Book Spotlights, Fantasy, Review, Traditionally-Published, womensff, YA

#WomenSFF: Protector of the Small Quartet – Tamora Pierce

Hello!

As part of the #womensff on twitter, I wanted to talk about some of my favourite female authors, and today I am kicking this off with one of my favourite series and authors of all time (and I would apologise for the length of this post, but even this is barely enough to convey my love for this series).

The Protector of the Small Quartet was actually the third series that I read by Tamora Pierce. I started with The Immortals after finding a copy of Wild Magic hidden away in our school library. I fell in love, swiftly consuming that book and then the rest of the series before moving onto The Song of the Lioness (I have since read them more in order many times), and then Protector of the Small. Now, I love all three series, and I have reread them countless times over the year, but it was that last one that really hooked both as a child and as an adult.

It was reading about Keladry that had little me so obsessed with Knights, that my parents started taking me up to the Jousting tournaments that were held at the local Castle a couple of times each year, and one of my teachers scratching their head when after wanting to be a vet for a long time I suddenly declared that I wanted to be a Knight. After all, if Kel could be one, then why couldn’t I? Sadly, I did not become a Knight, although there are still days when I daydream. However, I can see the influence of these books in other places such as my love for books with female warriors and strong female leads, and also in my own writing, because I have never once questioned that girls/women can fight as well if not better than men, and it was Kel that was first taught me that.

First Test

First Test is very much the first book in the series and does a lot of groundwork for the series which can occasionally feel a little too much, but that said it does a wonderful job of setting up the series and Kel’s journey from ‘probationary Page’ and onwards.

Oh how younger me quivered with rage at the fact that Kel was put on probation, to be fair –  I still do, but when I reread the books now, I find myself wondering how different she and the story would have been if she had been treated the same as the boys from the get-go? There’s always discussion about equality, and don’t get me wrong, Kel should have been treated the same as the boys *shakes fist* at Lord Wyldon and the Conservatives. However, it also pushed Kel to prove herself even knowing that she might not get to enjoy the fruits of her labour, and you have to admire her strength for working so hard, improving herself, with the sword hanging overhead that might stop her going any further.

In First Test, we get to meet the wonderful cast of characters that make up the Quartet – some familiar from other series, others new. Kel was my favourite (if you couldn’t tell), but there were so many fantastic characters. Neal is another favourite, and I adored his idiosyncrasies and sharp tongue that gets him into trouble:

Nealan bowed deeply. “An apology for general insolence, your lordship, or some particular offence?”

“One week scrubbing pots,” ordered Lord Wyldon. “Be silent.”

Nealan threw out an arm like a player making a dramatic statement. “How can I be silent and yet apologise?”

Also, the fact that he was the first one to support Kel and her dream amongst her fellow Pages, with no ulterior motive. Their friendship, despite their age difference, is one of my favourite relationships throughout the entire series, and so many of his tart rejoinders are etched into my memory. His own story – choosing to train to be a Knight at the expense of an academic career and coming in late, because of familial duty, was something that I wished we could have seen more of. And while it was different than her reasons it resonated well with Kel’s sense of duty.

Joren, on the other hand, had me wanting to grab Kel’s sword and bash him over the head more than once, and probably irritated me more than anything in this book. He became more interesting in the later books, and also more of a threat. Although he and his friends who shared similar views, were an excellent way of bringing the sexism and outdated beliefs that Kel was facing onto a believable and relatable level, that added another dimension to her struggle to prove herself. Lord Wyldon also reflected these views but more subtlety, yet despite his decision to put Kel on probation and to keel the only other Female Knight away from her, I liked him as a character. There was method in his decisions, and while that didn’t make it right, it was understandable, and you could see that he was training them – including Kel – to the best of his abilities. That said, if he had made a different decision (which while now it is more evident that he wouldn’t otherwise there wouldn’t have been a series, but which had me holding my breath the first time I read this book), I would not have forgiven him.

The Spidren hunt towards the end of the book offered a tantalising glimpse of what Kel and the others would be facing in the world outside the Palace and training. While also showing just how far she had come from the start of the book and sows seeds for the following books. What stood out for me, is that here, where it was more than just Wyldon and the other Pages, Kel being a girl didn’t matter, she was treated the same as the boys by the other warriors, and proved herself in a way that couldn’t be debated or hidden.

