Beka Cooper: Terrier, by Tamora Pierce (Random House, 2006)

[image_name]Nearly two centuries before Alanna the Lioness broke all the rules to become a lady knight and a legend, the land of Tortall looked to different heroes to keep them safe. Heroes such as Beka Cooper, of the Provost’s Guard. But before she became a hero, Beka started out, quite simply, as a Puppy, an inexperienced trainee partnered to two of the senior Guards, more commonly known as Dogs.

As a Puppy, Beka is expected to keep her mouth shut and her eyes open, learning everything she can from the highly-respected team of Goodwin and Tunstall, who are among the very best Guards in service, especially in the dangerous Lower City. It’s not an easy duty; half the Puppies who train in the Lower City die or quit within four months. But for Beka, the Lower City is home, where she was born and bred, and where she’s most comfortable, and now it’s the place to which she’ll bring justice. If she survives. Luckily, she’s got some excellent friends on her side, including a mysterious cat of possibly-divine origins, and a few magical gifts up her sleeve. Beka can hear the voices of the dead, as carried by the omnipresent pigeons of the city… and right now, the voices are whispering tales of murder.

The most hectic, exciting, and dangerous time of Beka’s young life is about to begin. On the one hand, someone is secretly hiring people for a covert project, and killing them for their silence. On the other, a person known only as the Shadow Snake is kidnapping children and holding them ransom for what little valuables can be found in the Lower City. As Beka and her mentors attempt to unravel these two very nasty plots, they’ll challenge the most powerful people in the underworld, and risk death on a daily basis. But will they be in time to solve the mysteries, or will more people die?

Terrier is the first part of a new trilogy that explores the land of Tortall, a century and a half before the Lioness quartet which originally introduced it. But instead of courtly intrigue and knightly challenges, this time we get to explore the setting from a street-level perspective, as the relatively new organization of the Provost’s Guard (the Dogs) continues to puzzle out its role in society. This is a time when justice is fast and loose, crime is rampant, and in many ways it’s every man for itself. And therein lies the fascinating sliding scale of morality that runs through the thread of the story. A heavy portion of the Dogs’ pay comes in the form of bribes, and it’s considered perfectly natural to accept a little extra now and again to look the other way, especially if the crime doesn’t warrant the effort of arrest and trial. And not only that, but there’s a certain acceptance that the Rogue, king of the thieves, will police his own people (in turn paying bribes to the Dogs to keep a certain peace going). In this way, the story reminds me much of Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher series, which also has to do with some (mostly) honest guards in a city riddled with crime, both mundane and magical. It’s easy to believe in the setting, which is presented in an honestly down-and-dirty fashion without wading too deep in the muck.

Confession time. Even though I’m literally twice Beka’s age, the teenage part of me (that same part which has in the past fallen for Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, Talia of the Queen’s Own, and a certain Alanna) is totally crushing on her. What’s not to like? Beka Cooper is strong, fast, fierce, loyal, good-hearted, and intelligent. She’s the sort of heroine you definitely want watching your back when things get messy, and she strikes me as a good friend in general. Best of all, she doesn’t fear, distrust, or bemoan her magical gifts like many of her literary peers seem to; she’s embraced her abilities and uses them to her best advantage. Make no bones about it, this is the sort of person who grows up to become a legend. Her one real character flaw — her self-proclaimed shyness and inability to speak in front of crowds and strangers — is present without being crippling or overly annoying. It’s refreshing to run into a teenage protagonist who doesn’t wallow in adolescent angst or throw temper tantrums, no matter how rough the going gets. If it wasn’t for her youthful idealism, energy, inexperience, and occasional lapse of judgment (Fishpuppy is a nickname that dogs her steps for quite some time), it’d be easy to think she grew up too fast. As it is, I eagerly anticipate the continuation of her story, and I hope the process doesn’t break her too badly. Beka’s already tied Aly from Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen as my favorite Tamora Pierce heroine.

Finally, no discussion of this book would be complete without mentioning the absolutely exquisite cover art by Jonathan Barkat. He captures Beka with such precision that I could just picture her leaping off the cover and into action. While I’ve seen a lot of really good covers, this is one of those rare few that truly impresses me. All in all, Terrier may be one of the must-read fantasies of the season.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

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