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.