It’s February and though I have about a million more recent books I still want to recommend, it seemed fitting to write about some of the books and series that made me love reading to begin with. So this month, while some of our other recommenders are going to continue on with business as usual, I’ll be recommending some of my favorite books/series of all time. These are the books with worn spines and bent pages on my shelves. They made it through vacations, college dorms and bathtub reading. They’re the Velveteen Rabbits of my literary life.
I want to start with the work of Tamora Pierce. If you’re not familiar with Pierce, let me provide a quick rundown for you: Pierce has been actively writing for my entire life. Her novels are set in lands where magic is possible and girls are powerful creatures. I will be up front and say that while I’ve read a good deal of her work, I’m not yet familiar with her Circle of Magic series, but I’ve read most of the Tortall books and even as an adult I’m in love.
Pierce writes great, fully realized characters. I started with the Alanna books (more formally known as the Song of the Lioness quartet) and while I’ve gone on to love many of the other protagonists Pierce has written, Alanna will always remain my favorite. The world Tortall exists in is full of magic and supernatural creatures. The gods aren’t distant religious figures, but meddlers, and boy do they meddle. Those with “the Gift” are often the targets of their meddling, though being powerful, rather than having magical powers seems to catch their eye more than anything.
One of the things I love most about Pierce’s lady characters is that they’re struggling to break gender boundaries. Alanna and Kel are dealing with being the first female knights in centuries, Daine struggles to understand how her magic works, Aly becomes a spy. And without spoiling things for you, I want you to know that Pierce creates female characters that succeed without having to give up their power.
One of the things that sometimes bothers me about contemporary YA fiction is that too many female protagonists seem required to give up their power in order to get along or love someone. I’ve read so many great series (that I still adore) that end with the protagonist’s supernatural power draining away so she can lead a “normal” life. That in itself isn’t so bad and when it’s done right it can be a powerful message: there’s nothing wrong with being normal. You can be exceptional without superpowers. Pierce has plenty of that too, Kel, the main character of the Protector of the Small quartet is one such character.
Where Pierce’s work deviates from some of the great YA fantasy authors that followed her, is that all of Pierce’s characters struggle with the way in which they’re powerful and find a way to work it into their “normal” lives. Some find romance, some don’t. The ones who do end up with the people who can accept the power they wield. Pierce shows us over and over that relationships in which a partner can’t accept the way a woman is powerful are toxic. I’ve got to be honest, I really love that.
Too often, I think we tell young girls to hide their power (yeah, Flawless is playing in my head right now) and that’s not okay in my book. Girls can be powerful and they should find relationships, both platonic and romantic where that’s valued. I think that’s what attracted me to Pierce (and Alanna) as a kid. Pierce told the truth: if you have power, that’s going to threaten some people and they won’t be able to handle it. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad and it doesn’t make you bad, but it’s the wrong kind of “challenging” to allow a relationship to survive. In other words, Pierce shows us that if someone can’t accept your power, no matter how much they love you or you love them, it’s not a good relationship to continue.
Aside from all that, they’re great adventure stories and I love a good fantasy adventure. There’s evil sorcerors to defeat, political intrigue to navigate and wars to win. Pierce’s characters are in the thick of all of it. Oh and sword fighting, there’s lots of that too.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher, a cat herder, a dogmom and tea drinker. She’s fretting over someone special’s trip into an enchanted forest this week and managing the expectations of mentally ill vampires. You can visit her on twitter or at her website if you want to see how that’s going.