Regular readers know I’m a total nut for Tamora Pierce’s books, particularly her Provost’s Dog series about a cop with magical informants working in a nascent law enforcement system in Corus, the capital city of the kingdom of Tortall she introduced in her first fantasy series, the Lioness books. So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the conclusion to the trilogy, Mastiff, which came out last week. Spoilers to follow.
I was initially disappointed that the story, which sends Beka, Tunstall, Lady Sabine, and a mage named Farmer Cape on a wild chase across Tortall in search of the Crown Prince, who’s been kidnapped and hidden in a slave caravan, takes them so far from the Lower City of Corus and from the class politics of the city. But Mastiff may be the most stinging book Pierce has written about the impact of a rigid class structure on the psyches of ordinary individuals. Prior books looked at the impact of big institutions on the poor people of the lower city: what it means when law enforcement isn’t reliable, when alternative social welfare networks break down, when the monetary system fails. People Beka knows pay with their lives, and poverty drives people she knows mad, and to dreadful crimes of their own. Mastiff, by contrast, looks upwards from the very poor to the nobility who, angry at the loss of their privileges, stage a devastating rebellion against the crown.
And the book looks up to Tunstall who, despite the reassurances of Lady Sabine, and the reinforcement of Beka, can’t get past the fact that he and his lover are of different classes. His insistence that the relative differences in their statuses are important and substantive eats away at Lady Sabine. And ultimately, it leads him into the most devastating betrayal in any of Pierce’s novels. Tunstall turns traitor, throwing in with the noble rebellion for the promise of a barony that would set his mind at ease about marrying Sabine. His confrontation with Beka is heart-rending because his betrayal is so unnecessary, such a deep reversal of the principals and values by which he’s lived his life: it’s a product only of his inability to stop hearing the artificial arguments of a class system that’s interested only in its own perpetuation. In defeating her teacher, Beka proves that she’s surpassed him as a Dog, and as a person.
The trilogy also turns out to be a history of social change, of the dramatic events that lead to the abolition of slavery in Tortall. We get hints of it in early novels: Sabine’s introduced to us as one of a small faction of nobles who oppose slavery. Beka and her partners break up illegal slave markets. Parents who sell their children into slavery for profit lie and say their children are the victims of the Shadow Snake. A famine leads the poor to sell themselves into slavery. Even when the cases Beka and company are solving aren’t explicitly concerned with slavery, the existence of that option defines life in Tortall, it leaves open a poisonous alternative, it sets a dangerously low barrier for how far it’s possible to descend before anyone will save you from poverty, or yourself. That slavery’s a possibility leads people to take work that leads to their murder, to avoid bonding with their children, to avoid reaching for full citizenship.
And like in the United States, which moved to end slavery for strategic considerations as well as moral ones, Tortall’s king only ends slavery once he and his family have experienced some of the pain of it — and when he realizes the strategic implications of slavery. When Gareth is kidnapped, it’s not just that he gets whipped, and starved, and ordered around, and sees his friends die — he’s spelled so that his parents suffer along with him a striking reversal in a country where nobility insulates you from the consequences of your actions, from the systems that support your lifestyle, and from the cost it takes to maintain those systems. The king tells his people:
We read them, and we asked our son, whose life she saved, what he thought she would like. He said that she wanted the same thing that he did. And when he told us what became of other slaves, of their lives, we found ourselves disgusted. This is not the way people should live, in want and fear. No one deserves to be thrown away as refuse. All are equal in the Black God’s eyes. Throughout this, we have seen one thing over and over. Messages, armed men, and weapons have traveled this land with the slave caravans. Spies disguised as slaves have been found in the great houses of the realm. Our enemies used the slave trade to disguise their activities. Several of those found guilty held shares in the slave trade and used the caravans and their ability to buy and sell slaves to plant enemies everywhere, even here. And it was money from the trade that paid for this.
This is how change happens, slowly then all at once, for moral reasons and pragmatic ones because one alone is almost never enough to build the coalition you need. It takes time to implement, and it’s often flawed. That Pierce gets this, and expresses it so beautifully, is one of the reasons her novels are so compelling. Victories in her novels are never complete, they only take you to the next stage, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sweet.