Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Novels As An Alternative to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

Longtime readers know that I love Tamora Pierce’s novels, and I just got around to finishing the last series of hers I’d never read, the Protector of the Small Quartet. For those not in the know, most of Pierce’s novels (except the Winding Circle books) are set in a fictional medieval-style kingdom called Tortall where some people have magical abilities, and most of them follow a female character as she goes through the process of becoming part of a larger institution, whether it’s a girl disguising herself as a boy to train to become a knight; a young woman going through training to become a full officer in Tortall’s equivalent of a police force; a woman with unusual magical abilities undergoing training by Tortall’s top court mage while also helping out the people who run a unique paramilitary unit; or a girl who ends up running an insurgency in a rival kingdom.

The books are very different from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice Novels: they’re more optimistic about human nature and substantially less dark; they’re about a country in the process of reform rather than in need of revolution; there is a lot more magic; and they’re young adult novels, so they are for a younger reading level (though still I think very enjoyable for adult readers) and they’re shorter. But read together, I think Pierce’s Tortall novels are a fascinating multi-perspective alternative to A Song of Ice and Fire for people who find Martin’s books beyond their trigger level, and would make really interesting and useful reading for folks who like A Song of Ice and Fire but are interested in alternative ways of exploring some of the same themes and using some of the same tropes.

East Meets West

I tend to think one of the fairest, strongest criticisms of A Song of Ice and Fire — and I think particularly of the HBO adaptation — is the way the franchise treats the Dothraki and people in Essos generally. The novels at least give us some sense of Vaes Dothrak and Dothraki culture in a way that’s completely cut out of the show, which explains neither the way the Dothraki treat other religions nor the tradition of eating the horse’s heart nor Dany’s visceral terror of becoming part of the Dosh Khaleen, and essentially forced into permanent cronehood before she’s had a chance to live. But the novel does spend much more time on the cultures of Westeros and in the heads of Westeroi characters. It’s not entirely without justification — this is a Westeroi throne they’re fighting over, after all. But even if the novels are exposing the idea that Westeroi and Dothraki culture are equally brutal (and Dothraki culture may be more meritocratic), it introduces Dothraki brutality much more quickly and leaves it much closer to the surface.

By contrast, Pierce’s novels introduce an artistically and theologically sophisticated nomadic culture, the Bazhir. While initially, Tortall is trapped in a dynamic where forces led by knights fight on Bazhir raids, the two cultures eventually forge an accord. The Bazhir introduce the Tortallan heir to a new way of governing that brings the two cultures together. That doesn’t mean the dynamic is easy; Bazhir gender roles are even stricter than the already somewhat strict ones in Tortall, and that’s a flash point as Tortall attempts to incorporate the Bazhir into the kingdom. But Bazhir warriors are sometimes more progressive than Tortall is about new kinds of magic, and they also introduce new fighting tactics to the realm. A clash of cultures turns out to be worth working through for the benefits to both sides.

Sexual Assault

I’m obviously on the record as reading the long record of sexual assaults in A Song of Ice and Fire as a condemnation of rape and rape culture rather than a sick reveling in other people’s misery — rapes are generally recounted as memories, and violence against women is often treated as a source of cultural evils, flawed thinking, and miserable dynamics in marriages and families. That said, it’s not easy to read, and there aren’t efforts at reform that succeed within the novels we’ve read so far. So it’s pretty depressing! And doesn’t really acknowledge that there were people in the medieval world who tried, in various ways, to make women safer.

Rape is a reality in Pierce’s Tortall novels. When Beka Cooper, the trainee cop in the Provost’s Dog books, is investigating a powerful fence and landlord, he threatens to have her raped and her body thrown in a dump. In the Protector of the Small series, Keladry hires a maid who has been repeatedly assaulted. When she’s attacked again, she refuses to let Kel report it — and her attacker rapes other women. What’s interesting in that case, though, is Kel, asserting her rights as a noblewoman, appeals to the king of Tortall, asking him to change the law that says that the only punishment for attacking a servant is a fine in the equivalent of the lost value of their work, to be paid to the person who employs him. And they have an actual conversation about how difficult it is to hold together a coalition of the nobility that the crown needs to stay solvent because the middle class isn’t quite rich enough to act as a full constituency, but who are also profoundly disturbed by the prospect of recognizing servants as full citizens. And they forge ahead, and they make it work.


I was talking to Spencer Ackerman about possible motives Pentos could have for getting all up in Westeros, and one thing I proposed that, since we’ve basically only seen Essos’ various merchant classes, that they want to end Westeros’ ban on slavery and open up a huge new market, both for supply and demand. All of which made me think a bit more about one of my frustrations with the way Dany’s character is drawn. If her sojourn in Slaver’s Bay is just an excursion before she skips off to fulfill Quaithe’s prophecy, there’s something really sick about the idea that she’s just going to free a bunch of slaves, fail to establish any sort of governance to keep them safe or elevate them, and then bounce. I’d be pretty disturbed if that’s where Martin left us, unless Barristan the Bold is going to organize himself one heck of a free society and clean out Slaver’s Bay where Dany couldn’t. But whatever the point, once again, the issue of slavery is one where Martin’s depiction of everything is so profoundly depressing that it’s hard to believe there’s hope of change.

By contrast, Pierce’s Trickster novels take place in the Copper Islands, a kingdom near Tortall where a white minority has enslaved a black majority, and follows the organization of a slave insurgency that will put a mixed-race queen on the throne of a new free society. The novels are bricks, because they’re based on the idea that organizing an insurgency, much less a functional government to follow, is an insanely hard project. It involves everything from cutting off supply routes, to designing successful propaganda, to enlisting a centrist reformist group in the white majority. The main character ends up running the insurgency’s spy network, but she understands that she needs to be answerable to the slaves who design and run the insurgency as a whole. And instead of just conquering, these books are about organizing.

Internal Reform v. External Conflict

A Song of Ice and Fire is about internal decay that’s created the opportunity for external conflict. The Tortall novels about how to make an essentially strong kingdom a better place, one that’s more attuned to the needs of all of its citizens. These are fundamentally different premises, but they’re both really interesting, and I think useful to read in conversation with each other. You need both a civil war and Parliamentary reform, both the sword and the social conscience, to get modern England, the closest analogue we have to Westeros.