Thursday, July 18, 2024

Romance and Revelations in Mastiff

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When I finished reading Mastiff for the first time, I regretted not reading Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy sooner. Published in 2011, it brings Beka’s story to a sad, satisfying conclusion. Pierce manages to wrangle romance and revelations together in the same novel effortlessly. She ties off a series that I have previously been ambivalent about, and turned it into one that I now love. Not exactly surprising, given my previous track record with her work, but Mastiff is now a new oldie-but-a-goodie.

Spoilers for Mastiff and all of Pierce’s previous works.

So, What Happened?

Mastiff takes place two years after Bloodhound. It starts with Beka burying, but not necessarily mourning, for her dead fiancée. That night, Lord Haryse wakes her up, and sends her, Tunstall, and Achoo out by Mage-boat on a hunt. They arrive at the Summer Palace, and learn that someone attacked it and kidnapped the King and Queen’s only child, Prince Gareth. Farmer Cape, a Provost’s Mage, joins them and they investigate the kidnapping.

The three of them discover that slavers took Gareth, and that the former Chief Mage, used magic to link him and his parents. Whatever harm Gareth suffers, will also impact his parents. All this happens to punish the King for taking an interest in politics after his new Queen asked it of him, and for his recent tax on mages.  The four Hunters track Gareth’s captors through a swamp, past magical traps, and to Queensgrace. They find Prince Baird there, the King’s younger brother, who used to take care of the Kingdom while King Roger canoodled around. Beka and Achoo also find traces of Gareth’s scent there. The traitors smuggle Gareth out ahead of them.

Beka and the rest pursue them. They stop at an inn, where Beka and Farmer begin a relationship. The inn burns down that night in an attempt to stop them. They escape, and track Gareth to Halleburn, where they are captured. Beka and Farmer manage to escape with Gareth; Tunstall and Sabine join them. Beka then discovers that Tunstall betrayed them to the traitors because they promised him rank enough to marry Sabine. She hobbles him, and he dies of a chill that night. The three remaining Hunters return Gareth to his parents. Roger then ends slavery in Tortall because of Beka’s report of the conditions and his son’s request.


The Romance Is Dead with Beka and Holburn

Mastiff rightly begins with a funeral, because Pierce wanted the effect of a relationship that’s ended, but not to show something that inherently toxic. Beka and Holburn could never last, and they both knew it. By Beka’s report, they fought constantly near the end. To Holburn, Beka was, “a nag and a cold fish who was forever worrying about the future.” (p. 60). They were to be married, and he didn’t like her planning for the future? That needs to be one of the things that you agree on, to make any romance, any relationship work.

Beyond that, it also grated on him that he would never be as good a Dog as Beka, and that made him reckless.  “I didn’t know he meant to do it,’ I murmured. … ‘He was trying to best you and gather more glory for himself by going alone, … I didn’t want to admit Holburn was jealous of my standing among Dogs.” (p. 44). Pierce uses Holburn to drive home the point that for any romance to work, one partner can’t feel jealous of the other. In a romance, partners need to agree on their goals for the future, and not just live in the moment.

Their relationship proved toxic, but Beka still grieves, more for the loss of that future than for Holburn himself. She can’t cry at his funeral, she doesn’t eat, she doesn’t sleep. Beka feels guilty that she can’t grieve for Holburn, because they kept the cracks in their ‘romance’ hidden. She grieves because she cannot grieve. Gareth’s kidnapping gives Beka something to do, to help her put that grief aside.

Romance Corrupted with Tunstall and Sabine

A romance we saw grow follows that absent one into the boneyard. We saw Tunstall and Sabine fall in love. The two of them lived together, and they were solid in the romance department. Sabine seemed content with that, remaining unmarried but together with Tunstall. We find out later that their lack of marriage and their difference in rank grated more on Tunstall than Sabine. It’s another case of miscommunication, or rather the lack of communication, though more on Tunstall’s side than Sabine’s.

We see how their romance falls apart in Mastiff although it’s a slow slide. “Out came Tunstall, looking like a happy lad indeed. …The sound of our voices, or mayhap his voice, brought Lady Sabine of Macayhill around the side of the house.” (p. 318). They both practically dance at the idea of working together, they attend Holburn’s funeral together. In the beginning, everything is fine.

Although Tunstall seems alienated by being sat away from Sabine at Queensgrace, things still seem fine. When they stop at the wayhouse, Beka and Farmer sleep in the stables. When Tunstall asks why, Sabine replies, “They’re giving us a night alone. …Tunstall blushed a fiery red. He muttered sommat that might have been a thank-you.” (p. 761).

When caught at Halleburn, Sabine plays along with their captors. They want her to marry Prince Baird, Sabine goes along with it, supposedly, and manages to ‘claim’ Tunstall as her lover on the side. It reflects all his worst fears, even though it’s playacting on her part. That he will never be more to her than an amusement on the side, never a husband, nothing serious. Then he betrays their romance and Tortall for a chance to be her husband, forgetting Sabine would never accept that.

