Tortall and Other Lands, by Tamora Pierce

I’ve been a huge Tamora Pierce fan since I was the target demographic for her YA fantasies which rewrote the code for how to deal with female protagonists in magical lands. She has provided several generations of young women with stories about knights, magicians, craftswomen, tricksters and rookie cops who happen to be female, and has demonstrated time and again that just because it’s a madey-uppy world based on medieval culture doesn’t mean you can’t also include feminism, contraception and racial diversity. Because, you know, IT’S A MADEY-UPPY WORLD.

The collection Tortall and Other Lands is a must-read for all Pierce fans, and for anyone else with an interest in fantasy is worth picking up for two standout stories, which sadly are not original to 2011 but nevertheless exceptional. The first, Student of Ostriches, tells you everything you need to know about who Tamora Pierce is as a writer. Kylaia, a young girl in a culture based on our world’s Africa, trains herself to be a warrior through careful observation of the animals around her, as well as sheer bloody hard work. While this goes against everything her village expects of a woman, it also puts her in the position to champion her sister when it counts. This is a powerful, kick-butt teen girl story, full of heart and stompy feet, and I love it as much now as when I first read it.

Entirely out of the worlds of fantasy is “Testing,” another story completely out of Last Short Story’s remit, as it is a reprint AND has no SF/Fantasy content at all, but is worth reading because it is a great story which shows actually you can fill a piece of fiction entirely with a cast of women and still have bags of conflict. Semi-autobiographical, it’s the story of a girls home and the various tortures that the teenage inmates visit upon every housemother who tries the job.

But for those interested in, you know, actual 2011 fantasy stories (weird!) there are three pieces original to this book: Nawat, Lost and Mimic.

Nawat was the standout of these for me. Following the shapechanging crow who was the romantic lead in the Trickster’s Choice books, this story is about fatherhood. Nawat’s wife is giving birth, and we see him trying to form a relationship with the new babies, at the same time as struggling with his shift of identity from crow to human. There are some amusing culture-clashes which look at how birds and humans have very different child-rearing techniques (apparently humans don’t like it if you dangle babies out the window to poop, even if it has the advantage of not soiling the nest!) but the story also has a very serious aspect to it as Nawat begins to realise that there may be something wrong with one of the babies… I don’t think there’s nearly enough fiction written about the father’s role in child-rearing, particularly in spec fic, so it was great to see this tackled full on.

I also very much enjoyed “Lost,” despite not finding the darkings nearly as cute as I think Pierce does, largely because it’s about a teenage girl who escapes a troubling home situation thanks to her potential as a mathematician. What’s not to love?

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