When it comes to Tamora Pierce, her Tortall books get the lion’s share of the love. And hey, what’s not to love? There is chivalry, sword fighting, good versus evil, girls who kick ass and take names… as somebody who burned through the 1996 classic Dragonheart at least sixty times as a kid, these books were pretty much a dream come true for me.
But I’m not here to talk about the adventures of Alanna, or Daine, or Kel, or even Alianne (especially not Alianne. I freaking hated that girl). Instead, I’d like to shower a little well-deserved attention upon Emelan — you know, the other world that Tamora Pierce built from the ground up.
Emelan was first introduced in the Circle of Magic quartet, which followed the stories of Sandry, Daja, Briar, and Tris, four kids from wildly different backgrounds who are thrown together at a temple called Winding Circle by haphazard circumstance and discover that they are all ambient mages. Over the course of a year (and four books) they come up against earthquakes, pirates, forest fires and triumph over them all because friendship is magic (and did I just out myself as a brony?)
A central theme in the series is that Sandry, Daja, Briar, and Tris are something called ambient mages, which means that they draw their power from everyday things, rather than from within themselves. Pierce has said that she was inspired to create this different kind of magic by watching craftspeople like glassblowers and weavers, who were able to create something from virtually nothing. To her, it seemed like magic.
What makes ambient magic so cool in the books is that it is very hands-on and skill based. Daja, a smith-mage, has to work just as hard learning the craft of metalworking as she has to at magic. And Briar, a plant mage, often complains in the books that his entire summers are spent “weeding, weeding, weeding.” It takes the notion of magic as an easy fix and turns it on its ear, instead making it a skill that the characters have to keep practicing at before they can excel, which is ultimately a lot more satisfying.
Side Characters are Everything
Hamlet wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They may not take up quite as much fictional real estate, but secondary characters are essential when it comes to making a story really sing. The Circle of Magic quartet is obviously aware of this because it delivers a cast that is entertaining and quirky enough to stay with you long after reading. Be it Gorse, the generous and formidable master of the Winding Circle kitchens, Dedicate Skyfire, the head of the fire temple with a dramatic past as an army commander, or even Briar’s stoic, dry shakkan tree, there is someone for every reader to adore and write obscure fanfiction about.
It Goes Beyond Western Europe
While Tortall falls into the common trope of basing most of its worldbuilding on medieval Europe, in the Circle of Magic books Pierce really explores the opportunity to create a universe that borrows from a myriad of cultural traditions. The resulting world is unique, refreshing, and cobbled together from Greece, the Middle East, and even aspects of outer Russia. The fantasy genre so often relies on classic imagery like cobbled streets, European castles, and roasted hart, and it’s exciting to see a world that breaks apart from that and sees its protagonists living in Mediterranean climates and dining on olives and couscous.
The Circle Continues
After the Circle of Magic quartet, Pierce wrote a second quartet, called The Circle Opens, which saw Sandry, Daja, Briar and Tris find their first students and also solve crime. Pierce has joked that this quartet was her foray into true crime novels and the books are a little more nuanced than the first quartet as the mages grow into adolescence. They still feature all the staples that made the first series so great, particularly when it comes to worldbuilding; my personal favourite is Pierce’s depiction of Namorn, which is modeled after central Russia.
She has also written two standalone books in the Circle universe; Circle Reforged and Melting Stones (which was originally released as an audiobook), and has announced plans to release a third standalone, called Battle Magic, at some point this year.