Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce

Tamara Pierce is well known for her many works set in the lands of Tortall and the surrounding countries. "The Lioness Quartet", "Protector of the Small", "Wild Magic", and the "Beka Cooper" series each tell of this world. But the stories in the series are big ones, and are about the big plots, while other, smaller stories go untold. Until now. Here, Tamora Pierce tells stories that she wasn't able to before, including two set on modern-day earth.

"Student of Ostriches" tells the story of the Shang Unicorn, a woman who learned to fight and defend herself while guarding her flock and watching the Ostriches, Giraffes, and Elephants in the land around her. She is successful in fighting off the bullies who would try to steal her ball, and when her sister's betrothed wants to cast her off as a witch so that he can take a new girl to wife, it falls to Kylaia to defend her sister's honor against her former betrothed, in place of their father, who is lame. But who will want to take her to wife if she defeats a man who is already a warrior?

"Elder Brother" follows the story of Qiom. When Numair Salmalin turned his enemy into an apple tree, to maintain balance, an apple tree elsewhere in the world had to become a man, and that man is Qiom. But unused to being a man, how can he survive, even with the nighttime teaching of Numair. And when Qiom encounters a young man named Fadal, who becomes his companion, can he risk his own life to the possibility of fire when Fadal is arrested because of his secrets?

"The Hidden Girl" follows Tekalimy, one of the women living in the town where Fadal was captured. The people of her land believe that women are lesser, and should go veiled, and their Prophet, who was male, spoke only to men. But she and her father know better, and know that the Book of the Flame was not the Prophet's only writing. He also wrote the book of the Distaff, that spoke of the strengths and dignity of women. But when her sick preacher father succumbs to his cough, can Tekalimy bow to the will of her gods, and become a new prophet, allowing women to take their voices once more?

"Nawat" is about the young crow man who married Aly, the heroine of the Trickster series. He and his group of warriors, crow and human both, have stayed together to protect Queen Dovasary Balitong. But the crows of the city think that the crows of his group have become too human and less like crows, and reject some members of his group. Worse, they steal the sick baby of one of the group and dash it to the stones because it is too damaged to ever grow up normal. But when one of Nawat's daughters shows the same signs of dangerous oddity, can Nawat do the crow thing and kill her, or will he give into his human side and defend her- risking being thrown out of his flock himself?

"The Dragon's Tale" follows Kitten, the orphaned dragon that Numair and Daine are raising. Because she is so young that she cannot speak the human tongue, she is widely regarded as a mere pet by the soldiers of the new King who are escorting Numair and Daine around Carthak. But when Kitten goes exploring and discovers a human women who is hated and abused by the rest of the village, she is determined to rescue the woman and her baby and bring her to Daine and Numair's attention by herself. But can she get the woman to trust her, and what is the meaning behind the magic in the maze of stone outside the village?

"Lost" follows a young girl named Adria, a whiz at mathematics who recently changed teachers. While she can look at a problem and know the answer in her head, her teacher wants her to be able to show her work and has started marking her down for not being able to do the work correctly, which has angered her father, a merchant. But when she discovers a darkling named "Lost", he defends her, and allows her to encounter a female engineer brought in to work on a new bridge being built in Tusaine. And being late for school because she was talking with the engineer leads to her teacher complaining to her father. But can Adria, who truly is a mathematics prodigy, save herself from being denied schooling and sent to a farm, and instead attend college for mathematics in Tortall? Or will her father have her sent away for dishonoring him?

"Time of Proving" brings together a bull man who escaped from slavery with a young soon-to-be ruler of the Wind People. She is in an area of the desert that her people rarely travel to for her time of proving, a year away proving she can survive on her own. The bull-man is a scholar who studies art and calligraphy, but who was kidnapped to be sold into slavery, as his people are considered no more than a tale. He needs her help to survive his injuries and to learn how to survive. But while he pays her for her help and her lessons in survival, might she find that she needs him as well?

"Plain Magic"is about Tonya, a young girl living in a village under threat of a dragon. As her family packs, she encounters a peddler named Lindri, a seller of cloth and embroideries who seems no more than a peddler. But Tonya soon sees that Lindri has magic like she has never seen. Tonya has magic also, but her teacher seems to be afraid that she might surpass him, and so refuses to teach her much. But when Tonya is selected by the villagers, including her own father, to be a sacrifice to the Dragon, can Tonya and Lindri save the village from being devastated, and find a true teacher for Tonya?

"Mimic" is the story of Kit, a herder of sheep who saves all the wounded creatures she can. But when she rescues a strange lizard being carried off by an Eagle, she names him Mimic and saves his life from a fever that could have killed him. But when weather proves a threat to not only Kit, but her entire village, her flock and the many birds she has saved, can Mimic save them?

"Huntress" is set in the modern day and follows Corey, a girl who lives for running, and has few friends because her mother is a pagan and follows the family Goddess. But when Corey gets to attend the Christopher school, an academy that has top-notch schooling as well as a top-notch track team, she falls in with an upperclassman named Felix who calls his female friends his "Lionesses". As Corey begins to hear of a new gang who pick on criminals and bums, she begins to suspect that her new friends have something to do with this. But when they turn on her, who can save her from the pack?

"Testing" follows the inhabitants of a home for troubled teens. When one of the beloved monitors leaves, the girls refuse to accept the lackluster replacements who don't really care for them or who are phonies. Overhearing the administrator, they realize that they have the power to decide who they want to care for them. But when the latest hire proves to be a young woman just out of college, she slowly begins winning the young girls over. But can she survive the many tests that the girls devise to try and make her leave?

This is an excellent collection of short stories that grabs you and just will not let you go. Every story, whether short or long, sucks you in as soon as you begin reader and won't release you until it's over. The only time you can stop is at the end of a story, and even then, it's tempting to start another and another, and before long it's three AM and you have just finished the book,

Most of the stories have characters that will be familiar to Pierce's work. Even Qiom, who was mentioned only in passing, and not by name, will evoke memories of the story he was mentioned in. Others have main characters who may not even be given a name, or their whole name, until late in the story, but you never feel the lack of a full name as you read. I found all the stories enjoyable, even when, as in "Nawat", the subject of that story is difficult and somewhat off-putting. That's not the only difficult story- "The Hidden Girl" has parallels to the current situation in the middle east for women, and "Huntress" explores the problem of becoming part of a group that may seem like it's full of the best people, but which turns out to be horrible anyway.

My favorite story in the book was probably "Student of Ostriches", because I didn't recognize the main character until the end, and it really did suck me in. The idea of learning to fight by watching animals is part of many martial art histories, including Wing Chun, supposedly started by a woman who studied the moves of a mantis. And there are no bad stories, so I couldn't pick a least favorite- they are just all too good.

This is a book I would highly recommend. The stories are short and engaging, and the characters who make up the stories are all of the sort that attract the reader in various ways as they attempt to overcome the problems of their lives. So, if you want to read something new and interesting, this is a collection you should definitely pick up if you have enjoyed Ms. Pierce's work in the past. Some of the stories might not be best for readers new to her work, but even then, they can make you want to pick up the past books and read them again.

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