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Analysis

Ambiguous Morality in Trickster’s Choice

Trickster’s Choice is new territory for Pierce. The spy novel proves morally ambiguous. The contrast with Kel’s morally upright story make it both more and less progressive. Trickster’s Choice covers the life of Alianne, or Aly, of Pirate’s Swoop. Pierce published the first of two novels about Alanna’s daughter in 2003. It’s definitely intersectional, but there are problems. The interesting things lies in how Pierce handles those problems.

Spoilers for Trickster’s Choice and all of Pierce’s other works

So, What Happened?

Trickster’s Choice starts with Aly and her father debating what she wants to do. Aly professes a desire to simply enjoy life, or to spy for her father. Both her parents disapprove, so Aly leaves for a short trip. Then, pirates kidnap and enslave Aly, taking her to the Copper Islands. Eventually, she winds up at House Balitang. Kyprioth, the Trickster god, arranged it. He makes a deal with her to keep the children of the family safe for that summer, and he’ll find her spy work.

Aly soon finds an ally in Nawat, a crow who shapeshifts into a human. She also befriends the Balitang’s other servants and slaves when the family is banished from the capital by King Oron. Aly learns about a prophecy about a “twice royal queen,” destined to return the Islands to rule. After the luarin conquest, the raka have been waiting for centuries for a luarin and raka blooded queen. She shortly learns that the Balitang’s high ranking servants (all pure blooded raka) believe it to be Sarai, the eldest daughter of the house.

Mixed with uncovering the raka conspiracy, she also foils an assassination attempt. Aly monitors the behavior of Prince Bronau, who flirts outrageously with Sarai. Aly discovers that Bronau is deep in debt, and Sarai’s father is fourth in the line for the throne. King Oron dies, and then his heir dies, leaving a four-year-old as king. Bronau attempts to kidnap Dunevon, then flees to the Balitang estates. He then tries to force Sarai to marry him. In driving his soldiers off, Bronau kills Duke Mequen, but Aly keeps the rest of the family safe. Duchess Winnamine frees Aly, then Aly decides to put Sarai on the throne rather than leave her wager with Kyprioth.

Mothers and Daughters

Sarai, Dove, and their Mothers

Sarai and Dovasary are the daughters of Duke Mequen and Duchess Sarugani. Sarugani is secretly descended from raka royalty and died in a riding accident a few years after giving birth to Dove. Some years later, Mequen remarried Winnamine, his and Sarugani’s friend, and he and Winna have two children Petranne and Elsren.

I adore the multiplicity in this chapter of Pierce’s work. Because Dove and Sarai’s relationships with their mother and step-mother are anything but the same. Dove and Winna start out friendly, but Sarai and Winna clash. Stories of female raka warriors inspire Sarai, but not for Winnamine. On the road to Tanair, they prepare for ambush by bandits, and Mequen orders everyone armed. Winna replies, “It will take me days to undo the wildness that your putting weapons in the girls’ hands will stir up.” (p. 85). But, after assassins attack at Tanair, Winna relents and allows Sarai to continue her sword lessons. She even starts learning archery with Dove herself, which makes Sarai like Winna more. The three of them grow closer over the course of the book.

By contrast, at the beginning of the book, Sarai idolizes her mother. When she talks about her she mentions, “She was light, and color, and fun. … Every day was a holiday with her.” (p. 169).  Dove’s opinion is more ambiguous. While talking about Sarai’s skill on horseback, she mentions, “If Mother could ride like Sarai, she’d be alive now. Sarai never would have tried that jump, not without knowing what lay on the other side.” (p. 149). They both have different opinions on the women in their lives. And that’s okay. Pierce doesn’t judge Sarai for initially disliking Winna, or Dove for her skepticism.

Aly and Alanna, and Daine

The entire plot of Trickster’s Choice happens because Alanna and Aly are different people. As we know, Alanna’s drive, passion, and stubbornness lead her into and out of every situation. Aly proves the quintessential spy. She plays at being disinterested in everything, at wanting to just enjoy life. But, as George thinks, “How could someone who liked to win as much as she did lack ambition?” (p. 9). Aly wants to avoid being changed by Alanna, and Kyprioth interferes.

Through the novel, Aly thinks that Alanna doesn’t care about her and her brothers. She internally complains that Alanna wasn’t there during her childhood, that she put the realm above her children. However, that belief shatters in one of Kyprioth’s dream visions. He allows Aly to have dreams of her family back in Tortall. One of these shows her Alanna’s reaction to finding out Aly is missing. Afterwards, she and Kyprioth talk. “She always treated me as a feckless child, Kyprioth! Aly retorted silently. An impression you encourage, as I recall, the god reminded her.” (p. 128). Aly and Alanna can’t communicate, and that causes their conflicts. Although they’re separated, Aly understands her mother better now. The book covers other nuances of their relationship and gives all of them equal importance.

