Re-Reading My Favorite Books: Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce
I was curious when I began the process of re-reading my favorite books back-to-back what would happen to my perception of their relative qualities. Would one author's voice suddenly make the writing of one favorite book far superior to the writing of another? Would the different things that made each of these stories great become clear? Or merely pit them against one another? In our world of constant access to millions of pieces of media and stories written throughout time, it is not uncommon to be put in a position to compare two or more very good, but very different pieces. How does our perception of these pieces change when they are put head-to-head?
So far, I have found two things about this experience: 1) I read my favorite books FAR faster than is perhaps socially acceptable, and thus I am actually reminding myself to do other hobbies even when I want to be reading in my free time. 2) I am indeed wondering how I considered some books to be on par with others, now that they are in comparison to each other rather than in contrast to the pantheon of literature.
For example, the book in this review compares both negatively and favorably to the books before and after it. I should mention that I have been naturally picking the next book based on a similar theme or story element it shares with the previous book: the first book had Goblins in it, so I picked the next book to have Goblins as well; the second book dealt with a good ruler taking a throne from a bad one, so I picked this book to match that theme; this book deals with spywork in loyal service to a person in authority, so the next book also does; etc. Although these books share elements, they are different in intended audiences and, frankly, skillful writing. It is already clear that The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is the most well-written book I've re-read so far, due to its complex worldbuilding, intentionally crafted dialogue, and the depth of emotion running through the central character's narrative. However, it also stands out as the only book I've re-read so far which is specifically for adult audiences. In fact, the writing style is the only reason that the book is not recommended officially for young readers, as they may find it dense and boring.
This brings me to my first hypothesis from this re-reading journey:
The quality of a book may best be evaluated by its effectiveness for its intended audience and genre, rather than by any objective metric.
Many people who are not very interested in reading may have been taught the exact opposite to this hypothesis in school. The literary canon, and in particular what school administrations, external review boards, parents, and teachers allow to be read from that, is taught in many schools as the objective collection of "good" literature. And yet, those books do not inspire EVERY person to want to read. They do not create collective empathy, critical thinking skills, or appreciation for art as the ciriculum claims to intend. There are some amongst us who claim that their favorite book is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, or 1984 by George Orwell, or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Yet how many more of us have never enjoyed those texts? Or have enjoyed texts outside of the usual suspects taught in schools but have not considered those to "count" as "real" reading?
The issue is not with us. It is with the idea of objective literary quality outside of the reality of unique human experiences.
It is my strongly-held belief that reading in general is good for the health of the emotional and intellectual mind, improving empathy, critical thinking, and a relationship to words and art. However, this can ONLY be possible if every child and person is encouraged to read what they enjoy, what speaks to them, and not to someone else. That means not expecting a child to "read above their age range" as if that makes them superior to other children. That means not disouraging or looking down on reading graphic novels and comic books. That means counting books based on popular movies or online fan fiction as reading. That means not putting books on pedestals or a heirarchy with those written by old European and American white men at the top and everyone else's books as "alternatives."
In the end, it doesn't matter how many books are allowed to be included on the "canon" of literature considered proper to teach in schools. As long as there is a canon at all, there will be the perception that literary quality is based on someone else's metric rather than your own.
With no further ado, let's review the next book/s:
Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce
(Book 2 in a duology which begins with Trickster's Choice, together titled Trickster's Duet)
Publication Year: 2005
Minimum Reading Age: 11-13
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.28 stars out of 5
Recommend Way to Read: E-Book
In the first book of this duology, Trickster's Choice, Aly is abducted by pirates and sold as a slave to a wealthy family in an island kingdom ruled by an unstable king. At the cajoling of a trickster god, Aly agrees to help this family stay alive despite their sudden disfavor with their king. What the family doesn't know is that Aly is the daughter of a spymaster who has raised her to be an expert at espionage. What Aly doesn't know is that just how important this particular family is to a centuries-long conspiracy by the native population of the islands to take back their kingdom from its invaders.
The second book, Trickster's Queen, begins with the family's return to the capital city and the rebellion's steps to systematically overthrow the colonial government. Aly has pledged herself to the cause, though she must still hide her true identity from her fellow conspirators. As the conspiracy comes to the forefront for the first time in generations, Aly works on the sidelines to infiltrate the colonial spy network, pass information on to the rebellion, and upset the balance of power away from the ruling colonists. Aly is nosy and well-versed in the world of subterfuge, providing a perfect peek into a rebellion about to be unleashed.
