Book Review: 'Tortall and Other Lands'

Filed under: Books for Kids

Rated ON for Ages 12 and Up

What Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this collection of short stories (all but one of which fall in the fantasy genre) has its fair share of violent content, particularly in the story "Huntress," which is about a contemporary teen who gets in over her head when she tries to join her school's in-crowd. That story includes some gore, killings, and weapons use; others have fighting, a father slapping and bullying his young daughter, and characters being chased and attacked by those who fear or don't understand them. "Huntress" also has some strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t"); the other stories are profanity-free. There's some mild sexual content and some references to drug dealing/use. As in most of author Tamora Pierce's work, there are many strong heroines here -- brave, resourceful, smart girls who overcome obstacles with hard work, friendship, and persistence.

The good stuff

  • Educational value: The stories in this book may encourage tweens and teens to think about a wide range of topics, from women's rights to peer pressure to the value of education. See our Families Can Talk About section for some discussion starters.
  • Messages: The characters in these stories face many different kinds of obstacles -- and overcome most of them with a combination of hard work, persistence, trust, friendship, and self confidence. Wisdom, innovation, and open-mindedness usually triumph over fear, bullying, and ignorance. In "Huntress," violence is used to settle a score, but the heroine isn't exactly comfortable with that outcome -- and she learns to be careful what you wish for.
  • Role models: Pierce likes to write strong female characters, and the girls featured in most of these stories are no exception -- they're brave, resourceful, strong, and smart ... even if they sometimes need some extra help or encouragement to fulfill their promise.

What to watch out for

  • Violence: In "Huntress" (which is the most violent of the book's stories), teens hunt one another (and others) with the intent to kill; some deaths and wounds/gore are described, but not in extensive detail. Weapons include a gun, knives, a broken bottle, and a bow and arrow. There's also a reference to rape. In another story, a young girl is threatened, slapped, and emotionally abused by her father. Other violent/intense content includes characters being chased/threatened/attacked by those who don't like or understand them. A girl disguised as a boy is nearly "cleansed" by priests. Discussion of crows "culling" imperfect nestlings (which can also apply to flawed babies born to shape-changed crows). A girl is almost sacrificed to a dragon. Also hand/fistfighting, violent storms, animals attacking prey, and some bullying among children.
  • Sex: Some kissing/making out. A man unfamiliar with human ways is naked (non-sexual). Description of a naked female torso (also non-sexual). A long childbirth sequence; a mother and wet nurses breastfeed newborn babies (breasts and nipples mentioned/described in non-sexual manner). A married couple sleeps naked in their bed (no sexual activity discussed). Mention of someone flashing his d--k (in "Huntress"). Reference to teen pregnancy (in "Testing").
  • Language: Some use of words including "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "crap," "bastard," and "damn" (almost all in the story "Huntress").
  • Consumerism: Not an issue.
  • Drinking, drugs, & smoking: Passing references to drug dealing and use (prescription and illegal) in "Huntress" and "Testing."
Book Summary

"Tortall and Other Lands" collects 12 of author Tamora Pierce's short stories. About half take place within the broader reaches of the world of Tortall, where most of Pierce's series (including the Alanna, Daine, Keladry, and Beka Cooper novels) have been set. A couple feature characters readers will know from earlier books -- including Kitten the dragon, Nawat the crow man, and the intrepid darkings -- but most focus on new heroes and heroines (mostly the latter) faced with their own particular challenges. Most of the stories not set in Tortall all take place in similarly fantasy-friendly lands full of magic and dragons, except for two: "Huntress," which follows a modern New York City girl's attempts to join the cool crowd ... or die trying, and the non-fantasy "Testing," which takes place in a group home for teen girls. Typically for Pierce's work, most of the protagonists are girls who are driven to prove themselves -- to their communities, their families, or themselves.

Is It Any Good?

If your teens like short stories, there's lots to enjoy here, whether they're longtime Pierce fans or new to her work. The stories set within the Tortall universe are entertaining in their own right, as well as fun for fans who are always eager to read more about characters they know and love. Fans will appreciate being able to see things from Kitten's point of view in "The Dragon's Tale," for instance, since her previous appearances in Pierce's books have never given readers her perspective. And the darkings are always great comic relief. The least successful -- and longest -- of the Tortall-set tales is "Nawat"; the pacing is off, and some of the plot points are a bit murky/confusing. "Elder Brother" offers a pointed-but-not-overdone message about what it really means to be human; its follow-up, "The Hidden Girl," is more heavy handed but will have a lot of resonance in today's world.

Among the non-Tortall stories, "Plain Magic" (which is one of Pierce's first fictional pieces) has echoes of the themes that would appear later in her Circle of Magic series, while "Time of Proving" and "Mimic" are entertaining, if not stand-outs. "Huntress," which takes place in our contemporary world, is one of the most violent of the stories; it's exciting to see Pierce tackle a different type of fantasy, but those who know her Tortall books are likely going to keep their fingers crossed that she chooses to keep returning to that land. Which circles around to what may by the book's single biggest flaw for existing Pierce fans (and/or those who don't gravitate toward short stories): Just when you're getting back into the groove with characters you enjoy, the story's over.

This review of "Tortall and Other Lands" was written by Betsy Bozdech.

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