Posted by Emily Goldsher

The winding down of the Harry Potter franchise is leaving a lot of readers looking for a new YA series to get behind.  JK Rowling’s insistence that there will be no more Potter books only seems to exacerbate the problem, and if my teenaged sister’s bookshelves are any indication, there aren’t a lot of great options out there.  The other YA colossus, the Twilight series, is exhausted at best, and the revival of LJ Smith’s The Vampire Diaries is disappointing, as it is largely considered to be the weakest point in her massive back catalogue of work.   

The last few times I’ve been back to visit my parents in Connecticut, I’ve found myself perusing the bookshelves in our basement—they are filled with hundreds of YA novels from when I was growing up.  But now, as I go through the books as an adult, the ones that I gravitate towards are written by YA fantasy legend Tamora Pierce.   While my fiancé is lost in my little sister’s video game collection, I pick Pierce’s books off the shelf and snuggle up to reread them for what might be the thousandth time.

You see, Tamora Pierce did something in her early work that JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer never accomplished: she wrote books about female heroes for girls that wanted to be heroes too.  They didn’t want to be heroes to get the guy, or to vanquish any particular villain; they wanted to be heroes because it meant that they were truly kind and good, and that they believed in honor, duty and fealty.  Sometimes, they didn’t know they even wanted to be heroes, but by the end of these stories, there they were, wielding swords or bow and arrows, saving the kingdom for the sake of it being something worth saving.

I’m blessed to be young enough to have been raised on The Song of the Lioness quartet instead of the Twilight books.  I never pined after Edward or Jacob because I was too busy rooting for Alanna, Pierce’s fiery-haired ingénue that spends two whole books out of the four disguised as a boy to become Tortall’s first female knight. Sure, Alanna becomes a lady knight, but she’s also a pretty good mage and the best fucking knight in the country—she kicks the ass of any dude brave enough to meet her with a sword, and she does it well enough that guys are falling for her left and right.  Alanna dodges the advances of several handsome royals just because she feels as if she’s not done adventuring.

Can you believe that?  I can’t imagine Kristin Stewart’s wilting Bella telling Jacob and Edward to fuck off because she just wants to go to college, much less go adventuring.  But Pierce’s heroines understood something that I believe Buffy Summers (of the Vampire Slayer fame) put best: if you’re still cookie dough, you’ve just got to finish baking, regardless of who is waiting for you on the other side.

I love Harry Potter, but it’s no secret that the series revolves around Harry and how everyone else relates to him.  His closest female friend and sister-at-arms is Hermione, and I find myself wishing her motives extended beyond an eternal quest to prove that she is more than just a Muggle.  She doesn’t want to be the best—she just wants to be better than everyone else.  That’s not heroism, that’s a mean competitive streak.  I can get behind that, but is it the kind of role model I’d want for my daughters?

As a kid, I absolutely idolized Alanna.  For my Bat Mitzvah gift, the art department at my father’s office superimposed my face onto a blown up image of the cover of Lioness Rampant, the final book in The Song of the Lioness series.  Now I’ve hidden the giant poster away in my basement closet, but I can tell you that as a 12-year-old girl, seeing my face on Alanna’s body, wielding a giant broadsword, made me feel like I was the biggest badass the world had ever seen.  That’s what I wanted, and now that I have the wisdom privy to people about to turn 25, I think it’s what I still want.

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a willowy doom and gloom Brooklynite named Quentin stumbles upon a life where all his childhood dreams become reality: he has magical powers, dragons are real, Fillory (Grossman’s Narnia) is real, and that in the end, the awesome destiny he had hoped for so badly is there for him to chase.  It isn’t all it is cracked up to be, but it’s there, and Quentin is one of the few fictional characters I’ve seen that acknowledges the dichotomy between being a kid that reads fantasy books about adventure and what it feels like to grow into an adult that has the opportunity to have their own fantastical adventures.

That’s part of what makes The Magicians so brilliant, but it also made it painful to read, gnawing at unresolved childhood issues where I was simply mortified that I was not a lady knight or that I couldn’t talk to animals, like Pierce’s other larger than life heroine, Daine of The Immortals quartet.  Like Alanna, Daine is a young girl that stumbles onto a destiny so much larger than she could have ever imagined, but she embraces it because it is the right choice, and using Pierce’s logic, the only choice.

Daine also dodges romance for most of the series, though she does eventually end up (SPOILER ALERT!) in a sort of jail-baitey situation with her mentor.   The point is, Daine and Alanna look at romance and sex—yes, these women have sex—from a rational standpoint.  The have sex and they fall in love when they want to, and that’s only after they have accomplished certain heroic or otherwise necessary-to-being-a-badass acts.  Pierce’s crowning achievement, in my opinion, as a writer of YA fiction, is her acknowledgment of the existence of birth control.  Alanna wears a charm to ward against babies around her neck, which made me google “Birth Control Charm” because I hate my Nuvaring.  The Atlantic ran a great interview with Pierce in June that touches on this:

“One of the things I strive for is realism. I need to be as real as possible in the dilemmas my characters face. The difference between their world and our world, both in the case of the Circle and Tortall, is magic makes people more aware of how things work. If you canoodle at the common on Beltane and you get a big belly nine months later, we know what’s going on…If everyone knows how this works, they know how it can be prevented…If my characters are going to have sex, they’re going to do their utmost to be responsible about it. They are going to be thinking about the kids that might result.

It is this realism that sets Pierce apart from her peers, and what continues to attract me to her writing even as an adult.  Her characters, whether they are female, male or mythical beast, are multidimensional and capable of reason and emotion beyond melodrama for the sake of itself.  Their motives are deeply human, and in that, they are made vulnerable enough that their smallest triumph feels huge to us as readers.

Even having read and re-read Tamora Pierce, I’ll admit I’m nowhere near as kind and good as her heroines; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t chuck my sister’s copy of Twilight on the sly the last time I came to visit.

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  • Anonymous

    oh i love her books! i read most of them when i was in middle school!

  • I read and reread the Alanna books when I was in middle school – I loved, and still love, being able to find the female heroines Pierce writes. But how sad that this is something we have to comment on, that it’s not just a given that there should be books about girls and women in which their sole goal isn’t to form an eternal bond with a glittering vampire.

    And as big a fan of libraries as I am, I still buy all of Pierce’s books when they come out – totally worth it, to get back that feeling I had when I first found her, that I could totally superimpose my head onto Alanna’s body and do everything her characters do.

  • Sara K.

    I just want to say, I love this site, but this is my absolute favorite piece I’ve read on here. Thanks so much for it.

  • Katya

    I adore Tamora Pierce! She was one of the first fantasy authors I ever read; I’ve loved her since second grade. I love how the idea is that women are just as strong as men, but she does it gracefully enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a fable with the moral being screamed at you through a microphone, and I think it’s excellent how there’s no (endless) message of instant love based on appearance.

    Thank you for writing about her; I don’t think she gets as much attention as she should.