I’m reading Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens books, after seeing them recommended several times as feminist fantasy. And there are so many things to love about them.
The protagonists are four children, each of them have had difficult childhoods before they are brought together and tutored in the magic each possesses. Briar is the only boy, and he was a street urchin and thief. Sandry is a noble, Tris is from a merchant family, Daja is a trader (lower class than the others, and an outcast even among traders). All of them are orphans or have been abandoned by their families. Dana is black and Briar, I think, is brown. So you can see, the books score high on diversity.
But there’s more to it than that. Briar often makes sexist comments (on the lines of girls can’t stop talking for example), and the book mocks him for it. Tris is fat, and it’s explicit that those who mock her size or tell her to lose weight are wrong. She also wears spectacles, and is careless of her appearance, and is not criticized for it (although Sandry does get the creases out of her dress).
The book’s world has, for lack of a better shorthand ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ schools of magic. In our heroes’ city and even in their cottage, the kind of magic that’s practised is based on intuition and introspection rather than formal study, and is centered on everyday objects and concerns: plants, weather, metal, and thread and cloth. In the only university of magic mentioned so far, the learning is more standardized, on the lines of a regular university.
Classism is also called out explicitly. Through Briar’s eyes we see what it is to be poor and desperate; and when the plague hits in book 4, it hits the poorest first, those who make their homes in the city’s underground sewers.
I found it very comforting that after the kids reach their new home, they are truly safe. They have all escaped abusive environments; but unlike, say, the Harry Potter books, their new guardians and mentors treat them kindly and with affection. The adult everyone seems afraid of, Rosethorn, is just introverted and prickly, not cruel. The grand mage Niko, who has all the trappings of class and power, lets his student answer him rudely when he apologizes for neglecting her (because of a disaster that he has to try and protect the city against), and merely apologizes again. The children are rarely punished, rarely even spoken harshly too, and they thrive in this new environment.
I found book 4 difficult to read, because disease seems somehow nearer to home than earthquake or storm. But it was also the most interesting, perhaps for having more of a plot. The others meander around a bit as books about boarding schools tended to do, focusing mainly on the children’s friendships and learning, and throwing in a climactic disaster that needs to be countered or recovered from. But since the characters are interesting, I didn’t mind this much.
But one of my favorite bits is in the first book, when the kids get into a street fight.
I won’t tell you more — read these. And if you have, let me know what you thought of them.