Tamora Pierce made sure I could never fall out of love with the fantasy genre. My cousin introduced me to her books when I was twelve and bought me the first two as a gift. Though skeptical at first, I quickly fell in love with The Song of the Lioness series and its protagonist Alanna of Trebond. By the time I read Lioness Rampant, the last book in the series, I was hooked and desperate for more. As it turned out, I was in luck. Tamora Pierce is a very prolific author. Next I read the Protector of the Small series, featuring Keladry of Mindelan. In Song of the Lioness, I found something I had never seen or read before. In Alanna and the other female characters that surrounded her, I found characters that not only fought and took names, but were also shockingly unladylike, deeply flawed, and to the adolescent me, strangely self-interested. Perhaps only in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series with the likes of Cregga Roseyes and others had I encountered female characters who got to be impulsive and selfish, without being easily disliked. Even then, most of those characters ended up mellowing in the end or suffering some form of consequence for their disposition. Pierce’s heroines, though, were short-tempered, fearful, reckless, haughty, naïve, and a laundry list of other characteristics on top of being brave, dignified, intelligent, tough, kind, and protective, and for the most part, they stayed that way. To use another word, they felt human.
I could go on for quite some time about Pierce’s world building skills, but I only fell in love with that aspect of her writing in retrospect. The diversity of her characters, in nearly all manners is what made me realize, even as a preteen and teenager, that I’d be buying these books for my kids and reading them into adulthood. Perhaps it was because I led a comparable sheltered life to other kids, but I had never encountered an LGBT character in a book before, let alone in one about fantasy. I had also only encountered characters of color in two other fantasy series before, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, to be specific. Never before had I encountered characters of color in high fantasy before, where non-white characters could exist alongside knights, lords, and ladies. The Tortall Universe had Kebibi Ahuda, Buriram Tourakom, Dovasary and Saraiyu Balitang, and others. The Circle Universe had Daja Kisubo and Evumeimei Dingzai, among others. All these people, whom it seemed so strange and thrilling in fantasy novels, had roles and did things by their own motivation! They didn’t just serve the purpose of some other character or serve as side props to the story. These characters showed me that there was a place for me in fantasy. There was a place for my dark skin, braids, and big hair in my favorite genre. In the same way that I latched onto Daja Kisubo, a metal and fire-magic wielding black girl, I’m sure other readers were able to latch onto other characters and hold them close to their hearts.
The characters felt real to me, as diverse and humanly flawed as they were, but so did the details of their lives. Tamora Pierce writes high fantastic, focused, precise character driven stories. This is by no means unique to her writing, but she takes time to include the incidentals that so many adolescent girls care about. Her attendance to these issues only make her stories and her characters more compelling, as they have to deal not only with the fates of their friends and their realms, but also the seemingly insignificant things that affect the day-to-day lives of girls and women all over the world.
Nearly all her female characters at some point have to make provisions for their monthlies, something so simple and routine but so often overlooked in fantasy fiction. For Alanna of Trebond, a girl posing as a boy, this becomes a bit of a plot point in her first story. Beka Cooper, heroine of the Provost’s Dog series, seeks tea to soothe her cramps and sorts out fantasy birth control. Keladry of Mindelan suffers the mortification of receiving the sex-talk from her commanding knight. These heroines deal nurse crushes, personal vanities, ruin nice dresses, and a host of other things, and they still take names in the midst of it all. They didn’t have to be divorced from the little pieces of life that popped up in order to function as role models and leaders. They get to deal with the same things adolescents across the world deal with and still lead the day.
The heroines of Tamora Pierce’s novels present real and heartfelt representations of girls as they grow up and grow into themselves. They’re flawed human beings who come from many walks of life and many different persuasions. As they move through their respective adventures, they learn both to use their flaws to their advantage and also grow and help others grow as people. Unlike so many other heroines, they don’t tag along to help some hero along. They don’t have to hide life’s normal, everyday happenings in order to succeed. They’re people, plain and simple, and they live their own stories.