Goddess bless, Lady Page.

Page

Whereas First Test covered just the first year of Kel’s Page training, this book covered three, and as such a fair bit was crammed into this book, and in some places, it is a bit like a training montage. That isn’t a complaint though, because not only does it establish that Kel and the other Pages are having to work to hone their skills – and work hard – rather than ‘powering up’ instantly which is a bug-bear of mine, but more than that, the training is described brilliantly. We see the changing challenge levels as they get older and more advanced, from targets in jousting to methods, and we get to see how their training is influenced by events such as following the encounter with bandits at the summer camp. ‘In the fourth week of Kel’s third year, however, Lord Wyldon turned creative’.

There is more than just training in this book though. Firstly we meet Jump, a battle-scarred mongrel who befriends Kel and the Pages and plays a central role in the latter part of the book, and throughout the rest of the series. I love that Jump, like Kel, is not the traditional fit for his role – Kel isn’t just a tomboy, in fact, she goes out of her way to remind people that she is a girl, but nor is she a beautiful in the traditional sense – and Jump isn’t like the dogs favoured by nobles or Knights. I also need to mention here, as I neglected to in the earlier part – but Peachblossom – Kel’s cantankerous gelding is fantastic, and their bond is fantastic (and his desire to bite poor Neal).

Then there is Lalasa, who Kel takes on as a maid. Her arc is one of my favourites in the entire book, and her presence and experience highlights the difference between nobles and commoners and shows another darker side to the attitudes towards women. I loved seeing how her relationship with Kel changes and grows organically, becoming more than maid and mistress through working together and training. Lalasa learning to trust Kel after she is saved and then trained to defend herself and given the freedom to follow her own interests too. This culminates, in Kel going so far as to risk her future as a Squire to rescue Lalasa and Jump – which is in keeping with their relationship, and with Kel’s own sense of duty.

Gods all bless, Lady Squire.

Squire

This is probably my favourite book of the four and is undoubtedly the one I have reread the most (I need to buy new copies of all of them, but Squire is definitely my most dog-eared book). There are many reasons why this one stands out for me. For one I loved the dynamics between Kel and her Knight Master Raoul, and the shifting relationship between her and Lord Wyldon – and his admission that he had been wrong, which while we had seen a hint of him realising that, it was great to see it stated outright. When we grow up, we see our relationships even with those we know well changing, and that is conveyed beautifully throughout this book.

I will admit that the first time I read this, I was there hoping and expecting that Alanna would take Kel as her Squire. However, I can see the reasoning in this not happening, and it was and is impossible to be disappointed when instead we got to see Kel be a Squire in an unusual situation. It is also rewarding because it came about because of her standout moments in the earlier books – the Spidren hunt in First Test, and the bandit encounter in Page – giving a feeling that Kel earned this position.

Again, Squire covers a long period – the four years of Kel’s Squire training up to and including the Ordeal that all Squires must survive and pass to be Knighted, and a lot happens in this book. From gaining the care of a Griffin – and I still wince when it’s described how it attacked her ear, and the resulting search for its parents and attempting to raise it. To finally meeting the Yamani delegation and getting to learn more about that culture, which had been a central part of Kel’s story up until now and one that fascinated me. Also, I can’t say how happy I was that Kel was finally allowed to use her glaive in combat – I have a fondness for this weapon. It is something different from the traditional weapons that we generally see in fantasy. And in seeing Kel standing out as she bridges the gap between the two, based on experience that didn’t come from training, and showed how her childhood had shaped her. The Royal Progress and all the pomp that involved was fun to read about, and I enjoyed the glimpses we got of how the country worked and how the Progress was used to show favour and disfavour (and I felt for Raoul every step of the way).

