Old School Wednesdays Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month, for the inaugural Old School Wednesday Readalong, we’re discussing Terrier by Tamora Pierce!
For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review faire – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Author: Tamora Pierce
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: October 2006
Hardcover: 581 pages
Hundreds of years before Alanna first drew her sword in Tamora Pierce’s memorable debut, Alanna: The First Adventure, Tortall had a heroine named Beka Cooper – a fierce young woman who fights crime in a world of magic. This is the beginning of her story, her legend, and her legacy….
Beka Cooper is a rookie with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard, commonly known as “the Provost’s Dogs,” in Corus, the capital city of Tortall. To the surprise of both the veteran “Dogs” and her fellow “puppies,” Beka requests duty in the Lower City. The Lower City is a tough beat. But it’s also where Beka was born, and she’s comfortable there.
Beka gets her wish. She’s assigned to work with Mattes and Clary, famed veterans among the Provost’s Dogs. They’re tough, they’re capable, and they’re none too happy about the indignity of being saddled with a puppy for the first time in years. What they don’t know is that Beka has something unique to offer. Never much of a talker, Beka is a good listener. So good, in fact, that she hears things that Mattes and Clary never could – information that is passed in murmurs when flocks of pigeons gather … murmurs that are the words of the dead.
In this way, Beka learns of someone in the Lower City who has overturned the power structure of the underworld and is terrorizing its citizens into submission and silence. Beka’s magical listening talent is the only way for the Provost’s Dogs to find out the identity of this brutal new underlord, for the dead are beyond fear. And the ranks of the dead will be growing if the Dogs can’t stop a crime wave the likes of which has never been seen. Luckily for the people of the Lower City, the new puppy is a true terrier!
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Beka Cooper trilogy
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook and Print Book
REVIEW & DISCUSSION
I am a big Tamora Pierce fan. I fell in love with Tortall when I read the lioness quartet as a middle school kid, and have never looked back. So, when Terrier was selected as our inaugural OSW readalong title, I was thrilled – I’ve had a copy of Terrier on my TBR for ages now (signed by Tamora Pierce, too!), and could not wait to dive in.
And…for me, Terrier is a mixed bag. There were things I loved about this book, very much – the character of Beka, her shyness and earnestness, her cat Pounce, and the worldbuilding of the Lower City all immediately come to mind. That said, there was plenty that I also found wanting – the unnecessary length of the book, the level of repetition without action, the loosely executed plot, and the distance between reader and characters (other than Beka) all were taxing to read.
This is where I lose all of my street cred with our readers: I read the first two Alanna books only a couple of years ago and to be honest…wasn’t hugely impressed. I know, I know. Although I can see why folks would love the books, I just didn’t connect with the writing. I was happy when Terrier was selected because it would give me another shot at a Tamora Pierce book.
And you know…I liked Terrier just fine but wasn’t head over heels in love with it either. I actually thought this was an extremely bloated book with small flashes of brilliance and which, at the end of the day, proved to be more of a chore rather than a pleasure to read.
1. Let’s talk Worldbuilding – for Pierce fans, Tortall is a familiar setting, although Beka Cooper’s particular corner of this world is unique and detailed. What did you like about the Lower City and its inhabitants, its magic, and its brutality?
Thea: The worldbuilding in Terrier was a high point for me – I love the setting of the Lower City, its blend of offhand violence, and the integration of magic in a way that feels natural and never gratuitous. I love that while there are mages, Beka’s own abilities are not flashy – she has a way to communicate with creatures (pigeons whose “riders” are ghosts, her cat Pounce), but cannot shoot magic out of her fingertips or anything quite so impressive or flashy. It’s very interesting to learn about Tortall through Beka’s eyes (via her journal, as this is an epistolary novel), and I think Tamora Pierce does a very good job of setting the stage for Beka’s adventures. This version of Tortall is one where law enforcers and thieves must figure out a way to coexist, and where female characters aren’t frowned upon or presumed weak.
