Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: “Terrier” by Tamora Pierce

Against bitter odds, Beka Cooper has survived a harsh childhood in the slums of Corus. Now she enlists as a protector of those same streets in the uniform of a city guard, colloquially known as “the Provost's Dogs.” As a trainee, Cooper is assigned to shadow the experienced team of Goodwin and Tunstall, who aren’t too sure they want a puppy getting underfoot.

Cooper keeps meticulous journal entries as she trains to be a better Dog--stopping crime, breaking bones, and taking bribes. Her wits, her tenacity, and her strange talent of hearing ghosts guide her through a corrupt and brutal city, trying to bring justice to the ugly society that raised her.

While Cooper, Goodwin, and Tunstall track a trail of blood to a mysterious surge in the opal market, children go missing and their parents look the other way. Meanwhile, Cooper’s new housemates turn out to be rising stars in the criminal underworld. They could either bring her the secrets she needs to find the killers, or bring her down with them.

4.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
First, a little background!YA fantasy giant Tamora Pierce is famous for her dashing heroines. I'm willing to bet that most (if not all) of my contemporaries have at least heard of Alanna, the "Woman Who Rides Like A Man," or read Protector of the Small during in their teen years.

Few of her books age with their readers, sadly. Revisiting them, I grew a little weary of reading that every leader, ruler, and famous figure in Pierce's fantasy world of Tortall was--contrary to the narrator's expectations!--young, charming, funny, down-to-earth, humble, practical, generous, loving, wise, and more generally delightful than air conditioning on a hot day. It made me wonder where these narrators had developed the expectation that their celebrities would ever be anything less than the Second Coming, since apparently Tortall's upper crust is populated entirely with saints.

My brief summary of those other Pierce books: everyone is attractive, everyone gets along, everything ends well. Yawn.

A friend sent Terrier to me in a care package, though, so I gave Pierce another chance. And oh, am I glad I did.

The book is everything I didn't know that I wanted. While it does takes place in Tortall, it is set in an earlier Dark Age, which allows for some truly excellent worldbuilding (from a matured author), as well as purging many exhausted tropes. Ironically, its focus on a single city made the entire world feel larger and more real around me as I read.

I found myself empathizing strongly with Cooper because she is (unlike Pierce's other heroines) not the best, not always right. She makes mistakes and is teased for it, rather than consoled. She works hard doing ordinary things. That makes her victories so much more satisfying than handwaved magical resolutions.

The cast of characters that surround Cooper are delightfully distinct and memorable--guards and thieves and judges, beggars and shopkeepers and slumlords. They possess that quality few authors permit: the ability to have complex relationships with each other, not just with Cooper herself. Her best friend is married (underage! with kids!) into the Tortall mafia. Her criminally-inclined and sexyfine new housemates are apparently in an open triad(?) and not only does Cooper get to choose her own comfort levels with that, but the Other Women are her friends, not her rivals. In the love triangle-studded minefields of YA literature, that element alone was delightfully refreshing.
"Perhaps the book's greatest strength is its raw portrayal of the fine line between law and lawlessness." [review from The Horn Book Magazine]
My favorite element of the book is the vivid imagining of the Cooper's work as a Provost's Dog. They operate within an undeniably broken system in a corrupt city. Pierce does a fantastic job of conveying this without any overt judgment from her narrator. A good character  (and a good plot) should be inextricably linked with their setting, and Terrier hits the mark perfectly there.

For instance, take slavery: an unarguably terrible aspect of any society that bring readers to a screeching halt of WRONG! BAD! NO! wherever the subject is raised. Yet Pierce entrenches Cooper so deeply in her setting that she issues no moral condemnation from her narratorial throne. Though she finds it personally repugnant, she also views it as part of a lawful society. A sensitive modern reader might not register the distinction between children being sold by their parents for food vs. children being kidnapped by mobsters for profit—but Cooper does. Her perspective on her flawed world is blended so well with the society that Pierce has created that my disbelief is beautifully suspended.

Or take this conversation about bribery:
"He wanted to bribe me to know what was in that bag."
"How much?" Tunstall asked.
"A silver noble. I told him no."
Goodwin slapped the back of my head. I gaped at her. "Don’t be a fool! One and a half, and you tell 'im!"
"Then split the takings with us. That's how it works. […] Never turn down a bribe, Cooper. It’s bad for business. Bad for you, and bad for us, because we get half of everything you get. We train you, after all."
"Folks don't trust a Dog what don't get bought," Goodwin told me. "You're too good to be bought, they start thinkin' maybe you got some other angle—"
"Or some other master. Then it gets bloody."
Strange as it may seem, this is one of the passages that made the book shine for me. It made the Provost’s Dogs into a real, living organization—one that is doing Good Work but also openly, admittedly, unashamedly runs on bribes. Complications in collecting the weekly "happy bag" give rise to a number of plot and character developments throughout the book. Again, Beka is so deeply enmeshed in her story that she doesn’t see it as a bad thing. Bribery, like slavery, is a fact of her world. The Dogs protect the streets and they have to get paid for it; they literally cannot afford to patrol a certain area more often (or less!) unless the people there can cover the cost of an extra guard or an extra shift on duty.

Some of Cooper's fellow Dogs are good people. Some are just earning a paycheck. Even the best among them acknowledge that they can't right every wrong, that they have to choose their battles. There is so much compassion within the story--not only for the people who are downtrodden and suffering and overlooked by the law, but also for the teachers, the guardians, and the protectors of the peace who just get burnt out.

I like that characters have have jobs other than “murder-hobo.” That they have to protect their clothes from stains and rips because they don’t have a washing machine or a wardrobe full of spares. That swords beat nightsticks, that pigeons leave poop everywhere, that taverns run out of food past a certain hour. That Cooper once spits out food to answer a question with due promptness, then finished eating it because she knows better than to waste a meal. (No, really, that was awesome.)

I realize that all of my favorite things about the book are the gross parts. Oh well. They are what made the book stand out from generic medieval-European-analogue YA fantasy to me. I like my settings to be a little grody.

I do have a minor recurring grump regarding Pierce's tendency to describe her heroines' Extremely Interesting Eyes at every opportunity. Personally, I have never been stricken to my soul by the particular shade of someone else's eyes to the point where I want to comment upon it; much less am I thinking about the color of my own. It would also be great if she could not have her heroines complain of their conventionally attractive slenderness as if their author did not consider that to be an attractive trait. But that problem is a staple of the genre and not Pierce's fault in particular.

It almost slipped my mind--the book opens with an unfortunate double framing device that thankfully has no bearing on the rest of the story. By and large I overlooked the tie-ins to Pierce's other works, and felt they added little when I did notice them, but Your Mileage May Vary.

All in all, Terrier has earned a place on my display bookshelf (rather than the shame bookshelf.) I loved Cooper’s narrative voice, her character growth, and the richness of the world she lived in. Her adventures kept me turning pages when I should have been sleeping, and there were a LOT of pages to turn.

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