I thought Tamora Pierce’s first novel about Beka Cooper was pretty good. Haven’t read the second one yet. While browsing in our Friends of the Library used bookstore, I spotted a two-in-one hardback called Tricksters (containing her Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen). For a buck, how could I go wrong?
You can’t always tell a book by its cover. Tricksters has possibly the cheesiest cover art I’ve ever seen on a commercially published hardback. (To be fair, the yellows are brighter than you’re seeing here.)
But the novel could be terrific, right? Alas, no.
Sixteen-year-old Aly is terrifically smart and not a little impetuous. She wants to be a spy, but her father (who operates the spy network) says no. Oh, and she comes home from college with blue hair. Blue hair in a Medieval-style story with horses and castles and swords and such? Really? But this is a Young Adult story; we’ll cut Pierce some slack on the hair.
Aly sets off in a boat — solo sailing on the open ocean. Not smart. Her jaunt is swiftly interrupted when she’s captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Now, being captured and sold into slavery would be very, very traumatic, right? But Pierce doesn’t actually show us what happens. She tells us about it afterward. Omitting a deeply emotional event that moves the plot forward: not a highly recommended technique for the canny author.
So Aly, whose godparents are the king and queen of her homeland, is now a slave, complete with a magical metal collar that will choke her if she tries to run away. But she steals a dagger (slaves are not permitted such things, obviously) and cheerfully imagines that she’ll be home with her parents by autumn. She’s bought by a good family of nobles. Break out the waterproof hip boots: We’re now wading knee-deep in the YA swamp.
The good nobles are sent into exile by the mad king of this other land, so they sell most of their household slaves, keeping only a dozen or so (plus the free servants, plus the men-at-arms) and board a ship for their country castle, which is high up in the jungle mountains.
Aly is now the child-minder for the two younger noble children, and has made friends with the two elder daughters. When Aly is out tending the goats, the noble girls wander out into the countryside to chat with her. The two noble girls seem entirely oblivious to the class structure of their society. They’re modern teenagers, is what it amounts to.
A god has recruited Aly to keep these two girls safe from harm; by the hints we’re given, it’s not hard to guess that the elder of the two is going to end up as the queen. Why a god would recruit a 16-year-old girl with a stolen dagger to guard his chosen queen-in-waiting is, shall we say, a bit obscure. He could perhaps have found a stalwart young man with a sword. But whatever. This is YA.
We step into the mucky sinkhole of my metaphorical swamp on page 94. I invite you to contemplate her interaction with one of the old slaves:
Lokeij gripped the back of Aly’s neck with a friendly hand. “A word of advice. Slaves aren’t so knowledgeable about history,” he murmured. “Not unless you’ve been specially educated and sold as a tutor. Are you a tutor?”
Aly smiled at him. “That’s so sweet,” she replied. “My da always said my brains were too big for my head.”
Lokeij looked into her face, his rheumy dark eyes inspecting her almost pore by pore. “If I were you, little parrot, I’d rub dirt in my bright feathers and work harder to pass for a sparrow,” he said.
Aly spread her tunic, streaked with grass and mud stains. “The goats have taken care of that, don’t you think? I’m sparrowing already,. Chirp. Tweet.” She winked at him….
Here we have a young noblewoman who has been sold into slavery. She is receiving a friendly warning from an older slave: Carrying on the way she has been reveals too much. She could get herself into serious trouble. Like, you know, dead. And what does she do? She makes a joke of it and then winks.
The lesson in this for aspiring writers is clear: Your lead character must take her situation seriously! Yes, your heroine can be 16 years old, spunky as all get-out, smart enough to match wits with a god, and endowed with whatever superpower you like — but when she’s in danger, she must take the danger seriously. She must worry. Even when putting on a bold front, she must feel the fear.
If she doesn’t take her predicament seriously, your readers won’t.