Most of all, I love the idea of Dogs as a type of police force that works the city, that are generally respected by the population, and the danger and respect that comes with being a Dog (or a Puppy trainee).
Ana: Two aspects stood out for me. One is the way that female characters are written in the novel, the way that women do police work just as much as men and their roles in the military is not frowned up. This is really cool considering how often when we talk about women in military in real life or even in books (the recent The Cadet of Tildor comes to mind), we always seem to focus on the physical side of the work and how women are not cut out for it. I liked that this was simply a non-issue in this book.
The other is the shades-of-gray, not black-and-white work that the Dogs do and how malleable (even accepting bribes sometimes) they are when treating criminals but without ever crossing certain lines. Although we could certainly discuss how this malleability invites potential problems.
2. As a heroine, how does Beka stack up? Love her? Hate her? Need more time for her to grow on you?
Thea: I really loved Beka; there’s a great combination of vulnerability and strength in her character that is deeply endearing. When we first learn about Beka in the prologue, I was a little nervous that she would be portrayed as the Best Freakin’ Fighter/Dog-in-Training in the UNIVERSE (seeing as she brought down a powerful cove and his gang at the ripe age of eight, after he wronged her mother). And, while Beka is undeniably skilled as a Puppy – perhaps much more so than her peers – she’s not infallible, and she has a lot to learn from her mentors. I mean, that fishpuppy incident! I was cringing and blushing for the poor Pup!
Also, I’ve mentioned it before but it bodes mentioning again: I love that Beka’s particular brand of magical ability is an ability to communicate with animals, which she uses to do her job. I love her dedication to her work, her desire to do right by her family and by her guardian (of sorts), and the need to advance without relying on the connection she has with the Lord Provost of Tortall.
Finally, there’s also the issue of Beka’s deep, at times debilitating shyness in front of other people. I don’t think that Terrier necessarily needed to be an epistolary novel, but I do love the way that it affords us a limited look in Beka’s head, and how incredibly shy she is in front of others (and how much she struggles with that shyness).
Ana: I don’t know…I liked Beka to an extent, especially her dedication and belief in the work the Dogs do. But I don’t think the writing was top notch here – the repetitious nature of the novel, the tell-not-show really grated after a while. For example: we are constantly, constantly told how shy and friendless Beka was – but was she really any of those things? Apart from fear of speaking in public and with her Dogs to start with, she had loads of friends, had no problem doing her job and communicating well with folks.
I’d say I need more time for her to grown on me expect: I am not that willing to give these books more time. God, I am sounding like such a party pooper.
3. How about other favorite characters, as Terrier has a broad cast, including one of the most formidable (and badass) pairs of Dogs in Tortall, Clara “Clary” Goodwin and Matthias “Mattes” Tunstall, a trio of charismatic thieves, other puppies, and animals?
Ana: I LOVED Goodwin, such a cool, badass character. I also liked the Knight Sabine but other than that, the writing format didn’t ingratiate most of the characters to me. I didn’t feel specially connected to anybody here and I most certainly DID NOT see chemistry between Beka and Rosto. Please tell me I am not the only one. I suspect he is supposed to be a Loveable Rogue but he just flew completely under my Hotness Radar.
Thea: I really, really loved Clary Goodwin with her badassness and her abrasive attitude and Mattes Tunstall and his more… considered approach to his job and good nature. The interplay between Beka and her training pair of Dogs is a tense relationship at first, but gradually becomes one of mutual respect and friendship as Beka pulls her weight and shows her Dogs that she is no ordinary Puppy. The other character that I loved was Pounce! (Who I believe is a familiar cat from the Alanna books, if memory serves me correctly?)
