Date read: 12.24.2018
Book from: Personal collection
Kakaner & I still make the occasional foray back into YA fantasy; last year we achieved the particular landmark of her first introduction to the worlds of Tamora Pierce, author of much-beloved if not critically acclaimed YA fantasy. Pierce’s numerous four-book series, populated with tough heroines and colorful magic, were a staple in both my and my brother’s childhoods. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t great writing, but oh, was it great reading.
Tempests & Slaughter is a prequel to my favorite of her series, The Immortals Quartet. In it, we get to witness the childhood of one of the most powerful “present-day” characters in the land of Tortall: the mage Numair Salmalín, né Arram Draper. The novel follows Arram’s schooling at the University of Carthak as an uncommonly powerful boy mage of 11 to 14.
I love magical apprenticeship narratives, but despite its title (which Pierce admits she generated with every expectation of her editor rejecting it), Tempests & Slaughter is mainly boring in a soothing way. It’s hard not to take away the impression that there’s little plot other than “and then Arram grew older and took different, harder classes and boy did he like learning because he sure liked learning, and being the learning of things, and look how all nice almost all of his masters are.” However, Pierce does work to build the impression of conspiracy manipulating the line of succession to the Carthaki throne, as well as exploring Arram’s discomfort with the Carthaki institution of slavery; both of these threads introduce more darkness and tension.
Pierce is good at creating a strongly physical impression of a lived-in world – the weather and passage of seasons, the animals, the sounds and everyday bustle (all of which I also appreciated in the last series of hers that I’d read, the Beka Cooper books). She is also good at creating colorful character sketches (likewise, love the diverse men and women), but the relationships among them often feel vague and told rather than shown. In combination with a diffuse plot and timid, awkward protagonist, this makes for a rather detached and dull reading experience – if a soothing one, as I said before. I do expect it would be more rewarding if I had read The Immortals at all recently, so as to heighten both the amusing novelty of reading about young, awkward Numair, and the suspense of knowing about his eventual and dramatic rift from his Carthaki princeling friend Ozorne. But the last time I picked up that series was probably a dozen years ago…
Here are two elements that I did appreciate more strongly: first, the intense physicality of the scenes where Arram is healing plague victims and gladiators (which reminded me of the fight and riot scenes in the Beka Cooper series – a very honest engagement with brutality and exhaustion), and second, the gradual way in which Arram is being forced to recognize that beneath Ozorne’s careless wit and playfulness lie an alarming taste for cruelty and domination. We see Arram slowly evolve from simple, amazed (and touching) gratitude at the idea of just having friends, to reluctant recognition of Ozorne’s flashes of cruelty. Still, Arram is hopeful that Ozorne can be changed. This evolution is both convincing in its slowness (given Arram’s gentle, lonely, and loyal character), and bittersweet. At this point, all of the characters are young enough that it is reasonable to believe Ozorne can change his ways – but of course, we know that events play out otherwise.