After a long hiatus and much anticipation, acclaimed fantasy author Tamora Pierce has finally released a new book set in her Tortall universe, Tempests and Slaughter. The book is the first in her long-awaited new series, The Numair Chronicles. Pierce, whose books in the Tortall universe have frequently enjoyed long stays on New York Times bestseller lists and have earned a wide variety of prestigious awards, has proven time and again that her imagination is bound only by the careful structure that she weaves through her writing. Each of her many series is cohesive with and enriched by every other. With Tempests and Slaughter, she breaks away from a number of the patterns that she set in her previous works, offering challenges for new and familiar readers alike.
Readers who begin their journey into the Tortall universe with Tempests and Slaughter need not fear that they will be lost — in fact, the very first page in the book after the dedication is a map of the portion of the medieval fantasy universe that Pierce has previously explored in varying levels of detail. Tempests and Slaughter is set in the southern country of Carthak, which is ruled by an absolute monarch and has a rich history and religious culture to explore. Longtime Tamora Pierce fans will already have some familiarity with the setting, as Pierce’s previous novel from the Immortals series, Emperor Mage, was also set in Carthak, and featured characters Numair Salmalín and his student Daine entering into complex dealings with its emperor, Ozorne. Though it is the first in a separate series, Tempests and Slaughter is a prequel to Emperor Mage, as it focuses on Numair’s (then called Arram) character as a child and his friendship with not-yet-Emperor Ozorne during their student days at the Imperial University of Carthak — before their friendship soured in ways that Pierce has promised will be explored in more detail throughout the rest of this series.
Pierce’s decision to write a prequel featuring characters already well-known to her fans forces deviations from the tried-and-true structure of her previous work. A hallmark of a Tamora Pierce novel is that it tells the story a young person who, by some combination of choice and fortune, is faced with extraordinary circumstances, and somehow learns to rise to meet them. Previous Tortallan heroes have succeeded because of their compassion, their knowledge of and knack for spycraft, or sheer stubbornness, but there was never a guarantee of who they might turn into by the end of their respective stories. Tempests and Slaughter is different because we already know that Arram will emerge from his experiences as Numair, the most powerful living mage in the Tortall universe. I admit I was a little nervous about this premise — would knowing the outcome rob the story of its thrill? It did nothing of the sort. In fact, it might be even more enjoyable to see the extremely powerful, scatterbrained mage depicted as a child precisely because I know how he will turn out. As an adult, Numair is respected, even feared. As a ten-year-old just barely learning how to control his magic, Arram Draper is a pest, and it’s fun to see him taken down off his pedestal. It makes me want to reread the books that feature him as an adult, this time with the knowledge of all the trouble he caused when he was an awkward child who was far too clever, powerful, and bored for his own good. It humanizes him.
The early chapters of Tempests and Slaughter have moments that will frustrate new and returning readers alike — new readers may be overwhelmed by the rapid-fire flow of names, places, and cultural details being thrown at them all at once, and returning readers may experience a few moments of boredom because many of these details were well-established in Emperor Mage. But there is no perfect way to thread that needle, and once Pierce has her groundwork fully established, she begins to work her craft in earnest. Her unparalleled ability to create an intricate world with complex politics, cultures, and magical systems, color it with vivid details, then ground it in a relatable, well-developed young narrator is why I have been a fan of her books since the very first one I read, and in that sense, Tempests and Slaughter is true to form.
Another choice that Pierce made for Tempests and Slaughter is that — unusually for her — she wrote a male protagonist; almost all of her previous heroes have been female. When I first discovered Pierce’s books when I was ten years old, I was thrilled seeing girls like me becoming knights and spies, leading armies, and discovering the extent of their magical powers. I wanted to be Alanna, Keladry, Aly, and Daine. I read her books to tatters, living out the dreams she offered me time and time again. I even tried to learn to fight like Alanna did — only I used a garden stake instead of a sword, and instead of defeating monsters, all I managed to do was take out my bedroom light in nonetheless spectacular fashion. When I read all these stories of girls growing up to be heroes, I believed without a doubt that I could do the same, and the importance of Pierce’s diverse complement of female heroes and her fiercely feminist writing cannot be overstated. To my delight, Pierce’s feminism is, for the most part, as sharp as ever in Tempests and Slaughter, even as it is related through a very different perspective. It does not take away from any of the important work that she has done, especially since we are able to watch Numair grow into a feminist himself, Tempests only diversifies her explanation of those ideas.
I could recommend Tempests and Slaughter for its clever, quick-witted plot. I could point out its fascinating complement of young characters. I could talk at length about its rich additions to the already expansive Tortall universe, its delicious prose, and the care and thoughtfulness that has been poured into every line. I could say that it is so engaging that I forgot I only meant to read the first chapter and ended up well into the heart of the book before I remembered to look up and breathe. I could celebrate because it gives depth to minor characters whose previous appearances in Pierce’s canon barely scratched the surface of what they had to offer to the world. Pierce pushed the limits of her style and it paid off in spectacular fashion, offering thrills and surprises even for a reader who has read all her books and is intimately familiar with her usual tricks. For all these reasons and more, I’ll call it a great fantasy book, and I give it my wholehearted recommendation. But in all honesty, I knew that I loved Tempests and Slaughter from the moment that I flipped past the map and turned to the first page. From the opening lines, I was once again so immersed in Pierce’s world that it was like I had never left at all.