I’m a master procrastinator, so when I had to pack for a trip recently, I instead spent the entire week before I was to go rereading Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series. (Well, almost; I didn’t have the Beka Cooper books on hand.) The Tortall universe is a book series made up of intersecting quartets about amazing female protagonists, set in the fictional kingdom of Tortall. Each quartet spans several years and there are long chronological gaps between each quartet; thus, the series has a chance to discuss some social trends in great depth. And it does just that with sexism.
Mild spoilers for the Tortall books through Protector of the Small after the jump.
So the Tortall series starts with Song of the Lioness, the quartet about Alanna of Trebond, a girl who wants to become a knight. Her twin brother, Thom, wants to be a mage, but their father is set on sending Alanna to a convent and sending Thom to the palace to train as a page. Alanna, the more mischievous of the two, has a better idea: Thom will go to the convent, as it takes both boys and girls and sends the magically-Gifted boys on to mage school, and Alanna will disguise herself as a boy and go to the palace. Amazingly enough, this charade works for the next eight years. Alanna, disguised as Alan, proves herself to be nearly unmatched with the sword. She gets over her fear of her magical Gift and learns to use it to heal, as a sort of compensation for the lives she takes as a soldier. Finally, when she earns her knighthood, she reveals herself to be a woman.
Pierce doesn’t go far out of her way to set up the sexism inherent in Tortall; she just says that there have been no other Lady Knights in living memory, and then rolls with it, perhaps assuming that most of her readers believe that in the quasi-medieval time period the Tortall series is set in, sexism was just a fact of life. (Even though it might not have been that straightforward.) In short, she doesn’t really explain why the Tortall universe is sexist, she seems to have just assumed that that was the fact. Weak setup aside, we can see from the way the first quartet goes that sexism is a clear and present reality in Tortall. For the first two books, Alanna is a “boy” and doesn’t face much, if any, overt sexism; when she can’t fence at first, people assume it’s because she’s so tiny, not because she’s a girl, and when she can’t fight, people again put it down to her size. After she reveals her gender, though, she faces different sorts of sexism: her Prince, Jonathan, is in love with her, and expects her to act like a woman should and to fall in love with him too. The Bazhir tribesmen she takes up with don’t believe that a woman can be a fighter or a magical shaman. It’s not until Alanna saves the kingdom at Jonathan’s coronation that she seems to prove herself worthy in everyone’s eyes.
Most stories would wrap up there, done and dusted, sexism solved forever. Because Tortall is a series, though, Pierce has a lot more leeway to discuss how the sexist norms of Tortall change with the times. This quickly becomes apparent in the Immortals quartet, my personal favorite, which stars thirteen-year-old Veralidaine Sarrasri of nearby Galla. Daine is a girl with a huge amount of wild magic which allows her to talk to, heal, and even turn into animals. She travels to Tortall after her family is killed by bandits, having heard stories of Tortall as a kind of promised land where women are allowed in the army and Alanna, a woman, is the King’s Champion.
She quickly discovers, however, that Tortall is not as impressive as she would have believed. Women aren’t allowed in the army, only in the Queen’s Riders, a special group put together by Queen Thayet that uses guerrilla tactics to more effectively take out bandits. Many Tortallan nobles disapprove of the Queen and her forward thinking and actively attempt to overthrow the throne. Daine herself is underlooked and underestimated in turns; even Alanna’s company of soldiers don’t think much of Daine until she kills a monster in front of them, and the Emperor of Carthak thinks of Daine as just a pretty little girl with some pets, much to his chagrin when she brings his palace down around his ears. Times are changing, but not as fast as we would like. Daine’s years as narrator show that Tortall is becoming less sexist in a slow, but sadly realistic, manner.
It’s in the Protector of the Small quartet that we really see some shaking of the foundations of Tortall. In it, King Jonathan has decreed that women should be allowed to try for knighthoods as well, but the first to take up this offer comes ten years later with Keladry of Mindelan. Keladry and Alanna are as different as night and day: where Alanna is fiery, Keladry shows Vulcan-like restraint; where Alanna is short, Keladry is already five feet tall at ten years of age. Most importantly, Keladry has no magical Gift—she shows that any ordinary woman can become a knight, not just one blessed by the Goddess. With Keladry as a lady knight, she shows the nation that there is no excuse for not believing that women are equally as capable as men.
First, though, she has to get there. When Keladry first decides to go to the castle and train as a page, the training master, a hardcore traditionalist, convinces the king that Kel should be subject to a probationary year—something the boys, obviously, aren’t subjected to. Unlike Alanna, who could enjoy the relative anonymity of being a boy in a group of boys, Kel is very obviously the only girl in her year group. She’s subjected to relentless bullying from her peers and only manages to make friends with a flock of sparrows, a dog, and another ostracized page, Nealan of Queenscove. Yet she doesn’t let herself take this too much to heart. She starts wearing dresses to dinner, forcing the boys to acknowledge that she’s a girl in their midst; she works hard to prove herself better at the lance than all of them, and she manages to win a war for her trouble.
Most importantly, Kel starts doing something the boys are not: quite simply, she stands for justice. She starts waging a campaign against the bullying of the younger pages, she takes in a maid who was abused by noblemen and starts teaching her how to defend herself; hell, when Tortall’s laws are clearly written to support the gentry, Keladry manages to convince Jonathan that the law should be changed. Kel defends not only herself and not only noble women; she takes on classism, sexism, and racism for the intersectional problem that it is and does her best to solve it. Does she succeed? As we’ve seen from the other quartets, not fully. But this is the next logical step in working to correct the inequalities on which Tortall was built.
Although the sexism in Tortall wasn’t set up well to begin with (the question “why should a fantasy medieval setting necessarily need to be sexist?” is never answered), as the Tortall series grew, confronting sexism and challenging preconceived notions of women became a integral part of the series’s continuity. Many books that cover Smurfette Principle tropes (that is to say, stories with only one girl in a group of guys) never really get into the deeper implications of sexism. Because the Tortall series is so long, Pierce has a prime opportunity to discuss changing ideas of gender roles, and she does so in a way that makes it fun, exciting, and educational to read about.