This last summer I’ve been trying to revisit my favorite books from years past. I recently reread the first four Circle of Magic books, which were my first introduction as a younger reader into the prolific fantasy worlds of their author Tamora Pierce. Having just finished the last of the quartet, I feel like I can say with confidence: Tamora Pierce is better than your faves.
The Circle of Magic series follows four young mages—Sandry, Briar, Daja, and Tris—as they learn to control their immense and unique magical powers under the guidance of their mentors at the Winding Circle Temple. While most mages come into their powers in early childhood and express their magic in more traditional ways, our four protags’ powers remained untapped and undiscovered until they were nearly thirteen. Furthermore, their powers were all tied to a type of craft or natural husbandry—Sandry to weaving, Briar to plants, Daja to blacksmithing, and Tris to the weather. Throughout the first four books they battle earthquakes, pirates, forest fires, and plagues, while simultaneously learning to deal with responsibility, loss, cultural and class differences, and prejudice.
The first Circle of Magic book debuted in 1997, and it’s been quite a while since I last read through the series, so I was surprised to note upon picking it back up again that the series managed (over fifteen years ago!) to effortlessly do exactly what we spend a ridiculous amount of time begging genre fiction to do even today: include diverse characters. Sandry is a white girl from a noble family, but her experience as the only survivor of an epidemic has left her with PTSD and an intense phobia of dark, tight spaces. Briar is a brown-skinned street rat of mixed-race descent who has to deal with class prejudice when he comes to the wealthy and well-apportioned Winding Circle community.
Daja, a Black girl from the Trader people, was the also sole survivor of a tragedy—her whole family was lost when their ship went down—and in the Trader culture, sole survivors are considered terrible luck and must be ritualistically banned from their community. Daja has to deal with losing her culture and her family, while also dealing with her own internalized prejudices about non-Traders and craftswork. Tris, the final member of the four, is a fat girl from a merchant household whose sharp demeanor is partially a result of being treated like trash by her whole extended family.
Each character is an interesting intersection of privileges and marginalizations, and yet at the same time no character comes off as being preachy, or as the justification for an issue Pierce wanted to defend. I actually had the chance to speak with Pierce about her books at a talk she gave at my alma mater a few months ago, and I asked her how she decided what sort of oppression to include in her books.
Her answer was pretty straightforward: look at the whole of the universe you’ve created, and figure out what would stick. For example, the society in the Circle books is a racial mixing pot because it does a lot of shipping trade, so ubiquitous race-based hatred doesn’t really fit, although many mistrust the Traders because their culture is so mysterious to outsiders. And because it’s a shipping culture, there are significant class divisions: Tris and Briar bond at first over their mutual dislike of nobility, and Sandry must challenge her preconceptions about the poor. In a non-industrialized civilization, physical ability is still prized, so Tris is often put down by others for being fat, and she has to learn to ignore their insults and love herself as she is. On the other hand, there is no real societal sexism. Briar is never teased by the other boy novices at Winding Circle for primarily hanging out with three girls, and there are both men and women in every profession from healers to cooks to soldiers and merchants’ guards, as well as in leadership roles.
My final bit of praise for this series is that it’s very organically educational. I was recently speaking with a friend about a different author, and my friend complained that sometimes this author was engaging, and sometimes her books just seemed to be a regurgitation of all the research said author had done before writing. Pierce doesn’t have this problem; rather, the Circle of Magic books are the best of both worlds. She seamlessly weaves in information about how forest fires begin, or how a loom or blacksmith’s forge works, or how to care for an orphaned baby bird. Even in Briar’s Book, where the four kids go up against a magical plague, the methodology used to create a cure is clearly a fantasy-tinged version of what real-world scientists would do to understand and battle the disease.
The long and short of it is this: The Circle of Magic books (and their successors, The Circle Opens and The Circle Reforged books, which I’m still in the middle of rereading) are a delightfully entertaining quartet that did diverse and inclusive fantasy for young readers way before it was a hot topic. They’re just as fun to read as a twenty-four-year-old as they were when I was ten, and I definitely recommend you check them out.
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Finally! Someone talks about Tamora Pierce! She is one of my favorite authors to point I did my capstone project on Trickster’s Queen with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was shocked about how little academic research there is on her work despite the fact that her books are rich and dives into issues of feminism, race, political power, and so many other issues. She is one of the greatest writers I have ever read.
There’s a website called Mark Does Stuff, where Mark Oshiro consumes classic fandom source material unspoiled, posting his reactions episode by episode, or chapter by chapter. It’s a great way to re-experience source material in depth, as focusing on one chapter a day can really help make you notice the great details that you might have missed the first time around. The comment community is great, too.
Point is, Mark recently finished reading the Tortall books, and is currently nearing the end of Sandry’s Book. I definitely recommend checking it out.
I recently reread the Circle of Magic and the Circle Opens books as well, and found that I do like them a little better than the Tortall books for trivial reasons, but more importantly, it’s clear that all of the ways Pierce was incorporating and exploring diversity in her books completely blew over my head as a kid. I don’t know that I could have ever appreciated them enough as a child, but there certainly was much more resonance with the books’ themes and the kids’ mindsets this time around.
I haven’t read Circle of Magic, but I did get into the Alanna, Protector of the Small and Wild Magic quartets. They tackled things like sexual maturity and gender roles that actually introduced me quite well to teenhood. Also, her worldbuilding is badass. I will always respect Tamora Pierce for that 🙂
Actually, even Sandry may not be “white”. Tamora P. has said that Emelan is partly created as a mix of Turkish-harbor city and other. So Duke Vedris and Sandry as his niece could be fancast, for example, as Turkish-looking people, even if its just lighter-toned ones.
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If you want to talk diversity in Circle of Magic, I’m pretty sure TP has confirmed that Lark and Rosethorn are/were a canon couple, too!
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