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.

Danika reviews Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce


A little bit of background on my experience of this book, first. I have always heard positive things about Tamora Pierce’s writing, but I hadn’t picked up any of her books before this year. I did, however, have a copy of Will of the Empress, because I heard this was a lesbian young adult book, which is probably my favourite genre. I was also going to see Mark of Mark Reads at Leakycon in 2014, so I decided that I would try to catch up one of the series he was reading. He was reading Tamora Pierce, so I binge-read her books to catch up, in the order that Mark was reading them, which was mostly publication order. But because I was reading them in the order Mark is, it meant that Will of the Empress was the twenty-sixth Tamora Pierce book I read this year. And the entire time, though I loved the other books, I was also eager to get to The Lesbian Book, so I had some expectations.

Will of the Empress is listed as the first book in a series (The Circle Reforged), but the main characters are written about in The Circle of Magic quartet and The Circle Opens quartet first. I’m sure you could technically read this as a standalone, but it’s a lot more effective knowing the main characters’ backstory.

I was already in love with the main characters before going into Will of the Empress. The funny thing is, I knew that in this book, one of the characters was going to be a lesbian, but I wasn’t sure which of the three girls it was. Which meant that in the previous eight books, I was guessing. It was fun, actually, even though I picked the wrong horse. My favourite thing about Tamora Pierce’s books (aside from the feminism) is that the main characters in all of her novels are totally realistic, well-rounded, and completely distinct from each other. I loved that in the Tortall books, and it carries into the Circle universe as well. I also really appreciated that the Circle universe is a lot more diverse. While most of the Tortall protagonists are young, female, white, straight, and noble, the four Circle main characters include two people of colour, a lesbian, and a range of financial statuses/ranks. This book also reveals that their teachers (also about half people of colour) included two women in a relationship, something which was only hinted in the previous books.

This book focuses on how the four have drifted apart from each other, and their attempts to return to their former closeness. It’s uncomfortable, after the celebration of friendship that was the original Circle quartet, but it’s realistic and necessary. They all have grown, and their relationships all shift and evolve throughout the story to reflect that. The plot itself is pretty minimal, because it’s really about this emotional growth, and also about their beginning of their individual recoveries from the trauma each has gone through in the last few years. Between them, they’ve experienced arson, mass murder, war, and been dragged into these situations in ways they never intended.

So there is this aspect to the subdued plot next to the other books–that the characters have suffered enough at this point–but I think there’s also the element that they are just too powerful by this time, especially together, for there to be any real threat to them. Each not only has an incredible amount of personal power, but also has threads of each other’s magic, and now has mastered this magic. When the central conflict of the book does happen, it’s over with pretty quickly. They’ve become pretty much invincible as a unit, which I think sort of writes Tamora Pierce into a corner. Anything that could actually pose as a threat to them would be comically over the top. And though I do primarily enjoy her books for the characters and their interaction, it did make this one seem a little slower, because there was no dramatic conflict in the last quarter of the book, at least not one comparable to most of hers.

As for the lesbian content of the book, it is a pretty minor subplot, but I loved it. I won’t tell you who it was, in case you also want to guess, but it felt perfectly organic both for that character to be a lesbian and for it not to have come up until now. After all, the other books take place when they are children, often in life-threatening danger, so it makes sense that she didn’t really start thinking about romance until she was an older teenager. The little romance in this book was adorable. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] I was worried that her partner was going to be a spy, or somehow involved in the plot against them, but luckily I was wrong. [end spoilers] It’s also significant that this romance is probably the most serious one in the series for any of the characters. The descriptions of her realizing that she’s falling in love and what that means as well her friends’ reactions are all fantastic to read and exactly what I would expect from Tamora Pierce. I really hope that she continues to write more queer main characters.

This isn’t my favourite of her books, though I honestly expected it to be, but it’s still solid, and one that I would recommend. Read all of her books and know that you can look forward to a lesbian main character. I can’t believe that I’ve read almost all of Tamora Pierce’s books (thirty years of work read in one year! oops!), but I’ve enjoyed myself so much. I can’t wait to read the last collections of short stories and audio books that are left, and I look forward to her next ones!

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.