Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter

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Cover of "Tempests and Slaughter" by Tamora Pierce

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

Star rating: ★★★★

Usually, I avoid YA fiction like the plague; I’m too old and too cynical for the amount of angst that sloshes around. Tamora Pierce is one of the few exceptions. I still remember buying Alanna: The First Adventure second-hand from a market stall when I was a kid, leading to hunting for all the others – a difficult task, pre-internet. I’ve read her stuff multiple times since then and will probably continue to do so. I was therefore very happy when this one – the first new one in a while – came out.

And I read it in one sitting.

Pierce wrote Tempests and Slaughter to fill in the blanks of Numair Salmalin’s background – a character introduced in the book Wild Magic. Numair is a powerful mage, working for the government of Tortall after fleeing Carthak to avoid the wrath of the Emperor Ozorne – a plot point which becomes important later on in the Immortals quartet of books, when the action moves to Carthak (in Emperor Mage)Tempests and Slaughter is about Numair’s – when he was still Arram Draper – early years at Carthak University.

Since Pierce is very well able to write an adventure story in a ‘school’ setting – which she did well twice with protagonists Alanna (Alanna: The First Adventure) and Keladry (First Test, the first of the Protector of the Small quartet) I was expecting something of the same with Tempests and Slaughter.

I didn’t quite get it.

Tempests and Slaughter started with a lot of telling rather than showing; Arram is already a student at the University (at the age of ten) when the story opens, so there is a certain amount of catching up to do, involving rather a lot of exposition. The amount of telling reduces as the book progresses, but I never felt there was quite the close focus on events that there is in Alanna or First Test. This might be because Tempests suffers, I think, from a lack of actual plot.

In Alanna, although the book is the tale of Alanna’s four years as a page (disguised as a boy) in Tortall’s palace, it very much moves towards the climax of the book – the final fight scene where the immediate enemy is vanquished and the villain for the next book (In the Hand of the Goddess) is revealed. In First Test, the book chronicles Keladry’s first year as a page at the same palace – but she is the first openly female page, and is put under probation for a year. The ‘villain’ of the book is the training master who opposes girls being trained to fight – the climax is when Keladry finally proves her ability, and he has to admit that he has no grounds for preventing her carrying on with her training as a page.

Unlike Alanna and First Test, Tempests has no discrete story arc of its own. The trilogy as a whole tells the story of Arram’s relationship with the future Emperor Ozorne, from friendship to enmity, but that is not obvious during Tempests: Arram and Ozorne begin the book as friends (or at least, they meet and become friends shortly after the start of the book) and they are still friends at the end. There are hints that some plot is in motion, but nothing is resolved by the end of the book. A person who isn’t already invested in the characters and the world is likely to be left thinking, “What was the point of all that?” Yes, it’s a nice story about three young people at a magic school – but where’s the villain? Where’s the danger? Where’s the story?

I think Tempests suffers from being a book that only exists to tell people how a character got to be where he was in another – previously published – book. And although the final result is going to be a big confrontation with attendant danger and excitement, what Tempests is doing is pure setup. In a way, Tempests is not a story itself – it’s one-third of a story.

Of course, it’s usual for a trilogy to have an overarching plot which only pays off at the end of the last book, but it’s also usual for each book to have its own storyline that comes to some sort of climax and conclusion at the end of each book – as Pierce did with her previous duologies/trilogies/quartets. Each of her previous novels has functioned very well as a standalone story – except Tempests. It makes me wonder why not.

Character-wise, you can see how the three main characters ended up where they did in Emperor Mage. I liked Varice more than I expected to, and I hope she gets developed more in Book 2. When we see Varice in Emperor Mage, she doesn’t show to particular advantage (although that might be due to point of view), and it was interesting to see how Pierce has written people’s attitude to Varice – she isn’t taken seriously not because she is female (there are plenty of powerful female characters) but because her magic is dismissed as ‘kitchen witchery’ and therefore less important/powerful. After reading Tempest and Slaughter, the one character I’d like to see more of is Varice. This book makes me wonder what she did after the events of Emperor Mage

Ozorne was less interesting, as we pretty much knew what was going to happen with him, and we know where he’s going to go. However, Pierce seems to be managing the move from Ozorne as he is at the beginning of Tempests and Slaughter to where he is when we meet him in Emperor Mage. We know what has to happen, of course, but it’s not an easy character development to write convincingly.

In some ways, Arram/Numair was the least interesting in the way of character development – he’s a nice kid, and he stays a nice kid throughout the book. To some extent, Varice and Ozorne both have more to put up with than Arram in this book – Varice with the mild disdain she endures from others, and Ozorne with the changes in his status – so they change more. Arram has no real challenges, and he’s also younger than the other two and a bit of a follower – I suspect that the real development will come in Book 2, as he has to make difficult choices.

So, to conclude: this is a book for existing fans who have already read at least The Immortals Quartet (starting with Wild Magic) and want to know how Arram Draper became Numair Salmalin. As a story, it relies on the reader’s interest in the characters rather than plot – and a lesser writer than Pierce couldn’t have pulled it off. Four stars for pulling it off!

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