Monday, July 22, 2024

Tortall and Other Lands Fills in Gaps, Part 1: Tortall

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Tortall and Other Lands fills in some of the gaps that Pierce left in her books. Published in 2011, Pierce collected six short stories based in Tortall, and five based in other fantasy or realistic lands. The Tortall stories build on details of the books that helped develop the world and give them more attention. Pierce’s feminism also evolves during the course of the book, with more focus on POC characters, the introduction of disabled characters, and religious expression. Since each story demands a certain amount of attention, this article will only focus on the articles set in the world of Tortall.

Spoilers for the first six stories of Tortall and Other Lands and all of Pierce’s other works.

“Student of Ostriches”

Basic Summary

“Student of Ostriches” tells the story of Kylaia al Jmaa, the girl who grows up to become the Shang Unicorn. She was a friend of Liam Ironarm’s and one of the only other living bearers of an Immortal title. Kylaia describes how she grew up in a village on the savannah. As she grew up, she gained a flock of sheep to guard. While watching them, she learned how to run like ostriches did, and how to fight from the other creatures of the plains. Eventually, she is able to run much faster than all the girls and all the boys in the neighboring villages.

When Kylaia is twelve, her family travels to the local trade fair, where her oldest sister Iyaka’s betrothed accuses her of witchcraft. The chief of the fair says it can only be settled by trial by combat. Since their father broke his leg and it was badly set, he cannot fight. Kylaia volunteers to fight. She wins in front of the entire fair and saves her sister’s and her family’s honor. After the fight Vah-lah-nee, the Shang Falcon, who witnessed the fight, offers to take her to the Shang for training. He says that even though she’s older than most recruits, her skills should guarantee her a place there. Kylaia only agrees to go after she sees Vah-lah-nee break a rock with his bare hands.


One of the things that makes “Student of Ostriches” such a good story is that it further expands the world of Tortall. Kylaia and her civilization do not interact much with the outside world, except at the trade fair. I would assume that her people lived far to the south of Carthak. This assumption is reinforced by Kylaia’s descriptions of her people juxtaposed with Vah-lah-nee. “Everyone in my life was brown or black. … This man—this man was white.” (p. 14). She disdains Vah-lah-nee from the beginning as well, does not see him as superior or anything other than an oddity, ill-suited for the environment.

Pierce sets up an entire country peopled by people of color, and makes one of the best Shang warriors a person of color. Even what we see in “Student of Ostriches” shows how she deserves that title. “Two years passed as I studied my new work … I built calluses on my hands, feet, and elbows. I ran; I hit and I kicked.” (p. 8). Kylaia strengthens herself, and learns to fight in a realistic way that doesn’t downplay the difficulty of her effort. The descriptions of how she learns to kick and punch from the animals are entrancing. Her fight with Awochu is decidedly one sided. He doesn’t even land a single blow.

The one problem that I have with this story is that Vah-lah-nee has shades of the white savior trope. When he first brings up the idea of going to the Shang, he says, “I have been talking with your parents about your future,’ as if he continued a conversation we had already begun.” (p. 23). He’s slightly pre-emptory in a way that’s vaguely unsettling. But ultimately it’s Kylaia’s decision, and that softens the unfortunate elements that are there a little.

“Elder Brother”

Basic Summary

“Elder Brother” tells the story of the tree that Numair turned into a man at the end of Wolf Speaker. The story starts with Qiom turning into a man, and feeling like he’s dying. Numair appears in Qion’s dream, apologizes, and gives him some knowledge about how to interact with the human world. Despite said knowledge, he makes several faux pas because he doesn’t understand how to apply his new knowledge. The people of this land drive him away several times before he meets Fadal while in a depressed mood. Fadal helps fill in the gaps Numair’s knowledge left, mostly knowledge about the culture, and they travel together, seeking work.

This country worships a god of fire and mandates that women wear full body veils. Qiom discovers that Fadal is a girl disguised as a boy because she disliked the veil and ran away. Fadal finally believes that Qiom was a tree upon his lack of a reaction. They find work in a city, but in a fight with local boys, they discover Fadals’s disguise. Qiom rescues Fadal, despite his fear of fire, and they decide to travel to Tortall because there Fadal wouldn’t need to wear a veil.


