Today I read Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce, the third book in the Circle Reforged series. It follows The Will of the Empress and to a greater degree Melting Stones. This series follows Pierce’s Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets.
Plant mage Briar Moss, his teacher Dedicate Rosethorn, and his student Evumeimei Dingzai are still traveling the world, learning about exotic plants and seeing far-off gardens. While in the peaceful land of Gyongxe, they receive a personal invitation from the warlike Emperor of nearby Yanjing to see his gardens. They dare not refuse and offend so powerful a monarch, and his gardens are known throughout the civilized world. While there, they soon learn that perfection comes at a price- the eradication of everything and everyone who dares to defy his slightest whim, even a diseased plant that Briar and Rosethorn cure.
Soon Briar and his family are caught up in a terrible war, trying to stop Emperor Weishu from invading Gyongxe, where the gods are closer to the world than anywhere else. They will all suffer much in the name of protecting the innocent.
Tamora Pierce is one of my favourite authors, and has been for about two decades. I remember being in elementary school and walking to the bookmobile to ask for her Song of the Lioness books starting with Alanna: The First Adventure. I’ve met her twice at book signings and she’s been lovely. Which is why it disappoints me to say that this is my least favourite book by her. It feels rushed and crowded, like she’s trying to cram two books into one.
I’ve read her wars before, and she’s always built it up, let you spend time with the characters and learn to care about them, and even with the characters you know you spend time learning how they react in a war situation. You reach the climax and spend the time on that, and then learn about the aftermath. It was always satisfying before. Now, Briar and Rosethorn and Evvy spend all their time rushing around and things happen and then more things happen and then more things happen and there’s never time to process for the reader, and we skim through the character processing. It doesn’t help that at one point they go on different quests and we keep switching between the three different points of view too rapidly.
Another big problem is the character of Parahan, a long-lost prince who is the slave of Emperor Weishu when we meet him. Parahan is a complete Marty Sue. We rush straight over Briar et al. getting to know him and we the reader are just told that he’s a great guy and that they’re all the best of friends. He’s a great warrior, betrayed by his uncle and sold into slavery so the wicked uncle can take power; has a beautiful warrior princess of a twin sister who flirts with Briar; he’s smart, strong, kind; and he needs to be rescued by Evvy and Briar to kick-start the Emperor being furious with them. It’s annoying and unlike any other character that Pierce has written before. Even Liam the Shang Dragon in Lioness Rampant, introduced as a great warrior to help save the kingdom, instruct Alanna in a new fighting art, and give her a third romantic prospect was a better-rounded character than Parahan. Frankly, he’s annoying, and he keeps. showing. up.
I’m disappointed because I love Tamora Pierce’s work, and she’s a brilliant writer, and this just isn’t her best work. I expect more from her, because she’s carefully trained me as a reader over many years and many books to expect something wonderful, and this time I just don’t think I got it. But I’ll keep the faith and wait for her next book, but I’ll probably read the others in the meantime instead of reading Battle Magic again.
“Eons ago all the Gyongxin flatland was a sea,” murmured the God-King. Slowly he straightened. His pen fell from his hand. “Then the Drimbakang mountain gods were born. They shoved their molten bodies up against the shore and dragged the Realms of the Sun with them.” He said it as if chanting an ancient tale, half awake, half sleeping.
Briar tried not to shiver. It felt as if every hair on his body were standing.
The God-King continued in that unearthly voice. “Higher they drove the shores and the sea. Greater they grew, the youngest gods, clawing at the sky, rising toward the Sun and the Moon and the Stars. When they could grow no more, when they stood taller than any other mountain gods, the sea drained away between them, seeking its ocean mother. The immense shoreline forests of palm, cactus, and fern withered. Only firs, spruces, larches, junipers, and hemlocks thrive here, and rarely on the open plateau. Here the gods see everything. Gyongxe has nowhere to hide from the gods of this world.” He slumped. Briar was almost afraid to breathe until the younger boy blinked and straightened. Rubbing the back of his neck he looked at Briar sheepishly. “Did I go off? They never give me any warning, you know. I’ve told them and told them that it frightens people when they grab me, but gods and spirits don’t really understand fear.”
“Do they do that to you often?” Briar whispered, goose bumps rippling all across his skin.
“Often enough. The land is crowded with them, what with one thing and another, and I can never tell when one of them will work through me.”
Parahan released him with a sigh. “I am only envious,” he confessed. “Had I been a mage of your skills, instead of a spoiled warrior prince, I might have stopped my uncle from selling me to the emperor. You were wondering about my attire.” He shook his wrists, making his chains jingle.
