A Definitive Ranking of All the Tamora Pierce Series
From Beka to Alanna to Kel, how do these beloved heroines stack up?
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A definitive fact: Tamora Pierce is the true heroine of early-2000s YA fantasy. I’m far from the only teenager to have benefitted from Pierce’s frank depictions of female leadership, adolescence, and sexual agency (imagine a relationship in which the woman also wants sex! And has options for birth control!). Do these books still hold up, 10+ years after my middle school Tamora Pierce craze? A pandemic-ridden autumn seems like the ideal time to indulge in nostalgia and dive into some escapist fantasy with high magic, female knights, and a very badass black cat. Drawing upon an extensive bibliography (works cited: my teen angst, numerous re-reads, biased opinions, and Wikipedia summaries), I have compiled a ranking of book series by Tamora Pierce from worst to best.
8. Miscellaneous, like those stories in Tortall and Other Lands and that Spy Guide of Tortall that isn’t really a novel at all
Okay. No discussion here. If you really crave some Tamora Pierce, these’ll help flesh out different details in her Tortall universe. But Tammy’s strength is in creating a lovable cast of characters and witnessing their growth—these books are only good as a tag-on.
Set hundreds of years before Alanna even enters the picture, Beka is training to be a member of the Provost’s Guard, which mainly means tracking down bad guys with clubs. It’s a bad sign when the best part about this series is Beka’s cat, who you can find in a much-better series (cough Faithful cough). Sure, we gain insight into Tortall’s lower class, and the diary format with pseudo-Elizabethan slang is kinda fun (although, like this reviewer, I’m less convinced that we constantly need to hear breasts described as “peaches”). But moralistic, didactic Beka is by far from being the most interesting Tortall heroine. Her love interest is boring. It also doesn’t help that the Provost’s Guard, the Tortallian equivalent of the police force, is not exactly what I’m really into at the moment. A pass on the violent adventures of law-keeping, please.
Giving slight benefit of the doubt here, since there’s only the first book of the series out. Magic academies are always a fun time, and an aspect that hasn’t yet really been explored in depth in the Tortallian universe. It’s also cool that we get to spend more time in Carthak, a land that’s fairly villainized. At the same time, we already know Ozorne’s pure evil so the narrative tension just isn’t there for me. I’d much rather learn about Thom’s time at the convents… or reread The Immortals.
5. The Circle Series (actually three series all centered on the same characters)
I have a soft spot for the Circle books, especially how Pierce literally writes magic into the everyday things around us, like plants or textiles or metals. (As an avid knitter, Sandry’s my girl.) It’s also remarkably great how all three series place friendship at its core; the Circle is formed of four friends, who strengthen one another’s magics. That said, The Circle of Magic is a slow, discombobulated introduction and I’m not a fan of the intense violence in The Circle Opens—it seems a bit gratuitous and is a jarring tonal shift. In general, the Circle books don’t have as satisfying of a character arc or cohesive narrative as the others. If we were ranking individual books, though… Will of the Empress is the perfect reunion epic, with its nuanced politics and poignant insight on adult friendships. Also, Briar is objectively the biggest heartthrob in the Tamora Pierce universe.
Super mixed feelings on this series, which centers on Alanna’s now-adult daughter, Aly, an aspiring spy. She finds herself enmeshed in a revolution in the Copper Isles, where the native rakas are plotting to overthrow the corrupt the luarins (a.k.a. white people) that have colonized them for centuries. On the one hand, this is Pierce’s most politically complex series yet and a personal favorite; Aly is a conniving, uber-talented, and snarky heroine that is an exciting change from Pierce’s other characters. (We love Alanna, but does she have a sense of humor? No.) On the other hand, Pierce’s handling of slavery and colonialism is sloppy, especially in the first book. Aly occasionally smacks of white saviorism. But Trickster’s Queen is a much more deft look at systems of power, and I’m very into how it highlights the logistics of revolution.
Where it all started, the original female-driven fantasy epic: a girl pretends to be a boy to become a knight, winding up with various magical powers and saving the entire nation. It’s the series that most Tamora Pierce lovers started with. This is where the ranking gets really hard. The Lioness books feel epic and timeless from the get-go, and there’s a wonderful level of detail in world-building. I love how the series unironically revels in a world of magic swords and horses with names like Moonlight. But partially due to the epicness of all it all, Pierce draws more upon archetypes here than in her later books. Characters like Duke Roger and Ralon of Malven are not super fleshed-out, performing the role of quintessential “bad guys.” Politics are similarly painted in broad strokes of good and evil. Still, it’s a classic that can’t be replaced in its scope, vision, and ability to conjure up overwhelming nostalgia. Would 10/10 still give to any teenager.
I stand firm in my choice of ranking Kel above Alanna. Even more than the Lioness books, Kel’s journey is an effective exploration of the everyday, grueling tasks of becoming a knight. (As a Virginia Woolf lover, I’m a sucker for books that explore the mundane. Fantasy is no exception.) The Kel books make everything in the Alanna books more complex, from the physical realities of knight training to the political systems of monarchy. Kel is the first girl to legally train as a knight in Tortall, thanks to Alanna’s trailblazing—but their temperaments couldn’t be more different. Kel’s cool-headedness, dogged determination, and just pure emotional stability makes for such a nice departure from many fantasy heroes. Plus, I’m a big fan of the ragtag fanbase that Kel accumulates throughout the series.
Animals! Gods! Monsters! Multiple female role models! A baby dragon! Shape-shifting! More animals! This series has it all. Plucky animal-lover Daine flees to Tortall after a violent bandit raid, where she slowly comes to terms with her inner magic. Her journey gets wilder and wilder, eventually culminating in a pretty legendary finale. In addition to her stellar cast of characters, I love how Pierce writes animal voices; they’re believable and lovable, but not in a saccharine Disney-esque way. It’s also satisfying to get so much of Lioness overlap, because we can see how beloved characters, like Alanna and Buri, are now reorganizing the country. Lastly, Daine’s quest to find a sense of home—as an orphan refugee (who also happens to have godly powers, #relatable)—is still a poignant meditation today on identity and belonging. A+, thank you Tamora Pierce.