One of the first things about “Elder Brother” and its setting is that it is another country with POC characters. Qiom turns into a man like the other men in the country, and he describes thusly, “His skin was a darker brown than Numair’s had been; his shaggy crown hair was black.” (p. 28). Pierce further expands the world of Tortall by doing this, as she introduces a continent far to the east of Tortall, further east than Yamani.

She also drew on a real-world region in doing this, as the country is based on the Middle East. Pierce confirms this with her dedication, where dedicates the book to her editor, “And to the Taliban, which makes me crazy.” Given that “Elder Brother” was copyrighted in 2001, the depiction of the country and religion is shaped by the then-current perceptions of Islam and the Middle East. The religion in this country seems deeply influenced by Islam, including their prophet and female veiling. Fadal’s discontent with the veil comes from the fact that her father came from a different country, where that specific religion did not carry as much weight. The ‘stone women’ who do not wear the veil. It’s both a very stereotypical depiction of Islam and the Middle East and a current one.

The problem with this short story, read alone, is that Qiom and Fadal leave for Tortall at the end. They could have traveled to the country her father was from. Presumably there are other countries on the continent. But no, they travel to Tortall. Pierce’s description of Tortall makes it sound like a paradise compared to their unnamed country. The unilateral demonization of people that practice this knockoff Islam proves troubling. It judges the entire religion and region by extremists. That is why I like reading “Elder Brother” and “The Hidden Girl” in tandem.

“The Hidden Girl”

Basic Summary

“The Hidden Girl” tells the story of Teky, daughter of a wandering priest who teaches the religious rights of women. She meets Fadal before the fight that leads to Fadal’s discovery. They talk about the veil, with Fadal saying it is akin to chains. Teky defends it, because it allows her anonymity in a man’s world. We follow her and her father as they teach the people of the town after Qiom destroys the temple. Teky teaches the women to read their rights in the Book of the Sword. She also helps her father lecture the men who come to learn from them.

Her father grows ill as they travel from one village to another. Something speaking with a man’s voice and a woman’s voice speaks to Teky and asks her what a group of veiled woman means. She answers incorrectly three times. Her father dies, and she answers correctly, that she sees power. Afterward, she poses as her grandmother and starts teaching on her own. The voices were the gods in the flame and she is their new prophet.


One of the things that excites me about “The Hidden Girl” is a passage where Teky and her father talk about her future. He says if he dies, she should go to her aunt and be married. Teky doesn’t want that, and she asks the fire why he decided unilaterally. The god in the flame answers. “He is a man,’ said both halves of the god, woman and man. ‘He has never been stripped of his voice, so he does not know how it feels to be stripped of it, even a little” (p. 66). Here Pierce critiques somewhat unthinking male allies, because Teky’s father has good intentions. But he still can act badly where his daughter is concerned. A real-life parallel might be someone who knows feminist theory but still leaves his wife to do the housework.

“The Hidden Girl” and “Elder Brother” work entirely in tandem with each other, because they need to be read together to receive the full message. Fadal and Teky are foils for one another. They both have valid critiques of the other’s position. At their meeting at the well, Fadal says to Teky that “A slave in chains has more freedom to move.” (p. 53). Teky acknowledges that all girls complain about the veil, but she responds,  “These veils are freedom, … I could vanish among a crowd of women, and you would never even know which of us you spoke to.” (p. 54).

They both make insightful points. Some people feel stifled by the veils, yet for others, they are protection and a part of their religion. In our world, feminism with regard to religion and the hijab needs to take both views into account. People can be both oppressed or liberated by the veil and their religious practices. The solution lies in letting people from these cultures voice what assistance they want.


Basic Summary

In “Nawat,” Pierce uses his point of view to explore the intricacies of crow culture and the aftermath of the birth of his and Aly’s triplets. Aly panics during the birth because she doesn’t want to give birth to eggs. However, she gives birth to two girls and a boy, named Ochobai, Junim, and Ulasu. Nawat encounters some trouble because he insists the babies not be swaddled. Also, unknown to Aly, they eliminate themselves out the window. She discovers this when a furious Dove discloses that one of them eliminated onto a diplomat’s assistant, causing a diplomatic nightmare. This causes an argument between Aly and Nawat. She resolves it by giving them chamber pots that they can eliminate in so he doesn’t have to hold them out a window.

