Sunday, May 19, 2024

Twists in Fantasy Mark Tortall and Other Lands: Part 2

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Here we are, at the second part of Tortall and Other Lands, a collection of short stories by Tamora Pierce. But now we’re not dealing with Tortall and that universe, but different universes. While not being the universe we know after 17 years, Pierce weaves well developed realistic fantasy worlds. She twists the generic fantasy universe and writes short stories that grab your attention, while still speaking to feminist themes she covered in her Tortall universe. Tortall and Other Lands is a masterclass in fantasy writing.

Spoilers for all of Tortall and Other Lands and Pierce’s Other Works.

Fantasy Stories

Summary of “Time of Proving”

“Time of Proving” tells the story of Arimu of the Wind People, a wandering tribe. At thirteen she sets out on her year of proving, where she travels to an unmapped land, maps it and lives there for a year, so that the tribe has new sources of water. Halfway through, she meets a bull person, from the Veiled City, who was captured and chased by hunters.

Following the rules of her people, she bargains with Sunflower for his medical care and her aid, with the jeweled rings he wears on his horns. She describes teaching him, and how he fails miserably at all the practical skills she tries to teach, bargaining with him all the way. He does draw wonderful maps, and tells her stories about the stars, though Arimu is disappointed he can’t navigate by them.

When Sunflower runs out of rings, he makes to set out. Arimu has a crisis of faith, because she knows he can’t survive in the desert. So she runs after him, and makes a new bargain, twists the rules of her culture, where he will make maps for her people, and set up a trading system. They set off, her teaching him practical skills, him teaching her the meaning of poetry.

“Time of Proving” Twists Traditional Fantasy

One of the things that I love about “Time of Proving” is how it builds a well crafted universe in eight pages. We learn so much about Arimu’s people, including the reasons why the don’t help outsiders for free, and their gods.  We learn about Sunflower’s culture, that he’s “a Tenth-Rank Scholar” (251), and that others hunt them.  Pierce includes the perfect details, like how Arimu teaches Sunflower to find food, and weaves him a straw hat for the sun. It makes the world believable.

“Time of Proving” deals with two important philosophical questions, one being the role of culture and compassion, the other dealing with practical vs. artistic skills.

Arimu states her culture’s view of helping others from the outset, and says, “When I go home in six months, I will be asked to tell the full tale of my time here. I cannot lie, and I cannot break my people’s law.” (251). Rather than arguing, or viewing it as something barbaric, which considering his artistic and philosophical views he might have, Sunflower accepts her culture. He immediately bargains with her utilizing her cultural values, and doesn’t devalue them. Arimu balances her culture with compassion for Sunflower. She remains within it at the end by their new bargain for maps and trade goods. Because, “What is a Year of Proving about, if it proves I am a heartless person?” (257).

It also holds practical skills and artistic skills at an equal merit. Arimu appreciates the stories of stars Sunflower tells her, while remaining annoyed at his lack of practical skills. In turn, Sunflower appreciates the knowledge shared with him, while not understanding her disdain of poetry. The bargain at the end, where his maps and poetry are equal to her continued aid, shows this.

Summary of “Plain Magic”

We begin “Plain Magic” in Tonya’s village, where rumors of a dragon spread. In the panic, Tonya’s mother sends her out of the house, so she won’t make a nuisance of herself. She meets Lindri, a visiting merchant with textile wares in the market. They talk, and Tonya reveals that she has magic, but the local wizard won’t train her properly. A young girl cuts her palm deeply, and Lindri bandages it, which magically heals her hand. One of Tonya’s friends buys a tiny piece of lace for his fiancée, only to have it grow to ten times the size after he pays for it.

Later that afternoon the village confirms the dragon’s presence. Wizard Halen tells them that to divert the dragon, they must sacrifice a maiden between twelve and fifteen to it. The five girls draw straws, and Tonya draws the short straw. Lindri objects, but everyone ignores her.

The next day, after the villagers stake Tonya out, Lindri appears again and unties her. Then, she uses thread magic to capture the dragon. She tames it, and hooks it to her cart, planning to return it to the mountain. Tonya goes along with her, because she wants to learn this ‘plain magic’.

“Plain Magic” Twists With Threads

As someone who does many different types of craft with string and needles, I love “Plain Magic” and how it treats threadcraft. The basis of the entire story is that fiber arts are amazing, and that appeals to me. It’s also extremely referential to Pierce’s other works, especially her Circle of Magic series, and Alanna’s use of thread magic and learning to spin in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. Lindri’s magic here, her pulling on the lace to make it larger, and her bandaging the girl’s wound read like something that Sandry or Lark would do.

Also, the confrontation with the dragon reads like Alanna’s uses of thread magic. “Only her fingers moved, tying multitudes of knots in her twine. They formed clumps that grew far greater than the amount of string I had seen her take out. Like Riv’s lace, the knots spilled from her working hands.” (272). Pierce takes something so simple as tying knots in twine and makes it the focal piece of the entire short story.

