Opening up a newly-released book by Tamora Pierce felt a little bit like breathing in sunlight. Okay, my inner poet likes being a little dramatic, but when I finally got around to reading Tempests and Slaughter, I was a little worried that returning to Pierce’s work after seven+ years would be disappointing. I still remember so vividly the magic and wonder of her Circle of Magic series, and the vivacity of the Alanna books, and the intensity of the Beka Cooper series. I was afraid that Tempests and Slaughter might reveal to me that I’d outgrown Pierce’s writing, or that it wasn’t as good as I remember it being, or that I simply wouldn’t like this new story.
I needn’t have worried.
Tempests and Slaughter, the first book in The Numair Chronicles, centers on Arram Draper, a young mage who is precocious, gentle, and shy, who is studying at the Imperial University of Carthak (yes, set in the same world as many of Pierce’s other books—for the chronology, this Goodreads post is helpful, though you can read this new series as a stand-alone). There, he befriends Prince Ozorne and Varice, two other young mages-in-training who welcome Arram in with open arms. As they train and the three friends continue to surpass students older than them, Arram is faced with many choices: what kind of mage does he want to be, and does he want to live out his future in Carthak, at Prince Ozorne and Varice’s side? Arram, Ozorne, and Varice’s choices will shape history.
This book is so nostalgic of that magic I always experienced when I read Pierce’s books as a preteen. Like many of her other series, this book centers on one young character’s point of view and follows him through several years as he attends mage school and continues growing his Gift—his innate power. Arram is precious. I was initially a tad bit skeptical when I saw that Pierce wasn’t going to write a female lead for this book (and hey, it had been so long since I’d read her Alanna books that I forgot that Arram is a major figure in that series), but Arram is pretty difficult not to like.
His curiosity often gets him into trouble, and he can be absent-minded. He’s devoted to learning, but this poor loner boy is equally devoted to his friends once they all meet. He is gentle, he has no stomach for violence, and he cares so much about using his magic for good. I am so here for male protagonists who defy expectations of masculinity: Arram’s Gift is incredibly strong, he is capable of so much, but he refuses to use his abilities to harm others, and he’s never boastful. He just wants to do his best! I love him.
The other characters are written fantastically as well. So much of Pierce’s talent lies in her ability to paint strong pictures of her characters—even minor characters. This book has a very large cast. Not only is there Prince Ozorne, whose grief for his father and subsequent desire for vengeance is more than a little alarming, and Varice, an extremely talented kitchen witch who’s a total heartthrob and sweetheart, we get to meet all of Arram’s many teachers and Masters, each with their own distinct personalities, aesthetics, and Gifts. Pierce represents many skin colors, cultures, and even sexualities in this book. That’s something I’ve always loved about her writing.
I can’t talk about loving Pierce’s writing without discussing world-building, too. If there’s anything that tops how Pierce writes characters, it just might be how she crafts a totally believable fantasy world in which politics play out in dangerous proximity to our young characters, markets hum with activity, and magic of all kinds is taught. Pierce has spent several decades writing different generations of heroes into this world, and it shows. I almost felt compelled to take notes on her world-building strategies while reading, but then I was way too sucked into the story to bother.
There’s a great sense of tension underlying the story from the first chapter and on, which is woven together masterfully by a combination of dialogue, action, and Arram’s internal ponderings as he tries to understand the world he’s living in. Pierce touches on so many important issues in her book too: slavery, homophobia, rape, misogyny, racism, toxic masculinity. Her touch is so delicate and so intentional that these themes and her exploration of them never feel heavy-handed or take away from the story--rather, she uses this incredibly nuanced world to explore these issues that people face in real life.
If you like fantasy, if you like worlds that hum with history and mythology and living gods and magic, if you like writers who’ve been long contributing to the conversation about diversity and feminism, this book is a great leap into the written worlds of Tamora Pierce.
Tempests and Slaughter was published on February 6, 2018 by Random House Books for Young Readers. It is available in hard cover for $18.99.
Who’s an author that was special to you when you were a preteen, and do you still revisit their work now?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.