A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own.

I read this series years ago when it first came out. I think this series is my favorite Tortall series by Pierce. Most of the Tortall books are classic a knight/magician/spy comes of age. The Beka Cooper books stand out in comparison, because the books are mysteries first and foremost and coming-of-age tales second. Written in an epistolary format (namely the diary of the protagonist Beka), this is her day-bay-day tale of trying to track down a serial killer and a mass murdering opal-mining gang. I’ve started writing a Classic Medieval Fantasy Mystery series, so I decided to reflect upon some of my old favorites. So, here we are.

This book gave me similar vibes to the Kara Gillian Series (but YA Classic Fantasy instead of Urban Fantasy), and the Vimes Discworld books (but YA).

Note: this is a prologue series to the other Tortall books. You can read this before reading anything else.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

I felt happy reading this, but also a sense of suspense.

The protagonist is a medium, able to commune with the spirits of the dead. Because of this gift, she is often the first to know about any new murders. At regular points throughout the book ghosts turned up, when either the serial killer killed more people or when the opal-gang murdered their workers to shut them up. With each chapter/entry in the story, I had a sense of persistent worry that the protagonist was about to encounter fresh ghosts because she failed to catch up with her enemies in time to save innocent lives. This sense of suspense is vital in a mystery novel.

The happiness I felt reading this was because this book felt warm-and-fuzzy for me, because I’m fond of Tamora Pierce’s books style.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

SPOILERS! Skip this section if you’re not interested.

The book’s concept was about a gang war between two rival gangs in the streets of Tortall’s undercity. One gang is a group of child murderers (called The Shadow Snake), while the other is a jewelry smuggling gang looking to make jackpot on a new payout. The Shadow Snake kidnap children and blackmail their parents for money. When the Shadow Snake hear that the jewelry gang has a big jackpot going, they start stealing the children of the jewelry gang’s family, threatening to kill them if they’re not paid off. They’re not paid off, and…

That’s where the book begins. The protagonist is brought in when the baby son of one of her old friends turns up dead. Great concept. It’s got built in suspense, tension and stakes. The execution was great too.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (A-)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

Pierce’s characters have style. Her ‘dog’ and ‘rat’ characters different from one another, (‘Dog’ is their word for constable, and ‘rat’ is their word for criminal), which carries a lot of weight in the characterization and worldbuilding department by informing the reader as a caste difference based on dialog. The same goes for the difference between the nobility and the middle class peasantry. Their dialog does go a long way to providing characterization.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator did a good job of differentiating the characters via accent. The audiobook narrator code-switched Beka’s accent when Beka shifted between a high-class environment and a low-class environment. Good stuff.

Her characters aren’t boring. The trouble is that none of them are particularly amazing either. Beka herself reminds me of Harry Potter, in that she’s a bland character who the reader can easily insert themselves as. Her one ‘flaw’ is her social anxiety when it comes to speaking in public. I don’t count that as much of a flaw, not when compared to something like pride or anxiety or depression.

The characters herein are fun. The protagonists are easy to love, and the antagonists easy to hate. It’s Pierce’s writing style, and it’s a good style. Just don’t expect to read about characters with super deep anxiety, depression or anything like that.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

More spoilers, so care!

The book had a bit of a slow start, as the frame story was established and Beka was introduced. Honestly I think the book would have been stronger if this were not told in the epistolary format, because it didn’t really add much to the story overall. After a fairly slow start, it had a slow-ish middle by mystery-thriller standards, but a fast paced ending as the heroes saved the day.

To analyze this story’s structure, I’m going to ignore the frame narrative because it doesn’t really have much impact on the story overall. I will be using The Hero’s Journey to analyze this story.

