Not just for teenage girls

Sometimes, the extent to which this world is still horribly, unashamedly sexist pisses me off. We are constantly confronted with the sexism of this world, and I have been becoming more and more aware of it. Usually, I can wish that it wasn’t so, and know that sometime, things will change. But sometimes - when I hear Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” read certain interviews with Steven Moffat, or read about radical Christian groups, just as examples - I realize that it is still happening, still going on, still rampant in this world, this time, in my world. And I am really angry.

Times like that, I turn to Tamora Pierce. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, she is most famous for her five series of books set in the fantasy realm of Tortall. It all began with Alanna, the gutsy short redheaded twin who wanted to become a knight, not a lady. So she switched places with her brother to start her page training, disguised as a boy. She eventually becomes the King’s Champion and a legend by the name of the Lioness. There’s Daine, the outcast of a rural village who has a special ability to communicate with animals, an ability that makes her the kingdom’s greatest gift when immortals descend out of legend to the real world. There’s Kel, the first girl to try for the knighthood undisguised, who faces her own set of challenges. There’s Aly, Alanna’s daughter, who is hampered by her sheltered life and wants to become a spy, and is suddenly thrust into the role of mastermind of an island nation’s rebellion. And there’s Beka, a young policewoman determined to uphold the rule of the law and help the people survive in the worst-off areas of the kingdom.

All her stories, needless to say, are amazing. They’re the kind of fantasy I always hunger for. They’re the books that I’ve re-read more than any other - yes, perhaps even more than Harry Potter - and that I will continue to re-read, because they never get old. They’re the books that are comforting late at night, and inspiring when I’m down. They have great plots, novel ideas, and lovable characters. And I would love them for that alone.

Except there’s more. I love Tamora Pierce for what she is, who she is, and how much of herself she puts into her books. She is a feminist - a straight-up, completely unapologetic feminist. And a complete believer in the equality of all people, and creatures. She created a world that seemed pretty normal - medieval england with magic - and then defied the norms. Girls dressed up as boys and became knights, a country girl became a shape-shifter and married a powerful mage, a high-born girl overthrew another realm and became a spymaster by becoming a slave and a goatherder. There is prejudice against women, against other races, other cultures, other creatures. Her protagonists encounter that prejudice, and are surprised. But by no means helpless or ambivalent. If there’s one thing her characters do, it’s fight back.

As we pointed out in our Defense of Fantasy post awhile ago, merely because the land has magic does it mean that all problems are easily solved. If there is a fantasy realm that has been so completely infused with the problems we face in reality, it is certainly Tortall. Kel, who comes to be nicknamed Protector of the Small, is perhaps the biggest fighter against the injustices of the world. Just because the world is one way, doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. But Tortall’s other protagonists and lesser characters think the same way. They aim to make the world they live in better, and as Daine is told, nearly all the authorities in the Queen’s Riders have had hard, turbulent pasts. But “Life’s what you make it. Who you used to be doesn’t matter.”

Even Tortall’s monarchs want to right injustices, in the same way their idealistic squires do. But true to reality, we learn it’s not so easy. “Monarchs who wish to live until their grandchildren are born do not hand down any law they like.” Changing the world is a painfully slow process, sometimes an unsatisfactory one. But it’s worth it. By creating a world where the differences in social class are so magnified and easily spotted, Tamora Pierce is able to clearly speak out against those inequalities, a speech that forces the reader to step back and examine their own, real world.

Tamora Pierce created great characters, ones that are so fun, so sweet, and so real. Despite the potential for Mary-Sues, she never goes there. When Alanna finally gets the chance to talk to Kel after years of watching her from afar, she says “I had the magic, and the hand of the Goddess on me... But you, bless you, you are real.” Not that Alanna isn’t real. She is. For all of them, we really see their struggles, really feel them, really know how they got there. How Alanna beat her personal doubts, and learned to fight Ralon. How Daine overcame her fear of going mad again. How Kel dreaded being kicked out of page training by Wyldon. How Aly struggled to understand the raka, and gain their respect. How Beka overcame her shyness, and rose up from a street kid.

They were all simple, ordinary girls who struggled - for themselves, for others - to get somewhere. None of their lives were easy. They got to be who they were not through money or influence or the power of men, but through their own efforts and deeds. They didn’t need men to get there, and though some found long-term love and marriage, others didn’t. And they never needed the power or protection of a man. And sometimes, there wasn’t a purely happy ending.

So here’s to Tamora Pierce. A woman who, whether in her books or her LiveJournal, is never afraid to say what she’s thinking. Especially if it’s the right thing. If you haven't read her books, get on that. They're not just for teenage girls. If you have, read them again. I promise you'll find just as much to enjoy the second time.