Although this book first came out in February, it was released in the UK yesterday (September 20th), because I’m organised and definitely planned this. I don’t know why you’re looking at me like you don’t believe me; I’m a professional. I requested this from NetGalley because I’ve heard a lot about Tamora Pierce, and mostly, it lived up to my expectations.
It seems important to preface this review by saying that this is the first Tamora Pierce book I’ve ever read. Some of my friends love her work, but while I always meant to check them out, I never got around to it. I understand that this book somehow fits in with the broader world of her earlier books, but I don’t know what form that takes, and I went into this with zero knowledge or preconceptions. I imagine a lot of readers will have preexisting ideas, which is why I think it’s important to point out the perspective I’me coming from.
This book largely revolves around the magical education of the protagonist, Arram Draper, and his two closest friends. It’s got a few more dramatic moments and adventures, involving gods and murders and the like, but I wouldn’t say it’s an action-packed book. From my perspective, that’s totally okay. Actually, I liked that about it, because I’m a complete sucker for the academic study of magic and the whole concept of magical university. It gets me every time.
(There are a couple of other books that feature magical university and without exception that was my favourite thing about them, but it’s rarely the main focus.)
Given the “university” setting, you might expect the characters to be in their older teens, but they’re not. When the book opens, Arram is eleven years old (and if I remember correctly, his friend Varice is twelve and Ozorne is thirteen). The narrative covers several years, so we see them grow up a lot, and the tone matures with them — though I still occasionally felt it was pitched younger than the characters, at least on a stylistic level.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the level of detail about Arram going through puberty, though. Did we really need to know about the first time he got an erection? Honestly? Are you sure? I mean, I guess for a younger audience, a bit of sex ed slipped into fantasy novels is no bad thing, but it felt slightly superfluous.
There’s a strong focus on friendship, so let’s talk about Arram’s friends. Varice is a beautiful cinnamon roll, too good for this world. I liked her a lot, though I felt seeing her from Arram’s perspective was a bit limited and didn’t allow her to shine as much as she might have done. (Maybe she’ll feature more prominently in a future book?) We see her primarily as his friend, and later with a romantic tint, rather than focusing on her as a mage in her own right; I’d have liked to know more about her magic.
Ozorne… I was not so attached to. He’s in line for the throne (and given some of the murders in the book, getting higher up at that line all the time) and has this whole revenge thing going on following his dad’s death a few years earlier. This manifests as prejudice and racism, and he’s way too okay with slavery. Arram is basically the only one who objects to slavery, which I can foresee causing conflict in later books, so Ozorne is not unique in this regard, but it made it hard to like him. He has redeeming features, but I found him… frustrating.
As I mentioned, it’s not exactly a page turner, and while several major plot threads were set up (including one relating to a crocodile god), they’re not exactly resolved. In that sense, it felt very much like a first installment rather than its own book, which of course is what it is, but it made the ending slightly less than satisfying. There’s a cute bird called Preet whose storyline seemed at first like it might be the underlying plot, but it didn’t exactly go anywhere, and while I’d be sad to see the back of Preet, I sort of wished at least one of these plot threads had been resolved.
Having said all that, I still enjoyed the book a lot. Because magic. And studying magic. And comparing techniques — book magic vs more natural magic, academic magic vs folk magic… that’s all stuff I’m a huge nerd about, and having a whole book that revolved more or less around that was great.
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