  1. Normal Life
    1. The book begins with Beka’s early moments as part of the constabulary. She has fends with her fellow ‘puppies’ (aka fresh constable recruits), and doesn’t necessarily get along with her mentor characters.
      1. The reader also learns that the constabulary is a somewhat corrupt organization. They openly take bribes from petty criminals, usually only stepping in to prosecute murderous crimes.
    2. Also early on, she visits her family. They disapprove of her joining the ‘dogs,’ and want her to instead become a lady’s maid or some similarly feminine profession.
    3. This establishes where we are in the beginning of the story, and what must change for the story to progress.
  2. The Call to Adventure
    1. We receive news that Beka’s friend’s son has been slain. Nine beggars have gone missing, and their ghosts haunt Beka. Fire opals are discovered circulating throughout the depths of the Underworld, traded between thieves.
    2. This triple Inciting Incident stirs up the status quo amongst the Rogue’s Court of Tortall. (Rogue’s Court=Legalized Criminal empire). Something is up amongst the thieves, and the status quo of the semi-corrupt cops and their allies/enemies amongst the gangs can’t be maintained any longer.
  3. Refusing the Call/Jumping at the Call
    1. (If the Protagonist Refused the Call, then) Destiny Intervenes
    2. The protagonist jumps at the call. She wants to be a non-corrupt cop, and find out who’s behind the rash of disappearances.
  4. Searching for the Plot
    1. The protagonist and her dual mentors speak with potential witnesses, gather evidence, and follow up clues. Standard mystery novel stuff.
    2. I liked the inclusion of the ‘bad mother’ storyline at this point. In short, Beka has to intervene when a woman attempts to murder her own husband and children. The author does not shy away from showing the underbelly of humanity (of either the criminals or the cops). Beka having to go to court to testify about the bad mother was a good detail which added a lot to the realism of Beka’s story.
    3. I also like how the solving of the mystery wasn’t treated as a Sherlock Holmesian ‘ultra genius solving the problem with a glance,’ but required a ton of effort. For example, Beka following up on three years worth of the Shadow Snake’s crimes was a lot of effort, but it paid off.
  5. Finding the Plot, For Better or For Worse
    1. Beka and Co. learn about the fire opals, the Shadow Snake gang and the (now eighteen) ghosts haunting Beka.
    2. Even worse, the husband of the ‘bad mother’ Beka but in jail got a job as an opal miner with the opal mining gang who murdered eighteen miners. If she doesn’t catch the jewelry gang in time he’ll die- leaving the children homeless, penniless and doomed to slavery.
    3. This is an excellent weaving in of a B Plot back into the A Plot. Beka feels responsible for the probably doomed husband and children, moreso now than even after locking up their crazy wife/mother. This ups the stakes in a holistic fashion, and drives home Beka’s empathy.
  6. Success!
    1. Beka and Co. track down the opal mine. They get ready to invade, preparing a knightly strike team to get inside before the hostages can be killed.
    2. Also, Beka sleuths out who the Shadow Snake is, thanks to her hard work. He kills himself before he can be arrested.
  7. The Climax
    1. Beka and Co. save the opal miners and reunite the family.
    2. When word gets out that the gang boss killed over twenty people, there’s a riot. The heroes stop the riot, but they fail to save the gang boss. (The gang boss is related to Beka’s friend who lost her son, whose death was the inciting incident for this plot.)
    3. Beka goes to tell the mother of the Shadow Snake that her son is dead.
      1. The Shadow Snake’s mother helped raise Beka after her own mother died, and appeared a couple times before this in the plot.
      1. Surprise! Beka figures out that her pseudo-adoptive mother was the real Shadow Snake all along, using her son as a hit-man! Great twist, I didn’t see it coming, but the clues were all there.
  8. Denouement/How the Characters have Changed
    1. Beka reunites with her estranged family after she earns a name for herself. She’s earned the respect of her sisters after saving the opal miners and stopping the Shadow Snake.
    2. I would have liked a bit more of a denouement, but I always say that.

Coming away from this analysis, I can say this book is excellently structured, but poorly paced. The book was ~600 pages, which is an acceptable length for a fantasy novel… but in the mystery or thriller genres that’s 100-200 pages too long. Fantasy books are expected to wander about a bit more than books of other genres, so I suppose the difference are the expectations the reader heads into this book with.

