Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Smacking Down Imperialism and Staying Classy? Please! (Tricksters)

Today let's talk about two books, Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen, both by Tamora Pierce. Why are we talking about them? Well, first off, they're by Tamora Pierce and therefore fabulous, so we were going to get to them eventually in my ongoing quest to read every Tamora Pierce book and then enthuse about it on the internet. (That's what I've been doing, in case it wasn't very, very clear.)

But the real reason that these books are worth talking about is actually more complex than that, and it has to do with the subject matter of the story. Because it's kind of intense. And also awesome. Intensely awesome.

What is this awesome and intense stuff in the story? Well, the book portends to be about Alianne of Pirate's Swoop (Alanna's daughter) finding her place in the world and having an adventure and swordfights and battles and all that jazz. But it's actually about revolution, institutionalized oppression and racism, and how to deal with an imperialist regime with the minimal bloodshed and turmoil. And all of that is stuff that makes me deeply happy.

Like I said, though, you have to get a little bit into the book before you realize that's what it's about. This is because, like any smart person, Pierce hides her blistering social commentary well, like a pill under the mashed potatoes, and you end up being so swept up in the fun of the story that before you know it, bang! You just learned a thing.

It starts out with Alianne, or Aly as she prefers to be called, just chilling at home with her father, George, and waiting for her mother to come home from the war. Aly and her mother have a tough relationship (which was a brilliant stroke, actually, to show that the ever perfect Alanna really is hard to live with, even for her own kids), because Alanna so desperately wants Aly to figure out what's she doing with her life. Aly, meanwhile, just wants to have fun, flirt with boys, and learn how to be a spy like her father. Her parents are understandably against this last bit, since having a spy whose parents are the Master Spymaster of Tortall and the King's Champion of Tortall, and whose godparents include a king and a half-goddess might be the world's worst idea.

Aly, wanting to avoid confrontation, decides that now is a great time to pop down the coast for a visit. One problem: her ship gets nabbed by pirates and faster than you can say "bad life choices", Aly, arguably one of the most important kids in Tortall, has been sold into slavery.

The ship drags her off to the Copper Isles, or what passes for this world's version of India. There, Aly contrives to make herself ugly enough not to be sold for pleasure, and winds up being given away to the Balitang household. The Balitangs are actually quite nice to their slaves, and Aly does well there. She also keeps her ears open and learns lots of new things, like that the current king is sick, and that his probable heirs are all crazy or very young, that the locals really, really hate their overlords (which shouldn't be a surprise even a little bit), and that the family with which she's staying is suspiciously well positioned.

Suspiciously because it's a family that has ties to the luarin (white) royal family, but whose eldest two daughters (from the lord's first marriage) are half raka (not-white) as well. And as we quickly learn, this isn't an accident. The patron god of the islands, Kyprioth, has chosen now as the time for his power to rise again, and he's chosen Aly as his human servant on the ground to get it going. Partly because she's the best person for the job (her father is Tortall's spymaster, after all), and partly because it brings him glee to make the raka conspiracy led by a white girl.

The story pretty much takes off here, with Aly slowly gaining the raka conspiracy's trust, while she figures out precisely what is so important about this family - it's not much of a spoiler, that the lord's first wife was the last heir of the royal raka family, and so the two eldest daughters are royal on two sides, both luarin and raka royalty. Aly has to figure out how to navigate the dangerous political and racial tensions all around her, all while worrying about her family back home, and trying to stay alive as a slave in a country that doesn't treat its slaves all that well. It's a good book. They're both good books.

Like I said before, the story kind of grabs you before you can stop and realize that it's making you learn. Because you're just trundling along with Aly as she tries to survive, and slowly you start to learn things. Things about imperialism and racism and oppression, and how institutionalized oppression dehumanizes both sides and about the corrupting nature of power and all that messy stuff that you don't often hear about.

I mean, in books about revolutions, most of them take the tactic of tearing down the original society and then leaving it there. We're supposed to believe that it will be better now because it isn't the old corrupt system. Or, they go a step further, and show that now that the old system is gone, everything is peachy and wonderful. Maybe they get a little bit into the next steps of reconstruction and all that, but rarely does anyone address the realities of the situation.

That this has happened before. In real life. We don't have to go just to fiction to understand this situation, we can look at our own history. And while it's easy to compare this series to a fantasy exploration of British Imperialism in India and South Asia, I don't think that's the most accurate way of looking at it. I think these books are actually about South Africa instead.

Why do I think that? Well, Tricksters deals with institutionalized racism on a level not really seen in India. I mean, the situation there was messed up, there's no doubt of that, but it was a different kind of messed up, you know? The British occupied India for about one-hundred years before Indian independence, and the British never thought of themselves as Indian, not really. They were the British who lived in India, but they were always British, even if they lived their whole lives in India.

In South Africa, by contrast, the white occupation continued for hundreds of years, and only ended in my lifetime. The white South Africans considered themselves African, and with good reason. Their whole families were there, they were independent as a country, and they lives generations in this country. Which is why talking about the end of apartheid and South African segregation is a lot more complicated. And also why I love this series.

In the books, the luarin have been in the Copper Isles for close to five-hundred years, I think. A long time, at any rate. Long enough for them to assimilate to some extent, and for there to be a fair population of mixed race citizens. The sisters, Sarai and Dove, are the two best known examples of this, but the book alludes to others, and it only stands to reason that after so long, there would be a fairly large subsection that could claim heritage on both sides. What then should the revolution do? While it's explicit in its intent to end luarin-only rule of the islands, even their potential queens have luarin blood. Should they kill all the luarin and have raka rule? But then where do they draw the line?

It's messy and uncomfortable and a huge part of the books, for which I am immensely grateful. 

I'm not thankful just because this book has a predominantly non-white cast, a non-White Savior heroine (they could do it without her, she just makes the revolution easier), and a whole host of awesome female characters. Not just because there is no default race in the story, but everyone is identified as luarin or raka if the story demands and for not other reason - there is no default whiteness. I'm grateful not only because this book is fun and well-written and because the romance is one of my all time favorites, but also because this book, above all things, does not shy away from the messiness of revolution, and the very hard decisions that must be made.

I think part of it comes from choosing to have the protagonist be a spy, rather than a noble warrior, but this story isn't about high ideals or the noble desires to have freedom for all men, or even really about ideas at all. It's about the simple reality that the government is corrupt and racist and needs to be torn down, and how to do that in the most efficient, bloodless, and peaceful way possible. 

Noble ideas are all well and good. If you asked me ten years, ago, I might dislike this book because it so disdains them. But now, having seen how hard it is for idealism to conquer pragmatism, I quite like it. Because this is a book that completely concerns itself with enacting social change, but it does so without ever letting the issue become simple. It's a war, people will die, and they have to choose who and how many. It's not an easy book, and I'm grateful for that.

We need more hard books, especially when blind idealism becomes more appealing than sense. When pragmatism makes people call you cold and unfeeling. We need to remember that no issue can be described in 140 characters, and that there are always more avenues to discuss. There is a time for action, yes, but there is also a time for cold reason. And this series has both.

Plus, it's kind of really cool. So there's that.

by lauramw on deviantart

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