Meanwhile, the Rajmuat flock declares one of the crows in Nawat’s war band outcast from the flock because he behaved too much like a human. The next day, he killed himself, and several crows left, hoping to avoid being declared outcast. One of them had a fledgeling that had a twisted spine that his parents hoped would heal, but the Rajmuat flock killed him according to crow law. Nawat tries to follow crow law so that he and others of his flock can still aid Dove but not be declared outcast from the flock. He discovers that Ochobai has achondroplasia and considers culling her to be a perfect crow. However, he decides to be a good man and informs Aly. He eventually voluntarily withdraws himself from the Rajmuat flock.


“Nawat” marks the first point that Pierce represents disability in her stories, another much needed milestone. It also deals with an underdeveloped aspect of the Trickster’s Duology, that of Nawat’s inhuman nature. The dealings of the crows in this short story, both in the status of the flock and the culling, reveals and unpacks that.

One of the most important aspects that the story gets across is the importance of flock to crows. “To the birds that lived in flocks, there was nothing worse than being outcast. Not to have the splendor of a thousand wings beating around him. … Suddenly he knew how Aly must feel, so far from her own family and country.”(p. 99-100). Both Aly and Nawat in some ways are outcasts at the end of the story. People want to fit in with their community, and we saw Aly change to fit the Island culture. Now we see Nawat change to fit the human culture. Unfortunately to human sensibilities, the culling of crows is part of their culture. When the crows cull Keeket, it horrifies Aly. Nawat thinks that he would have culled Keeket if he had been his.

When he discovers Ochobai’s achondroplasia, he plans to cull her, despite knowing he would lose Aly. But he can’t do it. He goes to Aly and says. “Humans will allow a child that is not perfect, or some humans will. … I thought I was a good crow, fit for the Rajmuat flock. Instead I am only a crow fit for my own war band,” (p. 143). After this, Aly immediately starts planning how to best help her daughter. “We’ll bring other dwarfs into this household. And no one will mock you for who you are.” (p. 143). Pierce thus advocates for representation here.

“The Dragon’s Tale”

Basic Summary

In “The Dragon’s Tale,” we see Kitten and Spots travelling with Daine, Numair, and Kaddar in Southern Carthak. Because villagers see Kitten as something monstrous, and she can’t communicate, she spends a lot of time in Daine and Numair’s tent, pouting. At one village, she sneaks out and sees a starving woman being attacked by village boys and follows her. After entering a magically protected area of land that sends the boys off, Kitten discovers that the woman has a child. Kitten decides to bring food to the woman, Afra, so she can better take care of her infant son, Uday. Spots manages to escape his lead and joins her.

Kitten scares Afra when she first brings her food. Still, she returns the next day with more food and Spots, when an earthquake strikes. Kitten helps and befriends Afra, after helping rescue her son from the cave she lived in. Afra tells Kitten the story of how her parents sold her to a noble because she has two-colored magic, then ran away and gave birth to Uday. Later, Kitten realizes the magic hiding Afra disappeared.

Kaddar’s soldiers and the villagers bring Daine and Numair there, and Kitten stands between them and Afra. The ruckus wakes up an opal dragon, Kawit. She reveals that she put up the magical defenses, and Daine, Numair, Afra, and Kitten come up with a peaceful solution after the soldiers and villagers run away. Kawit gives Kitten a scale that lets her communicate mind-to-mind with other people, which makes her ecstatic. Kawit decides to travel with them, and Daine and Numair agree to help Afra and Uday.


Another story highlighting the representation of those with disabilities, this story is also flat out adorable. Kitten’s narration shows how she’s a mix of child and teenager, as well as her fumbling attempts to help Afra. Her friendship with Spots, although they can’t communicate except in gestures, proves so sweet. He clearly does not enjoy being on the line and enjoys spending time with Kitten. Their familiarity and their pseudo-familial bond shows a lot about their characters.

The whole premise of the trip also proves important. Daine talks to Kitten and says. “With me and Numair to guard, and only a hundred soldiers instead of a thousand, he’s approachable. They will talk to [Kaddar] and tell him the truth.” (p. 150). This only reinforces the impression that Kaddar wants to rule well, unlike his uncle. Daine also mentions that Kalasin, his new wife, is in charge of the Empire in his stead. It shows that he trusts and respects her, which is a good sign as well.

