I’m almost done with my reread of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, and as has been the case with all her books, I’m discovering that while each book is a marvel of fast-paced plots and fantastic character development, they often have deeper issues and implications that weren’t at once clear to a younger me. Such is the case with one of the later books in the series, The Will of the Empress. In it, the mage foursome have grown up and gone on individual adventures, and when Briar, Daja, and Tris return to Sandry and Emelan, each of them find that their childhood foster siblings have changed significantly. But they don’t have time to iron out all their differences: Sandry’s great-uncle, Duke Vedris of Emelan, asks Briar, Daja, and Tris to accompany Sandry to far-off Namorn, where Sandry still holds Landreg lands and titles through her deceased mother. Though they complain about it, they each agree to go with Sandry. Once in Namorn, they quickly find that Namorn has a kidnap custom that reads like a pretty clear rape allegory.
In Namorn, in Sandry’s Landreg castle, Sandry discovers one of her subjects, Gudruny, hiding in her quarters. After Sandry assures Gudruny she won’t call for the guards, Gudruny tells her of an old Namornese custom: under Namornese law, men can kidnap women and hide them away from their families and friends until the woman is either rescued or until she agrees to sign a marriage contract with him. Under a marriage contract, the woman has no rights, and the man can ask anyone to return the woman to him if she tries to run, as if she were just a piece of property. Gudruny is at the castle to petition Sandry to annul her marriage contract, as only a liege lord can do so.
Sandry and her foster siblings, as visitors to Namorn, are outraged by such a custom—they’re our viewpoint characters and the custom is new to us, so that makes sense. But the Namornese characters are used to it. Their reactions suggest that the culture surrounding this custom—rape culture, if you will—is well and thriving. As Gudruny says of her own kidnapping:
People in the village searched for me, but… there are signs a man leaves, to show he has taken a woman for a horse’s rump wedding. That’s what we country folk call it. Mostly it is a harmless way to get past an overbearing family, or to avoid waiting to wed, or to add spice to a runaway marriage. He [Gudruny’s husband] told them that I’d decided he must court me, and they believed him. I had made enough mothers angry, toying with their sons. They were glad to think I would marry this way.
In other words, Gudruny herself first invalidates the real pain caused by this custom by saying that the custom is usually “harmless”, and implies that it could actually be fun (I assume if it were properly negotiated beforehand). She then says that because she had flirted with a lot of boys before this happened to her, the other villagers felt like she was asking for it. At no point in her telling of the story does she stand up for herself, which implies that the custom is so deep-seated in Namorn that this is how all people have been socialized to think of it.
This all makes the kidnap custom a definite rape allegory, but Pierce doesn’t stop there. When an angry Sandry demands to know why the Namornese empress, Berenene, who is, after all, a woman, hasn’t put a stop to this, Gudruny says that Berenene claims, “Any woman who is foolish enough to be caught [is] a caged bird by nature, and must content herself with a keeper.” Several men have tried to kidnap Berenene herself, but she’s managed to escape easily both times, thus leading to the empress’s rather misogynistic view that women who can’t fight off their attackers are weak and deserve what they get. As Sandry thinks to herself, though, it’s unlikely that any kidnappers were too violent with the empress or kept her too well hidden, out of respect to her station.
Berenene is our villain, so such an attitude might be expected from her; far more impactful is the reaction of Sandry’s cousin Ambros, who’s been watching over the Landreg clehamat for Sandry while Sandry’s been growing up in Emelan. Ambros has established himself throughout the novel as a firm ally and a fair, sympathetic ruler, but he says of the custom:
Only a fraction of women are at risk. If a woman is already bound by a marriage contract, like most of the young ladies at court, she is considered untouchable. […] The rest of us keep our daughters close to home in their maiden years.
Ambros, a man with four daughters himself, excuses the custom by saying that it only happens to some girls, and those girls happen to be the ones who are not landed, i.e. girls he doesn’t personally care about. He then says that people keep close watch over their daughters anyway, putting the onus of not getting kidnapped firmly on the women. The men who do the kidnapping are above reproach. However, Ambros’s wife Ealaga rebukes him for his attitude. When he’s in the middle of a “not all men” speech to Sandry, Ealaga tells him he’s being extremely shortsighted. She says:
What else is she supposed to do, when any unmarried woman of western Narmorn must live her life and judge all men by those few who have successfully stolen women away? Each time a man succeeds, we place our daughters and our sisters under new safeguards. We put their lives under new restrictions. We give them new signs that a man in whose company they find themselves might plan to kidnap them. Don’t we teach our women to view all men according to the actions of a few?
