The Queer Heart of the Circle of Magic Series by Tamora Pierce

Something I’ve discovered recently is that you can tell a lot about a person based on which Tamora Pierce series they loved as a child. Song of the Lioness fan? Congratulations on your transition. Anyone who was really into the Immortals probably has a disaster prep bag (or three) and is working on their off the grid cabin in the woods dream. But I was always a Circle of Magic fan, which is why I’m a lesbian.

For those who are unfamiliar: Tamora Pierce is a prolific young adult writer, who, similar to authors like Terry Pratchett, has a shared setting that she writes multiple series in. The Circle of Magic books are also called her Emelan books, after the name of the primary setting. The plot follows four characters: Sandry, Daja, Tris, and Briar, four ambient mages who were discovered later than most mages usually are, and how they learn to harness their powers and find their places in the world. None of them fit in with other students, both because of their unusual magic and their unusual backgrounds. They come together to live in Discipline Cottage, with two of their teachers, to receive a more personalized education. The second quartet, The Circle Opens, follows them after they become certified as adult mages and go out into the world, and they come back together as adults in The Will of the Empress.

I hadn’t read these books in around 15 years, maybe more, which left me in an interesting position: I remembered a lot of emotional beats and character development, but was hazy on specific plot details. This allowed me to read the books almost like they were new, but not quite. My final verdict? Tamora Pierce is an incredible writer and these books still hold up very well. Reading these books was like peeling back layers of my personality and taste and exposing the core of my soul. How many characters have I loved (and written) that are just a slightly different version of Briar Moss? How many times have I read a story claiming to be found family and thinking that their friendship was nice, but it was just lacking something? Circle of Magic feels like the platonic ideal of many of my favorite tropes and character archetypes.

While the characters have stuck with me, one of my favorite parts of this series as an adult was the world building. Pierce uses a lot of clear inspiration from real world countries, both as cultural and racial influences, but she also works hard on magic systems and how they influence culture. The Traders are particularly fascinating, as they’re less of an ethnic group and more of a collective culture shared by a variety of people. While at first glance it’s easy to tell that they’re just visiting Fantasy Russia, there’s so much more depth that she builds up. The result is a diverse, interesting world with characters to match. I have done a lot of nostalgic childhood rereading this year, and it’s incredible to me how much more diverse these books were compared to others that were out at the time, and even those that are coming out now.

While it’s easy for me to wish that there was more obvious queerness in the early books, the thing is that the kids are 10 years old and probably don’t care very much about whether or not Lark and Rosethorn are kissing. Also, considering that Sandry’s Book was published in 1997 and The Will of the Empress was published in 2005, I’m more surprised that there were any canon gays at all. (In this reread I also hit up Melting Stones and Battle Magic, which is as recent as 2013, but I’m not focusing on them quite as much since they are less about the relationship and growth of the main foursome). Besides, the books feel like such a metaphor for queerness: all of the kids don’t fit in with other people and feel closer to each other than their own families, there’s an acknowledgement of their differences but they have more in common with each other. And even though only Daja is the only one who gets a girlfriend, we all know how friend groups tend to become more queer as time goes on. These books are just as fun to discuss as they are to read, and that makes them a fun series to read with friends.

Overall, I love these books. I’m not going to wait another 15 years to revisit them, they are staying near and dear to my heart, and they are required reading for anyone who wants to really understand who I am and what kinds of characters I like. I need to reread more Tamora Pierce now, since I’ve confirmed that she really is as good as I remember. They even appealed to my incredibly picky girlfriend, who doesn’t like reading middle grade/young adult books as much as I do! I think that’s the biggest endorsement I could give.

Larkie is a west coast lesbian living with her girlfriend and cat. When she’s not reading every queer genre book she can get her hands on, she’s probably playing video games or taking pictures of mushrooms. Larkie’s Lesbrary reviews can be found here. More reviews are on Storygraph.

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