So, what to expect if you read this book: if you want a fast, breezy mystery of the modern style, this isn’t that. But if you want a slow-building mystery which focuses more on character relationships, set in a fantasy setting, you will not be disappointed. Adjust your expectations, and enjoy what you read.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I liked the plot. The combination of Rogue’s politics, murder and corruption made for a tense and suspenseful plot. The longer the story went on, the more clear it became that the status quo couldn’t last and something had to break. As I said previously, the ‘child kidnapping’ aspect of the Shadow Snake really kept the stakes and tension high, as did the mass murdering aspect of the jewelry gang.

I liked how Beka lived in fear of waking up in the morning and being haunted by more ghosts than the day before; that fear added tension to the plot, a ticking-time-bomb sense that things are only going to get worse and worse if she doesn’t do something.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

This book had a theme of motherhood. Beka’s own mother was dead for the events of this story, but she was a constantly referenced character throughout the book. Beka’s friend is a mother grieving for her lost child. The Shadow Snake was a mother-and-son criminal gang. Beka arrested a crazy mother who was trying to murder her own children. Beka’s noble adoptive mother has a standoffish relationship with Beka, due to Beka not being feminine. Beka was able to reconcile with her adoptive mother at the end of the novel because she was able to impress her with her sleuthing skills.

The book’s tone was mildly dark, but not gristly. The ghosts of dead characters regularly show up, and there was one particularly upsetting scene where the ghost of a dead son was able to speak with his mother through Beka. I only remember one scene like that, but I think some people might not want to read that. This is not dark enough to be called grimdark.

The author’s prose was unexceptional. As this is an epistolary book, this book is told in the first person. The author’s narrative voice was Beka’s narrative voice. Was this book high art? No. But Beka’s narrative voice had a grounded quality which added weight to the story overall.

And finally, I’ll state the obvious. This is a Tamora Pierce book, so this has a subtle theme of female empowerment. In Tortall, women and men are equally capable, but their society is mildly patriarchal. Beka has role models who are have stereotypical masculine jobs (for example, there are several women ‘dogs’), but she also has role models who have stereotypical feminine jobs (her adoptive noble mother).

I give the Authorial Voice: (B+)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I liked the setting and worldbuilding. It was a standard Medieval European Fantasy setting, but told from the perspective of a cop walking the most dangerous streets, constantly having to be watching their own back. If you’ve read the other Tortall books, I found this book a good contrast to those, showing the seedy underbelly of that (sometimes) bright and shiny world.

Was the setting original? No. Tortall has A LOT of classic fantasy tropes. The book didn’t explore any new and interesting mythologies. But this book treated the classic tropes with respect, and it didn’t talk down to the reader.

I give the Setting: (B)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The audiobook narrator did good, giving different characters different accents based on their geographic, ethnographic and wealth origin points. It was good.

I give the Audiobook: (A)


LESSONS LEARNED

I liked to learn lessons from the books I read, to make myself a better author.

  • When writing a mystery story, do the hard work of showing the characters following up clues and evidence.
  • Establish strong relationships between the protagonist and their surrounding characters, both their allies, enemies and side characters.
  • Own your style. Tamora Pierce is a good author in part because she honors her tropes so well.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • I think the target audience are teenagers, but I think the plot stands up well enough on it’s own that adults can read it too.
  • Or mystery fans, who want to read a slower mystery thriller set in a fantasy setting.

SUMMARY

Good book. It has a fantastic plot based on solid mysteries. The characters need some more spice, but they were nonetheless fun to read. Give it a go if you want to read a coming-of-age mystery story. It’s targeted at teens, but as an adult I found it fun and a bit deep.


STARS: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

Overall Rating: Recommended (How I Rate Books)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, YA, Adventure, Mystery, High Fantasy, Tortall, Beka Cooper

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


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A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion

A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter

A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series

A Review of ‘Blue Moon Rising’ by Simon Green

A Review of ‘Light of The Jedi’ by Charles Soule

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