“The Dragon’s Tale” highlights the moral of protecting and respecting the outcast in retrospect. Afra is an outcast because of her magic and because she escaped slavery. Uday is an outcast because of his magic and because of his illegitimacy. Daine and Numair take them in at the end of the story. Kitten cannot communicate, but Kawit’s gift allows her to at the end of the story. Even Spots shows shades of being outcast because he does not want to stay on the horse line.

Then the story ends with Kitten asking a flurry of questions. “Papa, did you fix the river? Mama, are the chickens going to be alright?” (p. 207). Kitten calling Daine and Numair Mama and Papa adds a perfectly sweet seal to the end of the story.


Basic Summary

“Lost” tells the story of a girl from Tusaine with an abusive father who finds a darking. Her new mathematics instructor takes offense at her skill and sends a condescending note to her father. After school, Adria works in her father’s shop, cleaning up the shop. During said cleaning she finds a darking named Lost, who befriends her. When her father appears, he scolds her terribly and takes away her food “privileges” for today and tomorrow. He demands she apologize to her teacher the next day.

Next morning, Lost steals a peach and a pastry for Adria’s breakfast. They go out into town, where they watch a mathematician from the guild work on a drawbridge. Adria corrects one of her problems, and Keraine reveals she worked with the former instructor Master Hillbrand, who liked Adria. They spend the rest of the morning talking about theoretical algebra, with Adria rushing forward with new ideas of how things could work. Then she realizes it’s almost noon, and she’s missed school.

Adria goes home and cleans a storeroom, where she finds a record book that details her father’s smuggling. After this revelation, her father shows up and takes her out of school entirely and strikes her. He plans to send her to a cousin’s farm. Lost defends her, and her father tries to kill the darking. After this, Keraine and Master Hillbrand show up with more darkings and rescue her. Adria blackmails her father with the knowledge of his smuggling, and he casts her away. Keraine and Hillbrand take her to the university at Tortall to study.


One of the most important things about “Lost” is its depiction of abuse. We also see life in the merchant class, and life outside of Tortall as well. Adria’s skill at math also proves a good role-model, given women and girls are seen as less skilled in mathematics. But the depiction of abuse gives the story emotional resonance. Said abuse comes from two sources, from her father and from Instructor Park.

Instructor Park abuses her education over his jealousy. “It was as if she had seen a star-covered sky, only to have Instructor Park tie a blindfold over her eyes.” (p. 210). He wasn’t even supposed to be teaching her in the first place. Master Hillbrand arranged for extra lessons with him instead, but Instructor Park belittles her and keeps her in his class instead.

As for her father, that abuse is more plain. In addition to the whippings Adria mentions, and him taking away her food, she also displays classic abuse symptoms. Through the entire story, Lost describes her as jumpy, as shaking. When her father lectures her for the first time she thinks, “Adria lowered her head, feeling sick and battered. He could go on like this for hours, or what seemed like hours.” (p. 216). After she realized she skipped class, “Terror flooded her, buzzing in her veins and turning to heat in her belly.” (p. 230). She spends the entire afternoon thinking about how she could appease him.

It takes two things to inspire her to stand up to him. Keraine’s showing up at the shop helps cancel out the abuses of Instructor Park. Lost’s comments to her about how this is not normal allow her to then stand up to her father at a crucial moment.


Overall, these stories help fill in the gaps and explore life outside of Tortall. In these six short stories, not a single one is set in Tortall proper. Recurring characters and beings show up and the universe is the same, but we see more of the world outside Tortall.

This collection of stories also displays many intersectional morals. Both “Student of Ostriches” and the combination of “Elder Brother” and “The Hidden Girl” show us countries we never saw before. Countries inhabited by people of color. “Nawat” deals intensely with disabilities and how people with disabilities are seen by one culture. “Lost” gives us a shatteringly true depiction of abuse, how it shapes a person, and how hard it is to break free of it. “The Dragon’s Tale” deals with outcasts even though it’s a feel good story. Some of them, especially “The Hidden Girl” and “Nawat” handle issues that were not addressed in the novels or were addressed, but poorly so, in the novels.

So far, Tortall and Other Lands has proven itself to be a progressive and entertaining selection of short stories. I look forward to unpacking Pierce’s five non-Tortall stories next month. Seeing how the feminism unfolds itself in them should be just as entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Bluefire

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