To round out the quartet of mothers, one of Aly’s dream-visions covers the naming of Daine and Numair’s first child. No matter how ethically ambiguous their relationship might be, the fact that they only have their first child when Daine’s twenty-five allays that ambiguity for me. Daine can’t communicate with her six-week-old daughter, which leads to Sarralyn constantly shapeshifiting. With Sarugani, Winna, Alanna, and Daine, Pierce shows that there’s not just one type of mother and daughter relationship. That strikes me as feminist and progressive.

Morally Ambiguous Decisions

There’s no denying it. Trickster’s Choice is a spy novel, and spy novels have a lot of ethically and morally ambiguous things in them. Both from the character’s point of view and from the reader’s point of view. Sometimes these things overlap, and sometimes they oppose each other. Both of these happen in Trickster’s Choice.

The thing that both the readers and characters find ambiguous is Bronau’s flirting with Sarai. Given that he knows Winna because he used to court her, he’s much older than Sarai. We’ve already covered this ground before in Realm of the Gods. Bronau immediately starts flirting with Sarai, and she reciprocates. However, Aly, our POV character, views it as in bad taste. She knows that flirting is nice, but she often lamented that in Tortall, “The only people who could keep up with her were either related or at least ten years older than she was.” (p. 14). Pierce wrote Daine and Numair building from years of friendship. Now, seven years later, she writes the more conventional narrative of the man who seduces a younger woman with his experience. Both Aly and the reader condemn this relationship even before Bronau kills Mequen.

Readers, but not characters, also object to Aly’s brown face. When the Balitangs visit the raka village of Pohon, Aly slips away. She puts on a skin tint and wears a disguise so she can try and fit in with the local raka. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. Aly couches it in terms of looking for a mage to help protect Balitangs. The reader likely thinks she’s behaving wrongly. Aly looks at it from the view of a spy, where ends justify the means. The reader finds it uncomfortable from a modern viewpoint.

Race and Liberation

A significant portion of Trickster’s Choice deals with what happens when a conquest starts failing. The enslaved locals prepare to revolt and the conquerors become more brutal. Mithros and the Goddess, the white gods, banished the god of the raka people. They are not there to add color to the story, as the Bazhir often come off as, and their future liberation is central to the story.

Pierce draws on the Jim Crow laws, and the laws of colonies in the islands. After the assassins attack, the raka conspirators thank Aly for alerting them in time to stop it. When Aly asks why they’re so excessively grateful, they reply.

“I always forget, you are not of us. We think you are raka in your heart, but no. You are newly come. No one teaches a slave the laws that govern the Isles. Had these sisat”—he pointed to the still-living assassin with his dagger—“killed even one Balitang or the prince, then every raka man, woman, and child of Tanair village and castle would die. That is the luarin law such things.” (p. 252)

Winna later mentions that such laws broke the spine of the raka rebellion during the conquest. It’s horrific, and the Balitangs and Aly recognize it.

But one problem remains. And that problem is Aly. Pierce writes Aly as an outsider, a luarin, at the center of a raka conspiracy to put a half luarin, half raka queen on the Rittevon throne. Several times in the story, Aly talks about guiding the revolution to prevent a luarin blood-bath, as if without her influence it would be a mob. Yes, the Pohon raka and Ochobu dislike any luarin, but they’re not the whole rebellion. Aly behaves like she’s a civilizing influence on the raka, and that’s a problematic trope.

Conclusion

The morals of Trickster’s Choice are more ambiguous than Pierce’s other books, but that’s inherent when it comes to spy novels. The comparisons of mothers and daughters bring thoughts to mind of feminism, and the racial component is central to the story. Yes, there are problems, though I think some of those problems might be the point.

Pierce’s stories always start or end in Tortall, and now we’re outside of Tortall. Now, we’re in the Copper Islands, and that story has to be about an outsider. So I think she plays with some of those tropes. She make Aly the token luarin of the conspiracy, she makes her morals flexible. Trickster’s Choice is the novel where Pierce succeeds the most with race, and I think it shows. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Pierce’s work might be ambiguous, but I look forward to reviewing Trickster’s Queen when the rebellion comes to fruition.


Image Courtesy of Scholastic

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Angela is a full-time fantasy nerd. She is either reading a novel or talking about one. Or is watching Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time. Character archetypes and cultural context always fascinate her.

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