This young-adult fantasy novel begins the story of Daine, a 12-year-old girl with no family and an astounding ability to communicate with animals. Daine finds herself drawn into earth-shaking events as her communication skills become needed to help defend the country of Tortall against invaders from across the sea, as well as the evil Immortals, foul creatures who have escaped from captivity to threaten the land.
In spite of Tamora Pierce’s cult status among YA authors, I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of this book. The writing is tolerable, but by no means classic. The characters are barely beyond flat and the plot is simple, with much of the content clichéd. The messages in particular were pretty dull — girl power; animals-are-people-too; egalitarianism. Not that the author comes across as an extremist, but even if you think these ideas are acceptable in moderate form, they’re so ubiquitous! I’ve heard it all a million times before.
And the magic was so clichéd, too. In Daine’s world, there are different types of magic, all of which are ‘gifts’ to certain people. These powers manifest themselves invariably in cool fireballs of different colors. Also, as authors who use this sort of magic in their books often do, Pierce avoids defining the limits of the various powers with any sort of consistency, so if it’s convenient for the plot, the characters can probably do it with their special powers; otherwise, their powers are mysteriously insufficient for the task.
The magic isn’t particularly spiritual in source, it seems, although the world in which the story is set has some sort of religion (including, it seems, an earth goddess). Also, the Immortals — nasty human-animal combinations of various types — are said to have lived with the gods in the immortal realms, until recently, when they were loosed upon the earth (for reasons probably to be explained in future books). Still, Pierce succumbs to yet another cliché in portraying magic as the New-Agey, meditative, ‘shut out all distractions and focus inside yourself’ sort of power. True, it’s mostly divorced from any apparent spiritual element (although portrayed vaguely enough that I’m not sure of that), but it’s similar to a lot of modern occult mysticism. Plus, it’s just plain cheesy.