Romance Blooms Between Beka and Farmer

The romance between Beka and Farmer is sweet, though I didn’t buy into it at the beginning. The only signs of any romance before the stables are slim. I suppose that’s because her record is a journal, so she might not have recorded her burgeoning feelings. That explanation makes sense on a Watsonian level, but not on a Doylist one. I think the Doylist perspective is that we were meant to see Beka’s bewilderment at his ‘foolish mage’ act and her appreciating his jokes as ‘romance blooming’. Apart from that, their romance begins in the stables of the wayhouse, where they kiss before the fire.

After that, they don’t have time for romance, as they’re constantly running away from the traitors and seeking Gareth. The next romantic moment takes place when they’re held captive at Halleburn. They kiss and cuddle and plan a future together where they both live and work in Corus. Pounce says he cannot spirit them away, and Farmer replies.

“I don’t want to be spirited away, and I’ll wager neither does Beka,’ Farmer said. ‘We have work yet to do.’ ‘Marry me,’ I said, his words running like fire in my blood. ‘If we get out of this, marry me. What you just said, who you are—if we weren’t meant to wed, I don’t know who is. Marry me.” (p. 893).

Beka and Farmer overcome the challenges that faced her and Holburn. They plan a future together, they work side by side, and he isn’t intimidated by her.

Farmer offers to wed her at All Hollows so her patron, the Black God, can come if he likes. Lord Gershom hugs them both when he hears, the big sap. They’re suited to each other, and I buy their romance at the end, though not the beginning.


The Revelation That Ended Slavery

I could tell the moment where the story in Mastiff changed.

“The gixie Linnet was sprawled naked atop heaped slops from the kitchens. Her face was purple and swollen. One of the pads I’d made so she could turn the spits … was the rope used to strangle her. … They had killed her and dumped her in the garbage. I was certain they’d done it because she had talked to me.” (p. 617-8).

The death of the enslaved girl, Linnet Becks, changed Beka’s story forever. This is the moment where Beka stopped trying to rescue Gareth because he was the prince, and where she started trying to rescue him because slavery is evil. In the great words of Terry Pratchett, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”

This is the moment that starts making sense of the three book arc of the series. Because it winds up in the great hall of Corus, where King Roger ends slavery. He stops the slave trade in Tortall, mandates the freeing of children under ten, and lets the slaves decide if they would rather remain slaves or be freed, and mandates the selling of slaves only to reunite families. It is an abolition that makes good financial, political, and moral sense rather than unilateral freedom with no plans for afterwards. There is time to figure out what happens afterwards, and ways to prevent them being trapped in slavery in all but name like the sharecroppers after the American Civil War.

The arc of the series now is revealed. The mention of slaves in Terrier seeds this liberation, as does Beka’s interaction with the man who frees slaves in Bloodhound. And now, freedom is brought to everyone who wants it.

The Reveal of the Gentle Mother Cult

While there were mentions of the cult of the Gentle Mother in previous books, here we dive deep into that religion. As with the freeing of the slaves, Pierce explores how Tortall came to be what we know it as in her previous books. Referring to the people of Queensgrace, Farmer says. “I heard of late they’ve turned to that new cult of the Gentle Mother,” Farmer told her. ‘They make their daughters ride mules and forbid them the use of any weapons. One daughter was cast off when she refused to leave squire’s training.” (p. 495). Sounds familiar yes, a belief that women have no place on the battlefield?

Even though the only people currently believing in this religion are antagonists, it shows how that belief spread. It shows how things can become so entrenched because they do not understand each other. At the hall of Queensgrace, men sit on one side of the room, and women on the other.

“They aren’t expected to understand each other’ [Pounce] replied. The women will learn to flirt over a friend’s shoulder, instead of close. The men will see the women as distant and unknowable. Their friends will only be men. The women will see the men as strong and unknowable. Their friends will only be women.” (p. 580).

The Cult of the Gentle Mother is perfectly designed to disempower women and limit their choices. It prevents them from befriending men, it makes them solely mothers and caregivers. While this is not a bad end in and of itself, the fact that they cannot choose to be anything else is decidedly not feminist. The dislike of the cult by the protagonists and Pierce’s previous work frame this belief system as toxic.


Mastiff exceeded all my expectations. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the previous two books, this one brought everything home in a satisfying way. It retains some of the darker edge that Bloodhound had, but it’s more balanced. The introduction of Farmer and his magic especially made it feel more like a Tortall story than a crime story set in Tortall. The overall arc of how Pierce managed slavery in this trilogy amazes me, and Tunstall’s betrayal stings like a knife.

Pierce also chose an excellent epilogue, where we see George and Eleni again, after George became the Rogue. Eleni scolds him, the Goddess channels through her to predict his life and his having a love that will “stick you like pins” (p. 1048). Faithful makes George forget his purple eyes as Pounce, and George records his meeting with ‘Alan’ at the very end. It ties off the series very well.

Next up on this series, I’ll be splitting Pierce’s collection of Tortall short stories into two, and afterwards I’ll review Numair’s book and bring this series review of Pierce’s work to a close.

But to close this article, I give you Pierce’s dedication of Mastiff.

“Whether it’s for debt, for work, for sex: For the slaves, in the hope that one day your freedom comes not through purchase, illness, or death, but because slavery and the slavers have been sought out and stamped out in every home, business, warehouse, ship, quarry, bar, factory, and nest they inhabit.”

So mote it be.

Image Courtesy of Random House

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