So I just finished reading Tamora Pierce’s Battle Magic and for once I’m feeling quite… bleak. Maybe it’s because it was made to be a bit darker than the rest of her books, to explain the PTSD-like symptoms Briar exhibits in The Will of the Empress. But I was expecting that. I think Battle Magic was darker than Pierce’s other books simply because it’s the first time where the character’s sacrifice and contribution didn’t matter.
On the contrary, I think that sense of futility is absolutely on purpose. Think about it. A lot of the futility—Rosethorn’s warning not being required, their inability to make much impact in battle, the fact that the gods would have won the war for Gyongxe whether or not they had stuck around to see it, the fact that their sacrifices really didn’t change things and their powers couldn’t fix everything—is really part of the essence of war.
It’s essentially the same lesson that the Stormwings are supposed to teach in Tortall: War damages people, damages lands, and is often, in the end, totally meaningless to those dragged into it except in terms of what they’ve lost in the process. And in the end, 99% of the people involved, it wouldn’t have mattered if that individual had been there or if they had been halfway around the world. The war would have happened anyways, because their leaders would still have been at odds; the battles would have gone the same way, because barring extreme circumstances (and contrary to how most fantasy books go, because most fantasy books focus on extraordinary people in the circumstances where they are able to really make an impact), one person is not going to turn the tide. This book isn’t about a tide-turning battle, where a single extraordinary person (or a handful of persons) can turn the tide and make it all better; it’s about war, in all its futility and pain, and of course that’s going to be darker than many of Tammy’s books.
As for the treaties with the Emperor…it’s true, they don’t resolve everything. In a lot of ways, they resolve nothing, because the only one that can be enforced is the Emperor not attacking Gyongxe and I doubt he’ll try that anytime soon anyways. But I think that’s part of the same thing. Even when you win, war doesn’t solve the problem of evil; it’s not a final solution. The best outcome you can hope for is really to survive until the fighting ends, push your attackers back so you can live in peace again, and do your best to reduce the chance of a repeat so you can rebuild your life.
And that’s exactly what those treaties aim for. What else could be done? Even after beating off the invasion, I don’t think Gyongxe is powerful enough to dethrone the Emperor, or to rework the entire governmental system of Yanjing—they run into the same issue, where they only have the help of the gods while on their own soil, and without that they’re not strong enough to make an impact. They can’t stop the emperor from trying to invade other countries. They could kill the emperor or hold him hostage, but someone else (probably someone raised in the same way as him, taught to think in similar ways and have a similar sense of his own importance, probably someone who would become just as corrupted by power as he is) would just take the throne. That’s not a flaw in the writing; that’s realism, the reality of war and politics, and it *sucks* and it’s very much dark and discouraging, but quite frankly I’d have been disappointed if this handful of fighters had managed to singlehandedly dismantle the Yanjingi government, because that would be extremely unrealistic within the world Tammy has created. While Rosethorn may be a great mage, and Briar and even Evvy on their way to being the same, their powers have limits, and taking on all of Yanjing is beyond those limits.
From a literary perspective, it’s actually a good thing to show that the characters can’t solve all the world’s problems, that sometimes they just need to take what they’ve been able to get and go home. If there are theoretically limits but the characters never hit them, the limits may as well not exist (and this series has been prone to not hitting limits, what with the characters defeating earthquakes, serial killers, and even death itself in the past).
This book establishes just how far an individual’s (even a very strong individual’s) power extends, and even how far the power of the gods extends, and proves them all to have limits. I actually think it makes some of the other books more poignant—for example, it points out just how lucky the four were to escape in the Will of the Empress. If that boarder hadn’t been weak already, if they had been trying to cross a contested boarder rather than a historically peaceful and therefore militarily neglected boarder…even with their bond reforged, Briar and the girls may have found themselves trapped. Battle Magic takes away the certainty that the main characters will win in the end, and replaces it with the knowledge that they’ll probably survive, which is really not the same thing at all. The latter is much less certain and has a lot more room for pain, but it also leaves a lot more room for growth.
Man, this turned into the essay. *No regrets*
I agree that it can be a powerful literary device to use futility to show the perils of war. In fact, those are usually the books that stick with me the longest because they resonate with the readers. And I think that Battle Magic was the perfect book to do this - because of the recorded effects the event has on the characters and the content of the storyline, which is perfect for showing how pointless their actions were.
But even though the story was all set up to do this, it was the narrative which failed. The deaths in the book were basically limited to Evvy’s cat’s, which show her loss of innocence and evoke a feeling of grief within the reader, but don’t go far enough in showing the widespread devastation. Even though their actions don’t have any consequences, Pierce doesn’t linger on that… none of the characters realise this in the book. It’s never really shown to the reader in any explicit or even implied way. And Pierce acts as though Weishu has been punished by the treaties. She doesn’t acknowlege the faults in treaties, she doesn’t have the characters muse over how Weishu is going to continue his tyranny without restraint or punishment. She doesn’t even leave ambiguity in the ending - she writes the final chapter as though she is tying up loose ends. Daja’s tale in Cold Fire is a far better example of the sort of conflicted ending that Battle Magic should have had - there was the sense that Daja blames herself, and Pierce neglects to truly give the reader peace in the end of the story (paving the way for the emotional turmoil that each of the four experience in The Will of the Empress). In Battle Magic, the last chapters are written as though the book really is concluded - as though there isn’t any of the above problems left. The problems are actually more like plot holes or oversights than deliberate attempts to create an emotional response from the characters or the audience.
And I think the reason for this is that it’s a filler book. I might be stretching my logic, and I could be 100% wrong (not to mention I’m a little bit paranoid about posting criticism on tumblr because I know Tamora Pierce is on here and I admire both her and her writing very much and I don’t want to post anything that would possibly offend her, even if it’s my opinion). But I feel as though Tamora Pierce finished Will of the Empress with Battle Magic still unwritten, and regardless of whether she intended to write Battle Magic or not at the time, and regardless of how much she had planned it out, when she sat down to actually write Battle Magic, she was filling in a plot rather than writing an organic story. She had Street Magic, and she had Will of the Empress, and she knew there was a story in the middle that she had to write to get from one to the other. But when it came to actually writing Street Magic, she was writing a filler. She couldn’t let the story grow organically because she knew how it had to end, and because of that I think the quality of the story isn’t quite as good, and the ending feels a little forced and like it doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. The problem with this theory is that it would have been better for Will of the Empress if Battle Magic had been left with a bleaker ending, given that Briar is clearly the most affected by his journey away from Emelan.
My other theory is that the bleak tone was on purpose, but for whatever reason Tamora Pierce tried to change this in the ending chapters (whether she felt it wasn’t the ending she wanted, or because the publishers/editors thought it wasn’t suitable, or even just because she didn’t like the tone anymore but couldn’t change the entire book, as it was already set in stone due to the Will of the Empress being published). Because let’s face it, in every book the hero does something of import. That’s how the books - and especially the series - end. The girl vanquishes the demons or stops an invasion or at least overcomes a challenge that will lead to the next book where she’ll do something important. Even Kel, who made arguably a smaller contribution to her war that any other character, saved the people under her command and killed an important mage.
It seems that if Tamora Pierce wanted to break this pattern, she really should have done it more blatantly. Because reading the last two chapters, the characters don’t even seem to realise that their contributions were useless. And that’s what really bothers me.