Wizard Halen’s reaction to Lindri’s magic, and Tonya’s make up the philosophical and feminist portion of the story. Wizard Halen hates that she upstaged him, and Tonya wants to learn from her. The points that Pierce makes are that stitch magic and the fiber arts are amazing. She also makes the point that you can choose to do stereotypically feminine things and still be a character with depth and strength and still be feminist.

Though, speaking as a crafter, Lindri’s early line about, “There’s a plain kind of magic in needlework—do you want to end up a slave to it, like me?” (260). It rings uncomfortably true. Needlework and fiber arts are addictive. I love them anyway.

Summary of “Mimic”

“Mimic” begins with Ri taking her sheep out to pasture. She ruminates on the bargain made between the local birds centuries ago, that if the birds would help them, the humans would give them seed. Then she runs across a very strange winged lizard being attacked by an eagle and rescues it. Upon seeing its terrible fever, she tends to it, and takes it to her grandfather, a healer. Her grandfather refuses to help her, saying the lizard will die. Ri refuses to give up, and takes him home.

That night, she takes it to the river, giving it an ice bath to bring the fever down. Mimic heals, and Ri cares for him and for her sheep. She discovers he can mimic any birdsong, hence the name. Time passes as she rears Mimic, and tornadoes strike the nearby villages. Ri starts hearing strange voices

One afternoon, a tornado touches down near their village, and the birds go to fight it. Mimic flies for the first time, and turns into a dragon. They tear apart the tornado. Mimic says that dragons must be hearty, and make their way across long distances and then choose to be a dragon to become one. He says he could remain small and stay, or choose to be large, save his friends and have to leave. It was no choice. By drinking of the river water during his fever soak, Ri can now speak with birds and other animals. The story ends with Ri turning over her flock and starting to study medicine with her grandfather.

“Mimic” Mimics Real Life Issues and Twists Them Into Fantasy

I would have to say that “Mimic” is the most overtly feminist story in this anthology. It combines a lot of the good things about this collection of short stories and in Pierce’s novels in an excellently paced story.

One of the first things that stands out about “Mimic” is that it also explores a nation filled with people of color. This country is coded as Asian. Her brother’s name is Peng, they eat rice, and several other details imply their ethnicity without outright stating it.

“Mimic” also twists the themes from the Immortals Quartet, especially Wolf Speaker, in how it deals with animals and environmentalism. It talks about compassion for animals and about environmental justice. Pierce twists the warning that is Silent Spring which talks about how humans drive away and kill birds for agriculture, and posits a more hopeful solution, where humans and birds work together. Pierce also addresses global warming. The antagonist of the story is the increasingly violent weather, the tornados that attempt to rip through Ri’s village, and its neighbors.

But ultimately what makes “Mimic” feminist is that the central theme is choice. Ri chooses to take Mimic to the lake in a last ditch effort to save him. She chooses to save and try to heal him in the first place. Then, at the close, she chooses to study with her grandfather, something she avoided at all costs in the beginning, because it will help people. But Mimic says it best.

“It must be a choice. Life as a small one can be happy. We must decide that it is time to grow up. Tie to take on the life of a dragon. My choice was simple. I could be a dragon, or I could watch my friends die.” (315).

Stories Based in the Real World

Summary of “Huntress”

“Huntress” begins with Corey’s father leaving her family, because he didn’t understand the family religion. For centuries, her ancestors worshiped the goddess of the moon and hunt. Eventually, the family religion starts to make her an outsider in school, where others gossip and bully her. Corey finds peace in running, and joins the track team. For high school, Christopher Academy, a well known private school with an excellent track team offers her a scholarship.

Once there, she chafes a little under the Christopher restrictions that freshmen don’t show off, and eventually does in practice. In doing so, she catches the attention of Felix and his Pride, a group of sophomore and junior runners. Corey slowly befriends them and hangs out with them. Meanwhile, the stories on the streets of NYC are about how drug addicts and rapists are dying.

One night, Felix tells Corey to meet them at Central Park. Once there, a thug comes up to them, saying the Pride killed his friend, ran him into the street. Felix and the rest confirm that, and Felix hands Corey a finger knife shaped like a claw, and tells her that her initiation into the Pride will be bloodying the thug. Corey objects on moral causes, and the lionesses of the Pride start chasing her, getting in some good cuts. The chase slacks off for a bit, when Corey has the high ground, and the Goddess comes to her rescue. She summons a pack of hounds, strings her bow, and kills the Pride while they run away. She comes back to Corey afterwards and bids her a good evening before disappearing.

“Huntress” Twists Fantasy and Realistic Fiction Together

“Huntress” rather than Pierce’s typical straight-up fantasy, is magical realism. Until the last few pages, it reads as pure realistic fiction, then it brings the magic seeded throughout home at the end.