That said…I do feel like there was a huge disconnect from any of the other characters in the book. I agree with Ana that I didn’t really feel the love between Beka and Rosto, and even Rosto’s two other crewmates Aniki and Kora (who I wanted to love) came off as distant to me. Perhaps this is because of the format of the narrative, which is immediately distancing for all characters except for Beka (and her two Dogs as she writes so tirelessly about them and her training). In any case, I really wanted to love Rosto – heck, he’s this generation’s George (and yes, I loved George for Alanna much more so than Jonathan). Unfortunately, the magic just wasn’t there.
4. The book is written in epistolary format – what did you think of the narrative choice and did you think this was done well?
Ana: This is probably my biggest problem with the novel. I am a HUGE fan of epistolary novels – when they work. Terrier is written as a journal in theory so that Beka can train her observation skills and her memory by writing down everything that happens to her in her first week as a Puppy. The question here is that she writes down EVERY SINGLE DETAIL and this just slows down the story. In a way it makes sense because she is doing exactly what she sets out to do as part of her job but I question this narrative choice here as it just adds so much unnecessary stuff to this novel. And it’s not even the fun kind of epistolary novel either – the kind that plays a “gotcha” or is unreliable because by nature, Beka is the most reliable person there is. The only unreliable thing about her narrative is when she writes about her (in denial) feelings for Rosto.
Thea: It pains me to say it, but I agree with Ana. The epistolary format is not one of my favorites to begin with, but when it is done well, I can’t argue with it. In Terrier, the narrative choice works against the story and the characters. On the one hand, Tamora Pierce does an awesome job of giving Beka a strong, distinct voice and the premise behind the epistolary format (Beka’s need to train her mind and hone her observation skills, not to mention her writing and recounting skills) is solid. On the other hand, the effect is incredibly repetitive, over-long, and frustrating because Beka recounts her experiences through a more clinical and detail-oriented eye that creates a distancing effect from any other characters. I’m sure others will have different opinions, but for me, the narrative choice was a miss.
5. The plot is sprawling, but focuses (sort of) on two main conflicts: the kidnapping and murder of children in the Lower City by the Shadow Snake, and the appearance of rare and precious fire opals (and the murder of the diggers that find them). What did you think of the plot, overall?
Ana: OK, I am just going to put this out there: you know how Beka is surrounded by supposedly awesome and good-at-their-job Dogs? So WHY then is she the ONLY ONE who actually cares about what is going on? I know that she has the special magic power that allows her get information but surely these Dogs have relied on their skills for years and years? So I was not overly involved in the plot – and I do think it took forever to get there – I saw who the villain was from a mile ahead.
Thea: Hmm. This is a tough one. I liked the idea behind the plot and the dual/intertwined mysteries of the Shadow Snake and the mysterious appearance of the fire opals and digger deaths. That said, the actual execution of these conficts/mysteries was clumsy and scattered, largely because the book is so unnecessarily long. I appreciate Tamora Pierce’s eye for realism with her focus on the minutia of the daily life of a Dog, but I really do wish more time was devoted to Beka and her cohorts solving these mysteries, instead of the incessant repetition of waking up for breakfast with some light flirting followed by the nightly patrol of the Lower City, getting beaten up, and going to the same tavern for dinner. There was an odd fixation with food in this book (stale bread, ale/mead, dry chicken, and so on and so forth).
6. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you crazy about? And, most importantly, will you continue with the series?
Ana: I loved the gender treatment in the novel and its female characters including Beka. I wasn’t crazy about…well, everything else. I think this one was a dud for me, folks, what a shame to start our readalong like this but I don’t think I want to continue with the series.
Thea: Beka is my favorite part of this book, hands down. I loved her character, I loved her interactions with her training Dogs, and also I am a sucker for Pounce. I was NOT crazy about the repetition and bloat to the story, which felt like it could have easily been trimmed down by a couple hundred pages. That criticism said, I enjoyed the book overall and would like to give the next two books a chance… eventually.
Ana: 5 – Meh
Thea: 6 – Good
May Readalong: We will be reading The Naming by Alison Croggon for our next readalong on May 22.
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!