DD9 – Wild Magic

I have never hidden my love of fantasy, especially in novels written for teenagers.  The adult ones tend to be more complex, and are often much longer, (like Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitors quartet, my current and outstanding evening read).  However, expressing preferences is not without risk, and I’m fairly certain one easy way to upset any reader of Tamora Pierce’s exciting fantasy novels is to name a favourite, either one book or one series.  She’s written more than 40 books and numerous other short stories.  Most are in series of three or four novels.  Five of her series comprise adventures in the Tortall universe, and another three are within the Circle of Magic collection.  While I am fond of many of her books,  I am willing to live dangerously, and admit I do have a favourite series, The Immortals, and while I love all four books, it was the first in the sequence, Wild Magic, that grabbed me from the start.

I didn’t grow up with Tamora Pierce books, and it took a daughter to get me reading them.  My daughter knew me well:  get him to start on a couple of books, and he’ll be a devotee in no time.  She was right, of course (daughters usually are).  What I discovered was that Tamora Pierce has that enviable ability to conjure up a whole world, and keep filling it with fascinating characters, thrilling adventures, and yet leave you wanting more.  Actually, she conjured up two worlds, both worlds in which women were the equals of men, at the very least!  One of her most famous characters is Allana of Trebond, the King’s Champion, part of the Tortall world.  The Circle of Magic series has four key characters, three of whom are young women, Sandrilene, Trisana, Daja (the sole boy is Briar).  This group first came together when they were just ten years old.  All ideal heroines for her fans.  My daughter decided, correctly, the First Circle of Magic books would be a great series to get me started.

However, much as I love most of Tamora Pierce’s  books, it’s The Immortals, and the adventures of Veralidaine Sarassri, first met as a thirteen-year-old with the ability to speak to animals to whom I return most often.  Daine (as she’s known) has a dreadful backstory.  Her family was killed by bandits, and, on the edge of despair she runs away from the ruins of her village and joins a pack of wolves.  A grim choice, but one that saved her from losing her mind, and revealed her ability to communicate with other species.  The wolves also played a key role in helping her to get revenge on the bandits, even if, unsurprisingly, the townspeople of Snowsdale realised what was happening and tried to kill her.  Once again, she fled.  After living wild with the wolves, she regained her humanity and sanity with the help of Cloud, her pony.  Not a bad start to a story.  Her pony was both critical to those early events, while the fact Daine had a pony also provided a way to encourage many readers to identify with her.

I have often wondered what a young reader thinks of all the dreadful events at the beginning of Wild Magic, then I remember how flexible we are when we’re young, accepting of disasters, always anticipating things will work out in the end!  They usually do, but it can prove a hard road.  Daine meets Onua, the woman in charge of the horses for the ‘Queen’s Riders’, (the warriors who accompany and serve Tortall’s Queen).  Doubtful about this strange young girl, Onua hires Daine to help bring a group of ponies to the capital of Tortall.  As they travel, Onua begins to realise the extraordinary potential that exists in Daine, helping her survive an attack by a group of ‘Immortals’, strange mystical creatures, monsters to keep anyone awake at night, including spidrens, (huge, carnivorous spiders with human heads), and stormwings, (metallic birds with human faces that feast on the dead).  These dreadful beasts were supposed to have been locked out of the world many years before, but we learn that nearly all of Tortall, and the neighbouring territories of Scanra, Galla, Tusaine, Maren and Tyra are plagued by the Immortals.  OK, we’re well into the story and it’s really scary!

The Immortals attacking Onua and Daine had been chasing a hawk, which Daine rescues, using her ability to transform herself into an animal.  Mind you, she almost dies in the process. With the help of the King’s Champion, Alanna, who happens to turn up (most fortuitous) she turns the hawk back into a human.  More than just a human, he is Numair Salmalin, the most powerful magician in Tortall and one of the few ‘black robe’ mages in the world.  We are about to discover that the rest of this first book, and the three that follow, will have Numair and Daine as the two key characters.

During a journey to Alanna’s home, Pirate’s Swoop, Daine tells Onua and Numair about how she had almost lost her mind after the murder of her family, and how she joined the pack of wolves which eventually killed the bandits who’d destroyed her family.  Relieved her friends still like her after her confession, Numair enacts a spell so she will not lose her mind a second time, and she begins to hone her powers and learns how to heal animals.  In Corus, the capital of Tortall, Daine continues to work as the assistant horse mistress, teaching rider trainees and discovering more about her powers of ‘wild magic’ from Numair, who becomes her teacher.  She probes the true depth of her skills as she learns about their advantages and dangers.