This interested Rosethorn. “Your uncle sold you?”
Parahan grinned, displaying strong white teeth. “You should pity him. I know he would much rather have killed me so he would be sure to inherit my father’s throne someday. Sadly my uncle did not dare to do so.” Parahan looked out over the field. The horsemen were forming in brigades to either side of the great field. “In Kombanpur — where I come from, one of the Realms of the Sun — it is very bad luck to kill a twin. I have the good fortune to be one such, with my sister Soudamini. Actually I am not certain if my uncle believes in bad luck in general, or if he simply knows what would happen if Souda learned I was dead by his hand.” He winked one large brown eye at Evvy. “I’m the easygoing one. Souda is the battle cat.”
She felt the ailing rosebush before she saw it. Immediately she and Briar stepped off the path. They’d just reached it — only a single branch showed brown and wilted blooms — when they heard Weishu thunder, “What is this?”
They stared at him as courtiers and mages fell to their knees and bowed until their foreheads touched the stone flags of the path. Six gardeners, who had been hanging back among the roses, ran forward to drop to the ground before Weishu and do the same. Briar looked at Rosethorn, waiting for instructions. She clasped her hands and watched the emperor, letting her power trickle gently into the ailing plant all the while. She could feel the touch of the wetlands fungus that had gotten into the roots and was eating it.
“What manner of care do you give our roses?” the emperor demanded. “How is it that we find an imperfect one on the very day we bring important nanshurs, greatnanshurs who know much about plants, to view them? You will be beaten until your backs run red! Head gardener!”
One of them looked up from the ground. He was trembling.
“Remove this wretched bush and burn it. Replace it with another that does not offend our eye,” Weishu ordered.
Rosethorn had heard enough. When the poor head gardener touched his forehead to the ground once more, she gave a slight bow. “If I may, Your Imperial Majesty?” she asked. The emperor nodded and she said, “There is no need to uproot this plant. It’s been attacked by a mold native to these lands, a fast-growing one. I can tell this damage happened overnight, and we are here quite early. How could your gardeners have known?”
Weishu looked down his nose at her. “It was their duty to know.”
Rosethorn tucked her hands inside the sleeves of her robe so he would not see she had clenched them into fists. Of all the silly replies! “Your Imperial Majesty, as a gardener you know how delicate roses can be, particularly out of their native climate. This province is lush and green most of the year, I am told, and very damp. The homelands of the rose are in the southern and eastern parts of the Pebbled Sea — dry lands. And like most things that are transplanted here, they grow ferociously fast. In growing fast, this rose helped the fungus grow.”
“The bush is fine now, Your Imperial Majesty,” Briar said, taking over smoothly. Rosethorn knew he must have seen she was struggling with her temper. She should not have to explain this to someone like the emperor, who claimed to know about gardening.
Briar gestured to the plant like a showman. It was green and glossy everywhere, the blooms a perfect red. “Healthy as ever. Healthier, because Rosethorn made it resistant to your local molds, Your Imperial Majesty,” Briar announced. Rosethorn wound threads of her own power throughout the roots of all the plants in the garden to ensure just that as Briar added, “I’ll wager your gardeners must run mad, fighting mold.”
Without raising their heads, the gardeners nodded rapidly.
“Rosethorn and I can fix that while we’re here, Most Charitable and Wise Majesty,” Briar said.
Rosethorn refused to give him the fish-eye as she usually did when her boy laid things on too thick. No one else would notice; this was the way they normally addressed the emperor. To her Briar sounded like the flattering, thieving imp who had stolen his way into her garden and workroom five years ago.
Briar told the emperor, “We’ve got advantages these poor fellows don’t. It would be our pleasure to do this for you.”
He looks like he swallowed sour milk, Rosethorn thought, watching the emperor. Then he was the smooth, unreadable emperor again.
“You cannot fight these illnesses?” he asked the gardeners.
The head gardener did not look up. “No, Glorious Son of the Gods, Protector of the Empire, Imperial Majesty. It is as they say. The heat and the wet of these southern lands, that make so many things grow so fast, also produce much that preys upon the roots and leaves.”
The emperor looked at his mages. “And you? You cannot stop this?”
They looked at one another with alarm. “We do not know, Great Son of the Gods,” said one, many of whose thin beads were colored green. “I would have to make a study of such things for the space of months, perhaps years. My field of expertise, as you know, is that of medicines and potions that may benefit Your August Majesty. It is well known that when something causes a plant in the gardens to sicken, that plant is simply destroyed.”
