art by Minuiko
Warning: This review includes minor spoilers regarding character development.
There are some book series that you discover when you’re young that help to form who you are. The characters become your friends and role models and parts of them slip into your personality as you face growing up and the associated challenges. Sadly, those books don’t always hold up under time and when you revisit them years after your first reading you can be disappointed by what you remembered as a great story with wonderfully fleshed-out characters.
The Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce holds up even after fourteen years.
I found my first Tamora Pierce novel (Sandry’s Book) in the school library when I was eight. The description on the back cover sounded interesting and at that age I read practically anything I could get my hands on, so I checked it out. I had no idea that it and the books that followed it would come to mean so much to me.
The core of the Circle of Magic series is the intense friendship between four children (who by the last book are full-fledged adults). They are all found in their respective states of abandonment by a mysterious man named Niko, who brings them all to a temple community called Winding Circle, where they end up in the care of two temple Dedicates named Lark and Rosethorn.
The first four books in the series of nine (plus two companion novels), focus on the kids learning to use their different types of magic. One has magic with thread, another with metalworking and fire, a third with weather, and the last with plants. While I unfortunately couldn’t relate to their experiences with magic, I could relate to their feelings of isolation, wanting to belong, friendship, and confusion as they grew up. The second four books (known as the Circle Opens quartet) separates the four into their own adventures as they all go traveling with their teachers and focuses on the challenges they experienced as they worked on forming their own identities away from the chosen family they had formed. That was much easier for me to relate to, especially as I got older.
The final book in the series, The Will of the Empress, is also my favorite. It takes all the development that the four have gone through and puts on the final touches to make them seem so beautifully real. After their separation from each other, the four are at odds because they don’t know how to be around each other after experiencing so many life-changing events while apart. Over the course of the book, they come back together as best friends/siblings in a way that is even better than before they had been separated.
Honestly, I could go on about these books forever, but the main thing that still gets me is the main characters and the amount of diversity that is written into each novel. Out of the main four characters and their four teachers, four are POC, at least two more are at least mixed race, and only the remaining two would be considered white. Five of those eight are women. Three are openly lesbian or bisexual and one is polysexual without being shamed.
Sandry is written as being incredibly rich and related to the rulers of at least two countries, but she very rarely uses that information to influence people. She is stubborn and headstrong, but is also incredibly loyal to people that she feels deserve her loyalty. She is one of the most powerful stitch-witch in the world and one of (if not the only) person able to weave pure magic. She helps care for her aging uncle (who happens to be the ruler of the country) and acts as his advisor.
One of the things I love most about her is that she is usually described as being a bit silly and lighthearted, but when she gets upset she becomes terrifying. She is the ultimate example of “Looks like a cinnamon roll, but could actually kill you.”
Daja is a large black girl who was kicked out of her culture for being the only survivor of a shipwreck (something thought to be bad luck). She is easily the least tempermental of the main four characters and is frequently the voice of sense. She is one of only two people with metalworking magic to be able to use their magic on every type of metal. She is described as having a large body frame and is celebrated for it through both her metalsmithing and her physical power. She also (spoiler alert!) survived pulling a forest fire through her body in order to put it out and save a caravan, created a type of living metal that could be used for prosthetic limbs, and despite being kicked out of her birth culture remained one of the most genuinely kind and forgiving people in the series. In Will of the Empress, she also realizes she is a lesbian and has the only shown romance in the entire series.
Of all the characters, Daja is the one with whom I most identify. It takes a lot to make her upset, she is the “mom-friend” of the group, and she has a bit of a struggle with her sexuality before coming to accept herself. She is steadier than I am, but I hope to someday reach her level of conviction.
Tris is an angry redhead who was passed around her family until no one else wanted her, and so they gave her away to be raised at a temple school. She is the most powerful weather witch in the world, and is also able to work magic in “normal” ways, through potions, spells, etc. Despite her awful childhood, underneath her hard exterior she is so, so kind. She takes in strays, both animal and human, like it’s going out of style and protects them from everyone who might hurt them in any way. She is described as heavier, but is never fat-shamed (except by bad characters). She is very temperamental at the beginning of the series, but by the end had learned to keep a better hold on her emotions. Even so, she is unafraid to speak her mind and refuses to be needlessly cruel to anyone. Because of her powers and skills, she is offered jobs in battle magic, but she turns them all down out of a refusal to kill anyone. She has a very clear view of right and wrong.
My favorite thing about Tris is her ability to come back from the bad things that have happened to her. She experiences some pretty traumatic things in her life, from being given away by her family to having to help fight off pirates from Winding Circle, but she works through the related trauma and moves on with her life while healing and improving herself further.
Briar was orphaned at a young age and then forced to join a gang. He was arrested three times and was about to be sent off to work in the mines or at the ship docks for the rest of his life before being found by Niko and taken to Winding Circle. There he learned that his love for growing things was actually plant magic. He learns to stop using fighting as his first reaction to things and becomes an amazing and intelligent young man. He becomes an expert in growing bonsai trees and making medicines. By Will of the Empress he’s become a little bit of a womanizer, but he is responsible about it and ensures that none of his partners think he’s more serious about them than he is. He is kind, smart, respectful, and never backs down from a fight.
Not only did Briar set the bar impossibly high for any men that I may consider dating, but he also showed me what I want to see in myself in regards to self-growth. He becomes the best possible version of himself over the course of the series without ever losing sight of where he came from and what really matters.
The concept of the found family is very important within the series. As previously mentioned, the four main characters all have some kind of birth-family related trauma. Throughout the first four books of the series, they grow closer together until they begin to refer to each other as foster-siblings. By the second four books, they drop the term “foster,” and just refer to each other as their brother and sisters with Lark and Rosethorn as their mothers. Their bond is at the center of their lives, and it is so wonderfully refreshing to see that intense of a friendship between four people without it ever even attempting to turn romantic. This series taught me how beautiful platonic love can be, as well as its importance.
It is so rare to find a book series that doesn’t have a romantic pairing as a large part of the plotline. Even at eight years old, I was able to recognize how odd it was that none of the main characters felt any kind of attraction towards each other past friendship. As I read more of the series and the characters grew up and continued not to feel anything more than friendship towards each other, I was incredibly happy. Reading a book where the central relationships were strictly platonic made me feel like it would be okay if I cared more about my friendships than about finding a romantic partner.
There are so many things these books taught me: acceptance of people different from myself, how to stand against adversity with the help of family and friends, how to find strength for difficult times within myself, and the importance of friendship. I honestly believe that no other book series, not even Harry Potter, influenced me as much while I was growing up.
I reread the series about once a year. It serves as a great escape from reality as well as a reminder of everything I want to be: As confident as Sandry, as even-tempered as Daja, as kind as Tris, and as able to grow as a person as Briar.
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