A couple months ago I finished rereading Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series (again, not counting the Provost’s Dog trilogy starring Beka Cooper, because I still do not have those books), and I found that some of my opinions on the books had changed significantly. I still liked the Song of the Lioness quartet, but felt that it rushed through its worldbuilding; the Immortals quartet was still my beautiful delicate flower child; and whereas I had hated the Protector of the Small quartet when I first read it, I loved it upon rereading. (I guess I’ve learned some things about intersectionality in the last couple years.) However, I hadn’t liked the Trickster duology when I first read it, and apparently, I still didn’t like it when I reread it. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the story itself I disliked—it was the way in which it was told.
Spoilers for the series and minor spoilers for the rest of the Tortall universe after the jump!
The Trickster series is about Alianne Cooper, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, the king’s spymaster. Aly wants to be a spy like her dad, much to her mother’s chagrin, and when Aly and her mother argue too much, Aly decides to take a boat ride down by the coast to escape home for a while. Unfortunately for her, she ends up being kidnapped by slavers from the Copper Isles, and is transported there to be sold.
The Copper Isles are a place that we haven’t heard much about in Tortall; all we know is that it’s considered a Tortallan enemy and that Alanna killed a Copper Isles princess back in her own Tortall quartet. Aly soon finds out that there are two races on the Copper Isles: the luarin, who are white like herself, and the raka, who are brown-skinned. The raka are the native people, but the luarin invaded centuries ago and since then, have been in charge of the kingdom. Full luarin slaves like Aly are rare; most slaves are raka or part-raka. Aly is given into the service of the Balitangs, a noble family surrounded by a peculiar prophecy. Duke Mequen Balitang, the patriarch, is a luarin who is fourth in line for the throne; his late wife, Sarugani Temaida, was a direct descendant of the raka Haiming Dynasty. Their daughters, Saraiyu and Dovasary, are thus of two royal lines, and many believe that one of them is the One Who Is Promised: the person of two crowns who would lead the Copper Isles to freedom once again.
Ever since she was young, Aly has trained as a spy under the watchful eye of her father, and it’s for this reason that she’s been brought to the Balitangs: Kyprioth, the Isles’ patron god (and patron god of all tricksters) promises Aly that he’ll send her home if she can keep Sarai and Dove alive for the summer. It seems like a great adventure for sixteen-year-old Aly, but here’s where the narration gets odd. When Aly arrives in the Copper Isles, it’s quickly apparent that the plight and the history of the Copper Isles are only as interesting to her as is necessary for her campaign. She’s a teenager, and she’s thrilled to be out from under her parents’ thumb; she’s excited about working for Kyprioth, but it’s not personal to her. It’s a game, and as such, the readers only care about the rest of the Copper Isles as much as Aly does, and sometimes it’s not much. Aly’s other actions are questionable; she keeps the people she’s helping in the dark about important things “for their own good”. Kyprioth convinces the Balitang parents that Aly has been sent by the Great God, Mithros, to help them, and Aly doesn’t bother correcting this; she receives money from the Tortallan coffers and passes it off as if she has no personal connection to it, and when she finally tells everyone that she’s Alanna the Lioness’s daughter and practically Tortallan royalty, no one cares. The story is still an interesting, suspenseful one—it’s hard to make a revolution seem boring—but with Aly as the narrator, the audience feels a step removed from the action. As I was rereading it, I kept thinking, “Why isn’t Dove our main character instead?”
The two Balitang daughters are as different as night and day. Dove is much more similar to Aly, while Sarai is older, more headstrong, and more beautiful. However, Sarai has no head for politics. She’s angry at the injustices committed by the ruling Rittevon family, but she doesn’t see how to incite political change. After her father is killed by Rittevon forces, she abandons the country entirely, eloping with a Carthaki doctor and electing to work with him to make a more tangible difference by helping the sick and injured. Dove, although she’s younger, sees the value in spy work and politics, often spying on Aly as she has meetings with the Balitang parents and with the raka conspiracy. When Sarai abruptly leaves the Copper Isles, Dove gamely steps up to take her sister’s place as the One Who Is Promised. Her being younger is also more along the lines of Tamora Pierce’s usual protagonists, as Dove’s twelve; Alanna and Keladry were ten, and Daine was thirteen. As the actual subject of the prophecy, Dove is more intimately connected with the result of the campaign to take over the throne than is Aly, and as a result, seeing the events of the series through her eyes would have helped the readers care more about what happened.