“Your Imperial Majesty, I don’t understand,” Rosethorn said, forcing herself not to sound as impatient as she felt. “There are many Living Circle Earth dedicates here in Yanjing, mages and non-mages, who have studied plant diseases all their lives. You have only to summon them.” She had been surprised at first that none of the local dedicates had come to visit her, but the maids in their pavilion had explained it was considered rude to meet guests before the emperor had done so.
Weishu smiled. “We shall have our people make appropriate inquiries,” he replied. “The truth of the matter is that the priests of the Living Circle and the priests of the gods of Yanjing, of our state religion, do not fare well together. We fear that, should we invite priests of the Living Circle into our palace, the priests of our state religion would make trouble. It is better for our subjects to be peacefully guided by our priests, keeping harmony in our palace.”
Rosethorn gazed up at the emperor’s unreadably smooth face. His explanation was believable, but she did not trust it. She suggested politely, “Then, Your Imperial Majesty, for the sake of your gardeners and your plants, I recommend they speak to local farmers. They will know all about this sort of thing. Crossing them with local plants might strengthen the roots of your roses against common molds and funguses. It is something everyone could work on at your pleasure.”
“We could make a study of it ourself, given time,” Weishu replied with a smile. He looked at the gardeners. “Until Dedicate Initiate Rosethorn and Nanshur Briar find the leisure to return and see to the health of my roses, uproot that one and burn it.” He pointed to the bush that Rosethorn had saved.
She threw herself in front of it as the gardeners scrambled to their feet. “Imperial Majesty, why?” she demanded, shocked. “It’s healthy now — healthier than ever! There’s no reason to kill it!”
“There is every reason,” he told her. “It failed us at the moment of a test, when we came to show the splendor of our works to a foreign guest. Anything that does not present itself in glory and perfection betrays us and must be destroyed.”
“But you weren’t betrayed!” Rosethorn argued, thinking fast. What would satisfy this absolute ruler? “We have never seen such splendid gardens — have we, Briar?” He shook his head. He’d gone to her side and was keeping an eye on the gardeners. They had yet to notice the tiny green shoots sprouting through the dirt at their feet. She glanced hurriedly at Briar and then at the bits of green.
He closed his eyes briefly. The green sprouts shrank into the earth, seemingly before anyone noticed they were there.
“We’d like your permission to sketch the roses, because we won’t be able to describe them,” Rosethorn told Weishu quickly. “The king of Bihan will weep with envy when we tell him about your rose gardens and lily ponds. This plant didn’t fail you. If you approve, we can create a new color for you from its blooms. One that will breed true, that will be only yours forever.”
He hesitated. She had tempted him. “We would take it as a great favor indeed if you were to give us such a gift,” Weishu said with a broad smile. Then the smile vanished. Rosethorn hated the way these people had schooled themselves to hide their true feelings behind a blank face. “But the plant dies,” Weishu said. “A flaw is not to be tolerated.”
A gardener must have laid a gloved hand on the bush when Briar was distracted: Rosethorn heard the plant’s cry when the man gripped it hard. She couldn’t bear it. She would have felt the rosebush’s pain as she walked away. Throwing herself to her hands and knees, she did as the Yanjing people did and touched her forehead to the earth. All around her the ground quivered as roots and sprouts strained to break through.
“A favor, Imperial Majesty!” Rosethorn cried. The bushes trembled as Briar’s temper flared. She wrapped her power around him for a moment, squeezing his magic gently in hers as a reminder to Briar to exercise control. Slowly, reluctantly, she felt him relax. As he calmed, so did the roses, sprouts, and roots.
To the emperor Rosethorn said, “It is flawed and an embarrassment to you, with your eagle’s eye. But to a humble dedicate from a temple far away it would be an incredible gift. I beg of you, will you let me have it, in memory of my audiences with the great emperor of all Yanjing? It would be an honor beyond all words.”
Nothing seemed to move, not even the air. Finally the emperor said, “You truly believe this.”
“I truly believe this,” Rosethorn said in agreement.
After a long moment’s consideration, Weishu told Rosethorn, “This plant will be in your pavilion, with a suitable container, when you return there today. You will carry this thing all those miles home with you?”
Rosethorn straightened to her knees. “It would be my honor,” she replied. Her back had gone stiff on the ground; she struggled to get one leg up so she could stand. Briar lunged to help her. To the boy’s surprise and Rosethorn’s, the emperor himself grasped the arm that Briar did not. Gently they helped her to rise. Once she was on her feet, Briar let her go.
The emperor threaded Rosethorn’s arm through his. “Have you a thought as to the color and shape for our rose?” he asked. “Or is it too soon to inquire?”