Have I got you interested enough to want to read the series, even though they are only ‘children’s books’?  Perhaps a few more snippets will help.  As she learns and grows older, one key factor is frequent if unexpected meetings with a male badger, a god, who tells her that he promised her father he’d look after her. The badger god gives her a claw to wear around her neck that will allow him to contact her.  I wonder if the sale of badger claws took off after this?  Anyway, Daine is also keen to experiment, and the badger god is more than a little miffed after she nearly kills herself by accidentally stopping her heart in order to hear dolphins.  Understatement:  he was very angry!  She didn’t stop at dolphins, of course.  She finds out that she is even able to talk to certain Immortals too and manages to convince several griffins not to harass the people of Pirate’s Swoop.

How much more should I reveal?  Towards the end of this first book, she saves Pirate’s Swoop from an attack of pirates and Immortals who are under orders from Carthak, a neighbouring country. She defeats them by calling a kraken from the far away ocean floor. She’s also left in charge of a dragonet, (a baby dragon, obviously!), whose mother, Flamewing, had died in the battle to help save Tortall.  Daine names the dragonet Skysong, a name her mother Flamewing passed on to Daine before she dies.  Daine raises her as if she were  her own child.  Enough?  There’s much more in the book, and, don’t forget there are three more books I haven’t even covered.  Start reading, please.

What makes books like these so attractive?  Tamora Pierce can write and know how to tell a story.  However, so do thousands of others.  What she understands, and understands to the point of excellence, is how to make the characters in her stories relatable.  Sure, Daine has a terrible, almost inconceivably dreadful, upbringing.  At the same time she demonstrates three attributes that are almost guaranteed to ensure attention.

First, her story and her skills are about animals.  She can communicate with domesticated horses, dogs and other animals.  However, she can also communicate with wild animals, and is able to create friendships, links and even strong bonds with them, magical and powerful links.  This is Henry Higgins on steroids.  He could talk to and understand people from any class in English society:  Daine can talk with and understand any creature you can imagine, but there’s more.  While Henry Higgins could get Eliza Doolittle to dress and speak like a society lady (with some challenges), Daine can transform herself, fly, run with wolves, and dive deep into the sea.  Now there’s a skill any young reader would love to acquire.  Talk to the animals?  That was another Henry, Henry Doolittle.

There’s more, of course.  She can also communicate with the immortals, fearsome creatures that have slipped into the human world from another dimension.  It’s a skill that creates respect on both sides.  What young reader wouldn’t be transfixed by this possibility:  access to the fearsome creatures that terrify everyone else.  What Tamora Pierce has done is to create a fictional world, one where there’s magic, and then put some characters in that world who have special talents.  Food for the imagination, and I’ve only told you about a small part of this fictional world:  the fun really gets going in the succeeding books.

There is a curious inversion here.  Some books are about animals that talk, dress and act like humans.  Wind in the Willows is my favourite example, but there are many others.  Then there is the other way round, humans that can speak and listen to animals, and understand them.  We are back to Dr Doolittle.  We love Daine because she can actually change herself into another animal, and that gives her access to whole new worlds of possibility, flying with other birds, swimming in the ocean, or even breaking through to other realms.

So far, so good, but Tamora Pierce knows her readers.  Abilities are one thing, but having to use them to overcome disasters, repel attacks, save others, that’s where it gets exciting.  Like many of the best children’s books, the stories focus on averting danger, repelling savage creatures, fending off horrible incursions.  And Daine can do this by changing herself!  It’s the stuff of childhood dreams – talk to my dog, run with a pony in the field, and even fly up high with a lark or eagle.  The Immortals series is about magic.  Some stories take you through a mirror, or a door in the back of a cupboard into another world.  Others require a special tool, an alethiometer or subtle knife.  When we are young, we dream of possibilities like these, of fantasy so close it is possible to take a step to find yourself in new, different world.  Add in fun, and some silly but non-fatal mistakes, scary enough to have you worried, but not too worried and told so well I still like these books and I’m way past being a child.