Then there was the outbreak of war, and firstly I have to say that I love how it was compared to ‘facing the Kraken’ (in our DnD game that is considered the biggest threat our DM can give, and it feels very appropriate here). Here, we see the payoff for how Wyldon changed the training after the bandit encounter because this wasn’t a jousting tournament or a lone Knight fighting in single combat, it was war. Which was messy and involved groups of warriors, enemies and allies and civilians and while Kel proved herself level-headed early on with the bandits, again we see how the training honed her skills during the war. The introduction of magical enemies added a new, dangerous element – especially as with Kel being nonmagical herself, our experience of magic had been limited to the Immortals, and encounters with friendly mages, e.g. Neal’s healing magic, and set the stage for the final book.

The Ordeal and the Chamber of the Ordeal were possibly my favourite parts of this book. This was a test that couldn’t be prepared for or trained for, beyond what had already been done over the eight years they’d spent as Pages and Squires, and skill alone was not enough to guarantee success. That might seem harsh considering so much emphasis had been put on their training, but from First Test through to this book, it had been emphasised that Knights were supposed to be more than that. Kel lecturing the boys on chivalry when standing up against the hazing that was happening, their duty to King and country, the way the Own worked to protect communities whether against Immortals and bandits, or more natural threats like winter and natural disasters. So, it was fitting that more was needed for the Ordeal. That said, some of the repercussions of the Chamber were shocking, although entirely fitting for the characters that found themselves breaking under its test.

Also, the ending and Alanna and Kel finally standing on equal footing as Lady Knights has me smiling every time, I read it.

Gods all bless, Lady Knight.

 

Lady Knight

There is no training here. Kel has achieved her dream of being a Knight, right in the middle of a war, and with a task set by the Chamber of the Ordeal. As much as I love Squire and it remains firmly my favourite, I feel that this book is the strongest in the series and does a great job of wrapping up the series and Kel’s journey.

Here, we see Kel truly come into her own.

I agreed completely with Wyldon’s decision to make her Commander of the Refugee fort, and his reasons for it. Because it is acknowledgement both of her experience as a warrior, but also of the fact that because of how she spent her years as a Squire and her own sense of duty, she was different from the other Knights – and not because she was a girl. Also, I still laugh at the line ‘I did consider Queenscove (Neal)… [but] If they didn’t kill him within two weeks, I’d have to see if he was drugging their water’ because Neal never did learn how to hold his tongue. It also meant, that we got to see a lot more of the ‘commoners’ in this book, and they were some of the best characters in the book, especially Fanche and the children, and they offered a completely different experience and outlook than we’d seen in the earlier books.

As with any story involving war, there was plenty of action, and I very much enjoyed the fight scenes, from skirmishes to the final battle, and the way news filtered in about other fights across the war front. It gave the immersive feeling of a real conflict and the impression that this was a smaller part of a whole, which added to the realism. There were also setbacks – casualties and defeats, and I always appreciate when the ‘heroes’ of a story are forced to rally after a heavy blow, and keep going, and that is done exceptionally well, especially with the potential cost that Kel has to balance in her choices. Her shield and honour, and potentially her life if she is declared a traitor on the one hand, and the lives of innocent civilians – that many in her position would discard – on the other. And the fact that the friends she had made over the years as a Page and a Squire, and the time spent in the Fort, rally others to her despite the cost.

Here we see fate, and choice combine and everything that Kel had learned and endured coming to play in the culmination of the final battle. The journey to Scanra and the fight with Blayce, are the pinnacle of this story. And even now, after reading this book so many times, I still find myself on the edge of my seat even though I know the outcome, which is a sign of great storytelling. It has the perfect blend of tension and action, and I love the use of strategy against a much bigger force, and that there was a genuine feeling of consequence from start to finish. With victory coming at a cost, and no one coming through entirely unscathed, again giving that feeling of realism.

****

There is so much more than I could ever mention here. However, what truly stands out for me is how these books still resonate me over twenty years after I first read them. Often, when you go back to visit books from your childhood, they have lost some of their impact even if they are nostalgic reads, but that is not the case here, and over the years The Protector of the Small Quartet has become a frequent comfort read for me. It is like visiting an old friend that you can fall into conversation with even though you’ve not seen each other for a long time. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading Kel’s adventures or about the broader world of Tortall, and even as I read and discover new books and worlds, I believe it will firmly remain one of my favourite series of all time.

**
Rowena

 

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