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Book Review: Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce (a guest review)

Good day fellow readers.  I was invited to give this review by the Media Specialist at our middle school.  She and I regularly discuss book series we think will be interesting to our kids.   I teach Language Arts and my genre is Science Fiction/Fantasy.  She and her assistants have suggested many great series for me to read and I, in turn, sell them to the kids. I get to enjoy books by the ton and I help them by sharing their reading load.  It is the perfect symbiotic relationship. I have been an avid reader since I first realized the squiggles that adults in my family spent so much time staring at had meaning.  I have a tendency to stick with authors once I enjoy one of their books/series.  On a day similar to many others, I walked into our Media Center to let my kids circulate.  Little did I know that this was going to be a memorable day.  On this day I was introduced to Tamora Pierce’s work. I was asked to read a fantasy novel with pre-teens as the protagonists and tell the specialists whether I thought it would have interest for our age group.  Since then I have devoured everything I could find by Ms. Pierce.  When the Media Specialist recently asked me to read and review Tamora Pierce’s latest novel, I accepted instantly.

The book in question is Battle Magic and it returns the reader to the Emelan universe many should find familiar. If you like Fantasy, Adventure, Magic, pre-teen protagonists, quests, or nontraditional families, this series will excite you. The Circle of Magic series features four young people around the age of eleven who are all outcasts for various reasons.  These young protagonists each receive their own book that chronicles their early life; describes their culture and reason for outcast status; and explains how they were brought together. They all were discovered or rescued by Niko, a powerful mage, who begins the children’s training in their own special brand of magic.  Magic in the Emelanese Universe has many different forms and seems to be related to the various cultures represented.  Pierce does an excellent job of giving each specific culture its own brand of magic complete with rituals and procedures.  Most people in this universe study what is called Academic Magic, which requires years of study and various rituals, written spells, chants, gestures, and/ or implements to master.  

With the foundlings gathered by Master Niko, we discover a new type of magic called Ambient Magic that is totally different and difficult to detect by the usual means.  The end result of this is that the kids in question, Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar, are assumed to lack magic entirely.  The strange things that happen around them (along with other cultural factors) end up causing them to be exiled or shunned by their friends and families.  Once they are gathered together amongst more open minded people, their unique talents are discovered and they begin their training in earnest. The kids quickly become powerful mages in their own right and are granted Mage Status at an extremely early age. This can tend to rub older mages the wrong way at times causing mistreatment and other problems for the kids. 

The series then continues by giving each child his/her own book to explore their individual adventures.  Along the way, the students and their masters become a nontraditional family with the children identifying each other as siblings. During their travels, each young mage finds a protégé that they must instruct.  Instructing other young people teaches valuable lessons to the young mages.  Battle Magic expands on a war that was briefly mentioned in two other books in the series.  It explains what happens during one of those periods of missing time found in many literary series.

The three main characters in Battle Magic are: 

Rosethorn, an adult Plant Mage and Dedicate of the Winding Circle Temple

Briar, a possibly reformed former thief and an Ambient Plant Mage who is 16 years old

and Evvy (11 years old), an escaped former slave/beggar and potential Ambient Stone Mage under the tutelage of Briar amongst others. 

Rosethorn and Briar have become close over the years together and they now behave more like mother and son than teacher and student. This is significant because both of them have life experiences that cause them to hold emotions inside. Briar, like many teens, begins to be overprotective of those he loves. This becomes a source of tension as they travel further into a small country surrounded by enemies.  

At the beginning of the book we find the trio  at the end of several years of travelling and on the way to Gyongxe (an analog of Tibet in the real world). They are acquaintances of the God-king (Dalai Lama) of this small nation situated at the top of the Emelan universe. Gyongxe is known for being the closest to the gods both physically and spiritually.  Every religion in the known universe has a temple in this mountain country, including the First Temple of Rosethorn’s own religion.  While visiting with the God-king, they receive an official invitation from Weishu, the Emperor of Yanjin (analog of real world China) to visit his world famous gardens. Rosethorn and Briar (Plant Mages) simply cannot pass up this opportunity.  Weishu gives our heroes the utmost respect and hospitality on their visit.  He treats them like noble guests, even though Briar and Evvy are clearly reformed street children.  The trio soon begins to feel uncomfortable in Yanjin, especially when they see how the Emperor deals with a lack of perfection in even the smallest plant in his garden.  They begin to think of the Emperor as a “monster in human skin” who seems to command immeasurable armies that constantly drill for war.  In addition to this, Weishu keeps the Prince from a neighboring country caged and in chains.  As Evvy and Briar get closer to this captive, Parahan, they soon find they struggle with the notion of leaving him in chains.  Just before they leave Yanjin Parahan gives them frightening news.  Emperor Weishu plans to invade Gyongxe very soon with his overwhelming armies.  Rosethorn, as a Dedicate of the Living Circle Temple, feels it is her duty to warn the god-king and help protect the First Temple.  Her companions insist on joining her despite her protestations.  They hurry to Gyongxe, with the Imperial Army close behind, to help the small country fight a seemingly impossible war. Their love for each other, their magical abilities, and their honor will all be tested to the utmost in the impending struggle. 

Once again Tamora Pierce has returned us to the Emelan Universe.  Her descriptions of the varied scenery of this mountainous region in the far north are very lush.  You can feel the differences between this region and all the others she has described in the past.  Like Evvy, I could feel the mountains singing to me as I travelled along beside the group. Tamora is not afraid to tackle very serious subjects like war, abandonment, slavery, torture (including kids), class differences, and romantic love.  She does so in a way that is realistic without being unsuitable for her audience.  I do think this one is targeted at a slightly older group than the first books in the series, but this makes sense since the protagonists are becoming young adults by now. This book is more action oriented than the others in this series.  It seems that she feels we are familiar enough with the main characters that we do not need as much character development in this iteration.  She jumps right into the action and it seldom relents.  Ms. Pierce does her usual excellent job describing battle strategy and the horrors of war, but does a bit less with the creative magic of the trio.  They seem to fall into a pattern using the same strategies each time they fight.  This applies mostly to Rosethorn and Briar who rely on their famous thorn/vine bombs repeatedly.  They are admittedly very cool effects, however.  Evvy does explore some creative uses for her ambient magic, and she meets some very unusual yet powerful friends. The plot is a bit convoluted at times, but most of the issues seem to stem from the constraints placed on the story by the timeline of the series and the references in Melting Stones and Will of the Empress.  

Ms. Pierce could have done a bit more with the side characters since most of them seem one dimensional.  Parahan (escaped slave of the Emperor) is the exception to this rule, and he left me wanting to know more of his back story. She experiments with Point of View in this novel as well. Her previous books were usually written from the point of view of the main character, but this one jumps from chapter to chapter, and sometimes paragraph to paragraph.  I liked the change and thought it underscored the importance of each character’s individual adventure within the story.   

I would definitely recommend this book to all fans of Tamora Pierce, fantasy, or young protagonists. I strongly suggest, however, that you read the earlier books in the Circle of Magic series first to get a working knowledge of the characters,  their relationships, and the varied systems of magic in Emelan.

Guest reviewer Glenn Horton is a 7th Grade language Arts teacher at TLT contributer Robin’s school.