If this was merely an account of a book series I like, you might have found this interesting, but nothing more.  However, thinking about books like Wild Magic in the past few weeks has taken me down a rather different path.  It’s to do with that word ‘magic’.  As far as I’m concerned, magic is something to be cherished, and for younger people, it’s a doorway into imagination, into other worlds, experiences and enjoyment.  Not just younger people, of course, and some of us are still reading books with magic playing a major part in the story.

However, books invoking magic are at risk.  Some are disappearing off bookshelves in the US, while other books are being ‘sanitised’ for young readers.  In February 2023 we discovered this was happening to adult books, too, with the news Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are to be reissued with a number of racial references removed and a disclaimer that the books might use terms of attitudes “considered offensive by modern readers”.  Roald Dahl’s books are coming out in new editions, which will “remove passages related to weight, mental health, gender and race, although after considerable outrage, it was decided the ‘new’ versions will appear along with reprints of the 17 Dahl’s books in their original form, with the latter ‘originals’ branded as ‘The Roald Dahl Classic Collection’, thereby allowing readers the freedom to choose which version of Dahl’s stories they prefer.

Is this happening to children’s books.?  Of course.  Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, a Newbery Award winner, has been challenged a few times for undermining religious beliefs, and in 1985 a Florida elementary school sought to ban it for promoting witchcraft, crystal balls and demons.  Or there’s Philip Pullman’s trilogy, with attempts to ban The Golden Compass, describing it as the antithesis of The Chronicles of Narnia, (which is known for its Christian allegories), because of its supposed message of atheism.  The Golden Compass is Pullman’s first book in his Dark Materials trilogy.  Critics emphasise it pushes boundaries as the young characters are able to see through the lies of organized religion (in this case, described as the Magisterium) and eventually kill ‘God’ himself.  Back luck, Philip.

However, let me return to Tamora Pierce.  A few years ago, she was interviewed by Judith Ohikuare on the topic: Why Tamora Pierce Doesn’t Shy Away From Sex In YA Lit, (9 February 2018, in Refinery29).  In case you don’t know about Refinery 29 (I didn’t) it describes itself as “The leading NextGen media and entertainment platform focussed on women and underrepresented voices pushing the status quo in their lives and the world”.

Here’s one of Judith’s questions:  “It’s definitely true that sex and sexuality factor very prominently in most of your books. That was something I loved about your characters, including Alanna, Daine, and Kel — that they all have different relationships with their bodies and other people — but is that something you’ve gotten criticized for? For example, Daine is in a relationship with someone much older.” 

Tamora replies, “Absolutely I’ve gotten backlash about that. All I can say is, look.  In the Middle Ages, it was common, at least in the middle and upper classes, for younger women to marry older guys – unless they were both engaged when they were babies, which happened, too.  The lower classes had more flexibility and could live more sexual lives, but older men were more settled.  They couldn’t afford to marry when they were young.  They had to build up their work and their reputations first, and younger women were more likely to survive childbirth, unless they were too young, of course.  It was a matter of drawing from history, as I prefer to do.  I’ve come back to this over and over again.  I also point out Daine is so much older than her age.  Her mother was in some ways rather childlike, Daine was the practical one.  And Arram or Numair – and you can see it in The Immortals – is in some ways much younger than his age, if he can even remember what age he really is.  So I think it’s a fairly equitable relationship.  Some people are still put off by it, and that’s the way they see it. …”

Judith also asked:  “Do you worry about backlash in general when you write, especially at a time when people are still banning books from schools or incarcerated people from certain texts?”  Tamora replies, “No, not really.  Because if they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it.  There’s nothing I can do to stop them.  The truth is, I’ve only been banned twice in my career: once in a county in Oregon in the eighties, and once in one of the Carolinas in the same time period, but nothing since  … I don’t know why.  I’m just grateful because it’s very important to me that my books are as real as possible, partly to sell the magic.  …  I want my readers to be able to read and feel like these are people they can hang out with.”

There it is.  I grew up with Biggles and Dan Dare, violent boys’ stories which I knew were fiction. The Immortals is wild fantasy, and yet these characters are realistic, too, so much so you can believe you might meet them one day.  You’re drawn into a world of magic and danger.  Every child (and adults like me) should be free to enjoy being scared, on the edge of  disaster, while hoping it’s all true and about to happen.  Long live dangerous fantasy!