The Brilliant Creation That is Mastiff

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration
SPOILER ALERT for the Beka Cooper books, and Tortall books in general. 

It took me awhile, but I finally realized why it took me so long to warm up to Beka Cooper. She is the first Tortallan protagonist who I (Suzanne) genuinely see a lot of myself in--and when I was reading Terrier and Bloodhound, I did not like what I saw. The terrible shyness and fear of speaking in front of large crowds, the strident adherence to guidelines and rules, the tireless dedication to work, the taking of everything far too seriously. It hit too close to home. These are all traits that I possess, and they are things that I do not necessarily like about myself. It was difficult seeing them on the page. It was difficult to accept that someone so similar to me could be a hero in one of Tamora Pierce’s stories.

And yet, by the time we get to Mastiff, there is no question that Beka is indeed a hero.

Tammy doesn’t wait for us to catch up to Beka, in the three years since we’ve seen her. She doesn’t wait for us to get to know her fiance. For if we ever thought that Tamora Pierce lacked gusto, nerve, or oomph, we are proven wrong by the first sentence of this book:

We buried Holborn today.

Just check that out, ladies and gentlemen. To quote Mark Oshiro (of Mark Reads and Watches fame), Shit has gotten real. On the first page. Wow. She just killed off the main character’s fiance before the first page. A fiance the audience doesn’t, and will never know. And the fact that it wasn’t a happy engagement but rather a rocky relationship that should have ended awhile ago, adds further strength to the story. Strength that is only built upon when Lord Gershom shows up twelve hours later with a Hunt for her that so secret that even he doesn’t know the details.

Here is where Beka truly comes into her own in a way that I never would have thought possible. In the three years since we last saw her, she has developed a reputation of being one of the best young Dogs in Corus, a reputation that has surpassed even her own expectations. She is far more self-assured and confident, and she is not afraid in the slightest to make sure shit Gets Done. The scenes with the followers of the Gentle Mother cult reveal this best for me--she never loses her temper or is unnecessarily rude to the nobles, but she refuses to back down from her position, and articulates it so perfectly. She is calm, collected and consistently in control, even when she discovers that Tunstall--her mentor, her partner, one of her best friends--has done the unthinkable and turned traitor.

More than anything else in the book, that was the scene that gutted us the most. I will not lie, I was sniffling and crying on a Metro North train as I was reading this, not caring that I was in public, only caring about the pain and the loss that Beka, Sabine, and the rest of them were facing. Yes, they achieve a victory in the end--but whatever happiness they might gain from that knowledge is marred by the betrayal and loss of one of their own.

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And maybe that’s what I love most about Tammy Pierce. Her endings are never happy and rosy. There’s always some tragedy, some sadness, mixed in. She writes in the world that she knows. When I (Laura) asked her about Tunstall’s turning traitor, she said she always knew he was going to betray Beka and the Dogs. “Some people do the wrong thing for love,” she explained. “I understand,” I told her. “And I don’t mean to sound callous, but it does make the book rather more epic.” Tammy looked at me, sort of sadly. “Yes. I suppose some victories require a high price.”

And indeed, the price is high, higher than we’ve ever seen before. And it’s more than Tunstall’s betrayal and death. There’s more that Beka doesn’t talk about, only hints at. The Tortallan kingdom, which we’re so used to being ruled by Jonathan’s strong-willed, morally sound and just family, is not strong at all. In fact it’s weak, divided, and ready for anything to tear it apart, leading to anarchy and war. The rescue of the prince avoided that war, but only narrowly. It’s going to be a long, hard road working up to a stable country. Though a wonderful and noble and just act, the abolition of slavery is tough. It’s not instantaneous, but a long and painful process. We don’t know how the king fares among his nobles, but one can only hope that he dies a natural death, and that his kingdom mourns him. If the four-year-old Gareth is any indication, his son will be a great ruler for Tortall indeed.

Yet though the kingdom may be headed for better, more stable times, sometimes stability is not in favor of all. And in this case, though slavery may be ending, the subjection of women is just beginning again. Not that there isn’t sexism in Beka’s time -- we hear ample evidence of how difficult it is to be a lady knight from Sabine. But she became one legally, and there are others. And for the most part, female members of the Provost’s Guard are taken seriously. In comes the Cult of the Gentle Mother, teaching that “the world has changed, the wars of old done with, and [women] must change with it.” It enforces a patriarchy so strong, so powerful, so all-encompassing that two hundred years later, a girl named Alanna is forced become Alan in order to follow her dreams. And while we were delighted to finally receive an explanation for the disappearance of lady knights, we were saddened to learn the course that Tortall’s history had taken.

But as much time as Beka spends with nobles and monarchs, in the end, that’s not what this story is about. It’s about a girl who became a legend, sure, who was revered by her descendants for being a heroic Dog. But it’s really about that woman, as a person, what she really went through, and who she really was. In these five hundred-plus pages, she proves to the world that someone shy, someone with a reputation for perhaps taking life a bit too seriously, can become a legend and hero in her own right. Her internal struggles to cope with her shyness and interact with people never really goes away, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It does not prevent her from finding people she loves and cares about, and it does not prevent her from becoming a legend whose name will live on for centuries.

And therein lies the beauty of the thing. Therein was what finally won us over to love Beka Cooper unconditionally, shyness, warts, and all. To know that a girl so similar, so identical, so clever and quick-thinking and yet shy as anything, could be a hero, is what heartened us here. After two books of not wanting to connect with a girl I found to be too similar to myself, I found myself incredibly touched and grateful that Tammy had written such a character. And I am proud to identify with her. If Beka can become a hero, maybe there’s hope for us shy people after all.