An Urban Adventure from Tamora Pierce

I recently reread Terrier by Tamora Pierce, in anticipation of the third book in her Beka Cooper series coming out (Terrier is the first).  As I generally expect from Tamora Pierce’s books 🙂 it’s an excellent story with a strong female lead and solid characters of both genders.

For those familiar with Pierce’s Tortall books, Terrier is set a few hundred years earlier than her usual time period.  George Cooper is a major character in Song of the Lioness and the Trickster books, and this series is about one of his ancestors.  George is the King of Thieves, but his ancestor was a…well, I suppose policewoman is the right word, though it sounds too modern.  She’s a member of the City Guard, who are a little rough around the edges but work to keep the peace in Corus, Tortall’s capital city.

Terrier is about Beka’s first six weeks or so as a City Guard, or a Dog as they’re known in the slang.  She starts out as a Puppy, assigned to two more experienced Dogs who mentor her.  Beka is from the poor Lower City, and that’s where she chooses to work too, among the people who are often forgotten.  She quickly latches on to two crimes to investigate–one involving a string of child-kidnappings and murders, another involving mysterious, magical rocks and mass-murderings of the men hired to mine them.

I love the plot of this.  Many of Pierce’s books cover a longer scope of time, and pick up more threads.  I love that too, but I also enjoy the focus of this one.  It’s essentially a weaving of two mysteries, while Beka learns the ropes of being a Dog, and grows in the process.  Some of the character growth, especially at the beginning, seemed a bit swift, but in some ways I did enjoy the compressed timeline that made things move faster.

There’s a good cast of supporting characters, from Beka’s mentor Dogs, Goodwin and Tunstall, to her friends, among the Dogs and among thieves at the Rogue’s court–the Rogue is a bit like a mob boss, who has a tacit understanding with the Dogs because he keeps order among the criminals (that’s also George’s job, a couple centuries later).  Even the villains are well-drawn characters.  And I must say, I loved Lady Sabine, another female knight.  This was long before Alanna, when girls were allowed to hold the job.

There’s also Pounce.  Pounce is Beka’s enigmatic black cat, who has purple eyes and sometimes talks.  You may remember how much I love Faithful, Alanna’s purple-eyed, talking black cat.  Definitely not a coincidence, and we get just a little more insight into Faithful/Pounce’s origins here.  Much as I love Faithful, though, I’m not sure Pounce gets developed to the same extent.  I enjoy him immensely, but I don’t think he has the same bond with Beka that he had with Alanna.

Beka, however, is another good heroine.  She has big dreams and goes after them, and she’s a strong female role model, as Pierce is so good at writing.  She’s grittier than some of Pierce’s heroines, with her Lower City background.  This is the most urban Tortall book I’ve read–I’m not sure there’s a plant in the whole novel.  Usually other books set in Corus are at the Royal Palace, and somehow I think there’s more open park around there.  Beka has magic, but a new kind–and a grittier one!  She can hear ghosts.  People left with unfinished business–often those murdered–will end up as ghosts, inhabiting pigeons.  Beka has learned to seek out these ghosts to get clues to crimes.  She also can hear voices captured by dust devils, which apparently hang out on certain corners.

I did have one problem with Beka’s character.  She’s supposed to be shy.  I’ve read this book twice now, and I just don’t quite believe the shyness.  I find it hard to accept that a girl who grew up in the rough Lower City, who wants to be a City Guard, and who can leap into a tavern brawl, baton swinging…can’t look a new acquaintance in the eye and answer a direct question.  Fear of public speaking, sure.  Fear of approaching strangers, inability to come up with quick replies to saucy comments, sure.  But Pierce takes it one too far, I think, and it just doesn’t ring true to me with the rest of her character.

But that’s one flaw in an otherwise very good book.

There’s far less shining lights and dramatic magic and epic swordfights in this book than in many of Pierce’s others.  This is more a pound-the-pavement, get into fist-fights kind of book.  In some ways it’s darker, although there have been monsters and murders in earlier series too.  And next to something like The Hunger Games, this is a cheerful book.  I like the realism of fighting to make a positive impact in a tough world, and the hopefulness that it really is possible to do that–and to make good friends, chase your dreams, and have some laughs along the way.

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