Pierce, Tamora: (113) Trickster’s Choice

Trickster’s Choice, by Tamora Pierce, is the first of a new duology set in Pierce’s popular Tortall world. Pierce’s first books in this universe followed Alanna, who disguised herself as a boy to become a knight. Alanna’s daughter, Alianne (Aly), is the protagonist of these books; she’s been been captured by raiders, sold into slavery, and bet by a local god that she can’t keep a family’s children alive through the summer.

Most of this book is perfectly good, the kind of how-to story that Pierce does well—in this case, how to keep a family alive through intrigue and assassins—peopled with interesting characters and some social commentary. (There is a clumsy expositional prologue that I wish had been left out, but apparently readers of Young Adult novels aren’t expected to be that good at picking up on incluing, or waiting for the plot to develop, or something.) However, the book opens with some family conflicts that, frankly, make absolutely no sense to me. (No spoilers, this is all in the first chapter.)

(1) Aly is set up as the odd duck of her family, with an incredibly driven mother, a hyper-competent father, and two brothers who are very involved in learning their chosen professions. She, in contrast, professes to want to do nothing but have fun—which apparent lack of ambition drives her parents nuts.

(2) Aly really, really wants to be a spy out in the field. And she’d be good at it, as we see over the course of the novel. Her parents refuse, saying they don’t want that kind of life for her.

Okay. For starters, Aly’s parents don’t appear to notice that (1) and (2) are mutually exclusive. In fact, Aly herself doesn’t appear to notice. She does come to some insight about her conflicts with her parents over the course of the novel, but not about this. And more importantly: Aly’s father is the one who trained her, over her entire life, to be a spy! Not just as a decoder of reports or an analyst, but an actual in-the-field spy. And then he says that he doesn’t want to risk his daughter as a spy. He’s not a stupid character, but this really does not put him in a good light.

Really, here’s what this feels like to me: Pierce said, last Boskone, that someone (her editor?) suggested she try writing a more laid-back character. Even if Pierce is comfortable with that (as that suggestion indicates, it’s not something she’s done before), the plot requires someone hyper-competent. So this family stuff feels like an unsuccessful attempt at a non-ambitious character—plus an easy way of getting the plot in motion by making Aly avoid her mother by taking a sail, during which she gets captured, but still letting the rest of the plot happen by having Aly be very well-trained in intrigue.

There’s still time for Aly to realize either that her goal in life isn’t just having fun, or that she’s never really meant it but uses the attitude to disarm people. Maybe that’s planned for the second and final book. And heck, we might even get an explanation for her father’s behavior, not that I can think what it would be. I hope so, because this is an interesting story otherwise, but my opinion of it is unfavorably colored by the oddities of the premise.

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  1. That’s an interesting possibly-editorial suggestion; I wonder where it stemmed from, exactly (‘I’d like to see this’ vs. ‘It’d be good for you’ vs. ‘Feel like a challenge?’ etc.) I hadn’t heard about it before, and it does put a different take on things. The emphasis was indeed on being laid-back as opposed to non-ambitious, the two not necessarily being synonymous? Your comments make me wonder a bit about ‘fun’ and whether espionage needs to be taken as a game or as something more serious. What minimal changes might have made it more successful for you?

    Part of the reason why I found myself replying to the above was that I felt the novel felt uncomfortably flawed, and thus a disappointment given that I ordinarily really like Pierce’s writing, but flawed in a different though possibly linked way: it all felt like a somewhat facile game for Aly, a game that she did take seriously in time but not something that really touched her emotionally and had felt consequences. The stakes were high for the family she has a connection with, but for her, not so much. (Perhaps it was too difficult to suspend my disbelief when it came to cheerfully getting herself beaten up so she’d be unattractive for other purposes.) I’d wondered similarly about whether this was something intended to change in the other half of the duology, but as a reader, I needed it *now*. Where the family was concerned, it was a convenient POV in that it was close enough to omniscient, but it was an uninteresting POV. Compare the Protector of the Small heroine: to her, those events mattered to her in her gut, not just in her head. (I’m a fan of the unreliable narrator, mind you, but I don’t think that’s what was going in here.) Perhaps events need to matter more to the main character in order for them to matter to me.

  2. I’m not really sure what the emphasis was on the suggestion, laid-back or non-ambitious or what. Perhaps at Boskone this year it will come up again and I will listen harder (and bring a notebook).

    Minimal changes? I’m not sure there are any, since my objection is to the very setup. Maybe if George had thought, “I really shouldn’t have taken the training so far, but she enjoyed it so much”–even that wouldn’t really have worked, if he was doing complicated things as a game at a young age, as he apparently was, but something recognizing that yes, this is partly a problem of my own making.

    Thinking about Aly’s engagement and viewpoint–you may be right that her initial detachment pervades the narrative. I was less affected by the ending than I’d thought, and this may be why. Of course, in the espionage tradition, Bad Things happen when one loses one’s professional objectivity–this might be an interesting tension in the second book, though I can’t think that it’s been a theme elsewhere in Pierce’s works.

    I find myself much more interested in forthcoming books in her _Circle_ world than in Tortall books. (Especially Tris at Lightsbridge!)

    ***

    I’d meant to say in this review that it was interesting to read two books in close proximity with gods that didn’t mind being cursed at (the other being _Paladin_, of course).

  3. I just picked up this book and finished it, after getting into a “Pierce” mood because of some used bookstore acquisitions. I’m glad to see you pointing out some of the same issues I had with the book. While big parts of it are charming and fun and work very well, there was something nagging at me at the bottom of it all, and I realized that, for me, Aly’s character wasn’t ringing true to me for some reason. I think it’s because of her lack of emotional involvement that I didn’t take to her like I usually take to characters. Here she is, captured by pirates, sold into slavery, in a strange land fighting to protect people she cares for a great deal, but she’s always thinking with her head and rarely letting any emotion about her situation through. I’m all for ultra-competent main characters, but it seemed to be a bit much. I imprinted strongly on the Alanna books as a kid, and I think George is the reason for my love of witty, capable rogues with good hearts, so seeing him written as a man who will train his daughter from the cradle to be something he forbids her to be – didn’t work for me at all.

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