This short story also acknowledges the damage that bullying and rumor can do. In her longer pieces, Pierce’s characters brush off rumor. Kel ignores the rumors that Joren and the rest spread about her. Daine, brushes off her outcast status quickly. The rumors that spread about her in middle school affect Corey. Even once she gets to Christopher, the bullying still affects her. “It was like I thought gossip was like weeds that would sprout when my back was turned.” (321). She’s slow to make friends.

Both of those effects drive her into the pseudo-cults of Christopher Academy’s track team, and into the Pride. The Christopher tradition, where freshmen do nothing to impinge on the glory of the seniors, juniors, and sophomores, in that order, is repeated so often it seems almost cult-like. To speak nothing of the Pride’s cultish aspects. They have an initiation ceremony, a fancy name, traditions, and a charismatic and sexually-promiscuous leader in Felix. It just rings of cult behavior.

“Huntress” also discusses morality. In one sense, Corey is glad these people, drug-dealers, and rapists are off the street. But on the other hand, she doesn’t want them killed, not even the Pride after it hunts her. Corey is our moral center. She even says, “I didn’t ask for this,’ I whispered. ‘Or for them to die.’” (342). Pierce asks us to question of vengeance is worth it, and the answer seems to be no. The Pride took vengeance against the people on the streets, and the Goddess takes vengeance against the Pride. Corey wants none of it.

Summary of “Testing”

Before “Testing” begins, Pierce explains that it is semi-autobiographical. She studied social work in college, in a bout of five year writers block, and came unblocked afterwards. Her book wasn’t ready to be published, so she became a housemother at a group home for girls. They played all the same tricks on her that the girls in the story do to their housemothers. Pierce bonded with them by telling them Alanna’s story, which became a quartet for teenagers, instead of a single adult book. She says she writes for those girls and the ones like them.

“Testing” proper begins with one of the two housemothers moving to Oregon with her new husband. The girls go through a string of new housemothers, playing jokes on them and finding them all unsatisfactory. The other housemother and the doctor associated with the house say that the girls will stop their ‘testing’ behavior soon, which, when overheard, only reinforces it. The narrator of “Testing” has a panic attack because of all the change, and reflects on why she has them. Three more housemothers come and go.

Then, X-Ray arrives. Who stays calm, despite all their tricks. They lock her in her room, they try and sneak out to see their boyfriends, one of them rubs a peanut-butter-marshmellow sandwich through her hair and another cuts it badly. Keisha puts a snake in her bed, they oil her doorknob, and other pranks through her probationary week. She doesn’t react in any entertaining way, and doesn’t unduly punish the girls. X-Ray befriends them by showing them photographs of her travels with her parents, and starts to teach them photography. When she returns the next week, Maria, behind most of the testing, decides they can keep her.

“Testing” Deals in Semi-Autobiography

One of the things that affects me most when I read “Testing” is Pierce’s prologue. It’s just a page, but I get teary when I read it.

“I miss the girls still. They taught me so much, not just about writing for kids, but about the need for a sense of humor. I’ve been trying to pay them back ever since, not directly, since we all fell out of touch, but by writing for other girls who could use some fantasy in their lives.” (345).

This paragraph impacts how I see the rest of her writing. Fittingly, “Testing” carries echoes of that writing all the way through in its characters. In the unnamed narrator, we can see Kel’s steadiness in her desire for continuity. We can also see Beka’s desire to do the right thing in her reluctance to haze X-Ray. In the fierce Maria, we see Alanna’s brashness and stubbornness in her taking the reins of the hazing. Aly’s cleverness is there in the types of pranks they play. And when Dumptruck, one of the test housemothers, killed a newt, “Keisha cried about it for days.” (346). That carries echoes of Daine’s character.

When you read through “Testing” you can’t help but interpose Pierce on X-Ray, since their experiences are explicitly similar. It makes you sympathize with her more, not just the author, but the person. It makes the rest of her writing more human.

Pierce also addresses mental illness here more explicitly than ever before. The narrator has panic attacks during the cycling of new housemothers in and out of the home. We see her go through several, and we sympathize with her. Pierce points out the rates of mental illness and bad mental health that most of the people in the system have, something people might be cognizant of, but seeing it in this story increases the reader’s sympathy.

In Conclusion

My one quarrel with Pierce’s short stories is that it takes us forever to get to character names. Except for “Year of Proving” where Arimu’s name is in the first sentence, it takes us one to several pages to get the main character’s name. In “Testing”, she’s even unnamed! Given how quick short stories are, we need the name sooner rather than later.

But that’s a minor quibble. Overall, Tortall and Other Lands fills in the gaps in Tortall admirably and here it gives us several complete little worlds. It expands the scope of her feminism, by giving us various narrators of various intersectional positions. We see mentally ill characters, characters of color, and characters that face bullying in the school system we all went through. These short stories seem to give her more scope to explore things she only brushed in her initial novels and touched more later on. It’s a lovely collection of short stories, readable by Tortall fanatics and the uninitiated alike.


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