After hearing what she has to say, Ambros is shellshocked. Like many real-life men, he’s never thought about the deeper implications of living under such a custom. And we do get at least one Namornese guy who staunchly opposes the kidnap custom: Jax, one of Sandry’s flighty suitors. He too attributes his opposition to a woman: his mother, who made him swear never to kidnap a woman and to protect any kidnapped women in his care.
All of this, though, would only be a study in good worldbuilding if it didn’t have a significant impact on the plot, and Pierce takes her custom beyond a curiosity of Namorn when she makes sure to have it affect our main characters. As Sandry is a lady with significant amounts of Namornese land and money, Berenene is insistent that she must stay in Namorn so that her income will continue to contribute to Namornese coffers. But one of Berenene’s underlings, Fin, whom she’s ordered to court Sandry in the hopes that they will marry, takes things too far. When Sandry dances with Jax at a party, Fin takes it personally. Together with his uncle, the head of the Namornese Mages’ Society, he constructs a mage-proof box in which to keep Sandry. He then kidnaps her, believing that Berenene will reward him for his cunning in forcing Sandry to sign a marriage contract with him.
However, he doesn’t count on the powers of Sandry and her foster siblings. Though the four of them have fought with each other throughout the novel, Sandry is able to open her connection to each of them when she’s kidnapped. Through the connection, Briar and Tris work together to find her and punish Fin and his compatriots. They then take the issue directly to Berenene. Rather than respecting Fin, as Fin thought she might, Berenene is horrified. Sandry is her royal cousin, and to have Fin do this is an unspeakable offense even to a person like Berenene—Berenene cares only about political power, so this hits her right in her power-grubbing heart. Fin performed the kidnapping within Berenene’s own castle, which means that other lords and ladies now believe Berenene incapable of protecting the daughters who live at Berenene’s court. Fin has inadvertently dealt Berenene a significant political blow—and we can understand just how significant it is because of the fantastic job worldbuilding that Pierce has done in the rest of the book.
The attempt on Sandry is also enough to draw the four siblings back together, and the offense is smokescreen enough for them to leave Berenene’s court without having to deal with any other political intrigue. Berenene orders her mages to stop Sandry and company at the border, but the mages can’t stand up against their power.
Finally, though, the kidnap custom also proves to be the cap in Sandry’s own character development. As we’ve learned, only a liege lord can annul marriage contracts, especially marriage contracts that are ill-gotten via the kidnap custom. Ambros, for all that he’s Sandry’s steward, is not a liege lord. Sandry, though she hates being treated as a noble, struggles throughout the book with both pride and heritage. She still doesn’t want to give up her lands because she sees them as her birthright, and sets up a convoluted, expensive system for Ambros to be able to annul marriage contracts while not having the proper title. In the end, Sandry’s siblings and her own moral nature are able to change her mind. She gifts Ambros her Namornese lands and title, making him Cleham fer Landreg. When Ambros gets over his shock, he says the first thing he’s going to do is petition Namorn’s Noble Assembly to ban the kidnap custom. Sandry can go back to her home, Emelan, free of Berenene’s political contrivances and secure in the mindset that Ambros will stand against a custom he’s learned is vile and sexist.
The Will of the Empress is a great action-adventure story, but by including the rape allegory of the kidnap custom (and the resulting rape culture surrounding it), Tamora Pierce has also made a strong statement against the rape culture that exists in our real, unfortunately non-magical, world. Pierce neatly captures all the viewpoints of rape culture, from the “I don’t need feminism” Berenene to the “I’m a nice guy” Ambros to the “Yes All Women” Sandry, yet each character is still well-rounded and far more than just a mouthpiece of the author. Though the book is meant for a teenage audience, readers can still understand why each character acts the way they do, learn about what causes rape culture and why it can sometimes be incorrectly viewed as acceptable, and figure out what to say to people who insist that not all men are like that. And while doing that, they can also enjoy a great story.