"Gossip was a realm's lifeblood, Aly's da had told her repeatedly. She intended to make this realm bleed with it."
What I Love Most:
My favorite part of this book is the clever use of a spy as the main character. Aly is entertaining and clever, but her narrative perspective also provides the unique excuse to give the reader a full view of a rebellion without hinting that the conspiracy itself is in any way in danger of discovery. At one point, Aly comes into posession of magical "Darkings" which are so cute and fun while also providing the perfect way for her to spy on everything going on within and around the rebellion. This is the point where the story really takes off, and it doesn't let up. The reader is able to follow every aspect of the rebellion as Aly spies out more and more of it. The novel even begins with the trickster god putting a spell on Aly so that she cannot reveal anything she knows, even under torture (not exactly great news for Aly, but great news for the reader, who knows that Aly's accumulation of knowledge does not risk the rebellion's success as a result).
The conceit of the novel's main character's role allows for a complete and exciting view of the rebellion without the main character needing to be in charge of the action. As Aly is an outsider looking in on a colonial rebellion, this set up works very well to give full agency and power to the native people in rebellion with Aly as a supporter and viewer only.
Why You Should Read It:
This duology, and the second book in particular, is very fun. The characters are vibrant and interesting, with a large cast and lots of different perspectives. I especially appreciate the characters who present the darker side of the rebellion: the ones who express the extreme pain and anger they feel at their people being made slaves in their own land and punished severely for things they weren't even responsible for. This duology looks at the hardships and injustice suffered by enslaved and colonized people from the perspective on an outsider as a way to distance a young reader from the full trauma of it. However, Pierce includes powerful characters who speak to Aly about their deep hatred of the colonists and their desire to do whatever it takes to get rid of them. Aly, for her part, deeply respects these people and often is reminded how much more difficult the situation must be for the native peoples of the Isles than she can fully understand.
I think this book is great to read because it presents a character watching, listening, and learning to see a hardship that does not affect them with compassion, understanding, and a desire to act. Aly does not try to take over the rebellion, nor does she try to use her similar heritage to the colonists to her advantage for power or to escape. She supports the rebellion with her skills to the best of her ability, even though she believes she will not be welcome in the world she is helping to build (because of her familial ties to a rival nation's government).
Whatever hardships we experience in our lives, there is always something that someone else is going to experience of which you have no knowledge. I think that this book encourages a mindset of considering those experiences as valid and important and worth your attention, even if they do not affect you. At the end of the first book in this duology, Aly has the choice to return home and not get involved in the coming rebellion. If she had, she knows that the rebellion would proceed, and she hopes it would be successful. However, rather than return home, she decides to do whatever she can to help simply because she believes in the importance of the rebellion. I wish that everyone could read this book in childhood and take away the message that it's worth it to help others fight against injustice even when it's not affecting you directly.
What Writers Should Take Away:
It is still engaging to read about a main character who is involved with a large-scale endeavor but not directly responsible for it. A lot of young adult novels, in particular, have main characters who are leading the revolution, promised to bring light and goodness to the world, or directly responsible for millions of people's lives. However, that does not necessarily make their adventures more interesting or their stakes higher. A piece of writing advice I read once stated that when a reader is faced with a hero who must save the world and a hero who must save a single loved one, the reader will feel more connected to the hero who must save a single loved one. We can empathize with wanting to protect our dog or our spouse or our child. Most people have not experienced being responsible for the lives of millions of people, and it is very difficult for the human brain to scale up responsibility to that level. Each person the hero needs to protect is not viewed by the reader as the same as that one person the reader has met.
In this way, Trickster's Queen is a highly engaging an emotional book precisely because the hero is only a small part of the overall rebellion. She cares about specific other people in the household and amongst the rebel leaders, and we as the reader care about them as well. As the rebellion heats up, we root for it to succeed, but we feel for the few characters that we have gotten to know along the way. We fear for their safety, and we grip the pages with dread that anything should happen to them. Thus, something as huge and as monumental as a national rebellion is made visceral and real in our minds through connection to a few, fully-realized characters.
So, the next time you are trying to make sure the reader will feel the stress of the situation in your story, consider not the breadth of the main character's impact and resonsibility, but rather the depth of their connection with a few key players in the story's action.