Immortals quartet that had just finished up.
I have a practically unending affection for the world of Tortall, and for Tamora Pierce. The Lioness novels are very much a baby’s first feminism kind of thing but they resonated strongly with 11 year old Aaron. The very basic storyline of the series is about a world where girls of noble houses are sent off to become mystics and boys are sent off to become squires. Alanna switches places with her twin brother, a frail and sickly boy who would not last long in the world of knights but who excels at the kind of research and deep reading needed to become a mage. The books follow her training years and how it becomes harder and harder to hide her gender from her peers as her body develops, and then what happens when she is discovered to be a woman but the laws make it impossible to revoke her status of knighthood. It approaches systemic sexism and misogyny in a way that many of these kinds of books and stories don’t. Typically you get something like Mulan where the villains are very openly sexist and disparaging of women at all times and it’s shown as a personal flaw instead of a symptom of a much larger societal problem. Much less so in Lioness, where even her male and female friends contribute to the patriarchal issues of the setting. The villains of the piece are not cackling mustache twirlers, they basically just seek to uphold the status quo contrary to the evidence that it isn’t working particularly well. The overarching antagonist has reasons to do what he is doing.
This is also the book series that began my love affair with Bedouin culture, as the Bazhir people introduced in the third novel are kind of a mixture of Bedouin and Moroccan traditions and are shown as a bit of a foil to the more socially rigid western European systems in Tortall proper.
The thing about these books is that they hold up remarkably well even as an adult. Yes, the prose is clean and simple and very obviously aimed at teens, but the plots and character arcs are as developed as you’d find in quality fiction anywhere. I went back and read them a few years ago and was struck by how deep they were, and how much of Alanna’s journey is punctuated by realistic struggles. It isn’t a romanticized take like Mulan where she learns to not only fight like a man but becomes better than all the other men at it, it’s one where she fights as an equal and in doing so forces the people around her to acknowledge the inequality that had existed before. When I read these books for the first time I was really struck by how many of her friends genuinely cared for her but undermined her as a person with their actions, and that played a big part in how I have chosen to approach the world.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t go into the Immortals books a little bit now. Starting with Wild Magic, they take place half a generation after Lioness‘s story ended, and deal in part with the fallout of the societal upheaval that Alanna has tried to instigate. There are plenty of cameos and nods but the focus is very much on Daine, a girl who discovers that her talent with magic is actually a manifestation of something powerful and largely forgotten by mankind, and also a warning that the old magic is beginning to leak back into the world. It is here that Tortall transforms from a swords and sorcery kind of setting to more of a high fantasy one, and magic goes from something you might see once in a novel to a force that dominates the entire plot. She puts her own unique spin on a lot of old traditional magical creatures and broadens the scope of the world at the same time. There are some issues with it and I don’t think it’s quite as strong a story overall as Lioness was, in particular I’m not a gigantic fan of the main character’s relationship with her mentor, Numair. Numair by himself is a great character, a ladies’ man practitioner of forbidden magics whose physical appearance is based on that of a very young Jeff Goldblum, and over the course of the series they become romantically entangled. This is a little creepy to me because by the end of the series I believe she’s…16, which would make him pushing 30 or so? It makes sense within the context of the setting where women do marry young and it’s certainly in line with historical accuracy, and Numair does have all the maturity of a sixteen year old himself, but it felt out of left field to me even as a kid. Doesn’t detract from the overall story of the books and I don’t think it really pops up anywhere else.
Pierce has gone on to write a ton of other Tortall stuff, all of which is quite good, along with a brilliant double-quarter of Edwardian magical academy books called The Circle of Magic, with a bunch of “ambient mages” who can only draw on nearby power sources rather than generate their own but can complement one another’s powers to exponential levels and must learn to overcome various cultural and class differences in order to work as a unit even though they start off too uncomfortable with one another to sync powers. It’s very intersection 101 stuff but it’s well written and pleasant and fun to read.
My other recommendation is something entirely different, Nick Mamatas’s mystery novel I Am Providence. A grisly murder shocks a Lovecraft fan convention in Providence and the various attendees begin to question if the attack was just a stalker, a literary rival or something far darker and older. And the book does a great job at keeping you, the reader, guessing as well. The murder mystery is largely table dressing on a brutal takedown of Lovecraft fan culture in the modern world, not just of Lovecraft’s racism but the ways that people seek to excuse it and act increasingly zealous around him as a literary figure, as if acknowledging his problems detract from his work in some way rather than explaining it. It’s scathing and incredibly true, coming from someone who has spent a lot of his adult life immersed in Lovecraft fan culture. It’s a bit of an arrogant and entitled culture – I know I’ve exhibited those traits myself – where you feel a little puffed up and important for reading this otherwise cultish and purple prosed pulp writer who inspired so many of the contemporary masters. The story is split into two narratives, one by a novice writer who finds herself dealing with chauvinism at the convention while trying to unravel the mystery herself and one by the murder victim himself, recalling the events of his life and his introduction to the fandom from beyond the grave. It’s scathing and funny, but it’s the kind of scathing that can only come from a genuine love for the work. Mamatas isn’t necessarily trolling Lovecraft fans, he’s just pointing out what an awful individual you can become if you aren’t critical about what you read and how insular devotion to one genre will stunt your creative growth. You’ve got lurid descriptions of fleshbound tomes butting up against multi-page rants about trying to break into an overwhelmingly white fandom as someone with an Armenian name, and the latent xenophobia of cosmic horror that makes it so effective but so troubling at the same time.