Another significant drawback to Aly as narrator is the simple fact that she’s Tortallan. From a political standpoint, Tortall is a much more stable and affluent kingdom than are the Copper Isles, and the fact that the Copper Isles revolution is bankrolled by the Tortallan government is especially iffy when you consider actions that real governments have taken in real life. Granted, unlike the U.S., Tortall isn’t putting a handpicked Tortall-friendly person on the throne, but it’s still disingenuous to read about Aly, who will not be affected by the revolution, as the narrator and the driving force behind the raka revolution. Though Aly does learn to care for Sarai and Dove, Pierce makes Aly’s relationship with the Copper Isles a point of constant contention in the story. Once Aly’s kept the Balitangs alive for the summer, Kyprioth offers to make good on his bargain and send her home, but Aly wants to stick around and see if she can actually win the game (i.e., put the girls on the throne). In the second book, the question of whether Aly will stay in the Isles and whether the revolution will accept her Tortallan heritage is central to the narrative, and it’s answered in the most anticlimactic way possible in a few pages at the end of the book. With Dove as our narrator instead, we never would have doubted her place in the revolution.
Having Dove as narrator could even have given us some interesting romantic options. The main romance in the Trickster series is between Aly and Nawat, a crow who turns human to woo her. Though it seems extremely weird when put like that, Pierce actually puts a significant amount of effort into discussing how crows can turn into humans at will and even has a short story in a later Tortall collection discussing the cultural differences that Aly and Nawat deal with in their relationship. Crows, in the Tortall universe, are sacred to Kyprioth, and having Nawat and his crow warriors on the side of the revolution is a very fortuitous sign. Dove is twelve (turning thirteen later in the story), so it’s unlikely that anything would have developed for her romantically, but if she’d been trained in fighting by Nawat and in spy work by Aly, it could have laid the ground for a sequel in which romantic relationships with one or both could have developed. (I’m always about possible LGBTQ+ representation!) Dove clearly admires and respects Aly, and has a bodyguard, and if both roles had been expanded—if Aly had taught Dove openly rather than waiting for her to be found out at her spying, and if Nawat had been Dove’s bodyguard instead, it would have served as ample shipping fodder and strengthened Dove’s own bona fides as future Copper Isles queen.
Most importantly, having Dove as the narrator would have allowed Pierce to fully engage with the interesting racial dichotomy she’s set up in the Copper Isles. Dove and Sarai are biracial; as such, even though they’re royal on both sides, luarin and raka alike are wary of marriage arrangements with them, and people on both sides discriminate against them. Aly, as a luarin and a Tortallan on top of that, is an outsider to this cultural and racial conflict, and can only observe as an outsider. Dove would have been able to more fully articulate what it felt like to be biracial in the Copper Isles. Furthermore, Dove could have been the first protagonist of color in the Tortall series, as it was never confirmed if Daine was a person of color. The Tortall universe is already very diverse, drawing on not only medieval Europe but also Japan, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia for inspiration for its unique lands; Dove as narrator would have helped to add some much-needed representation to a multicultural series that somehow still had four white women as its narrators.
I was a little disappointed to discover that I still didn’t like the Trickster series after I reread it. After changing my opinion so drastically on the Protector of the Small quartet, I thought something similar might happen with this one. However, it wasn’t all bad news; the events of the story were interesting on their own, and it was fun to catch the occasional glimpse of what was happening in Alanna, Daine, and Keladry’s grown-up lives.Though I understand using Aly as a hook to draw in readers who might not have been interested in a Tortall book without much of a tie to our past narrators, I just wish that Pierce hadn’t given Aly a starring role in the series. There are kingdoms in the Tortall universe we’ve never seen, and I didn’t need Aly to introduce me to a place I’d been curious about already.