In the sixteenth chapter of Squire, Kel is finally thrust into war and is surprised by the results – both the mundane and the traumatizing. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Squire.
Chapter Sixteen: The North
So, this review is actually the first that I’ve written in over two weeks, since I just got back to the Bay Area after my European tour. (Shameless plug: I put a ton of photos up on Instagram, and you are of course welcome to follow me there.) I actually took an entire month off from writing back in March when I went on tour in North America, but I still worried that I might forget some details or plot threads when it came to returning to Squire and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But I actually spent quite a lot of time talking about Tamora Pierce’s books with folks in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. (Holy gods, there are SO MANY TAMORA PIERCE FANS. Y’all are everywhere!) One of the things that came up is the fact that my choice to read all of her books for Mark Reads means I get to see her grow as a writer. (That’s a big reason why I’m pretty sure I’m going to tackle the Discworld books in the same manner; I adore the experience of watching a writer become better at what they do.) Coming back into the world that Pierce has created in these Tortall books was comforting and refreshing, and I know that’s certainly because her writing is just so much better than in Song of the Lioness. This chapter is a fine balance between her (at times) simple style and her knack for knowing just the right word to convey a thought, an image, or a feeling. It’s that intentional style that I’ve come to love because it’s so… well, so direct.
Plus, this chapter documents a number of vital and significant moments in the growth of Kel as a character. She’s seventeen years old now, nearly an adult, and it’s with this that a number of life-changing events come into her existence. One of them, on the second page, is a subtle, quiet moment that speaks of the uncomfortable choices she might have to make sooner rather than later:
Once [Cleon] looked up from a knot of children to see Kel watching. His eyes filled with longing, so much that Kel had to go. He was thinking of the children they could have. Kel shivered. She didn’t want to consider that at all. Her shield awaited her, if the Chamber of the Ordeal didn’t grind her to cat meat. An heiress, and his duty to the tenants on his lands, awaited him.
On the one hand, this serves as a condemnation of the social pressures that these teenagers are forced to obey or risk ostracizing themselves in Tortall. But I think it also speaks to a lot more than that. For the first time, the main romantic thrust of Pierce’s books involve two characters who going through the same things as one another. They’re at the same level because of their age, and the Ordeal and knighthood are both things they either have dealt with or must deal with in the future. Obviously, it’s a different dynamic than Alanna/Jonathan, Alanna/George, and definitely Numair/Daine. If you’re looking at this from the perspective of age and power, Kel and Clean are essentially on level ground. So what are the two of them supposed to do? I don’t think Kel’s feelings for Cleon define her character, either. This is not a portrayal of dependence. It’s one of longing. These two desire one another so badly, but they’re going to have to cope with the possibility that they can’t have one another at all.
This isn’t the only awkward or uncomfortable moment that Kel has in this chapter. Oh no, there are a ton of them, and they’re indicative of the shifting role she has in service to the crown and Raoul. (At least for the time being. It’s worth nothing that we don’t know who she’ll be working with after the Chamber of the Ordeal.) I like that Tamora Pierce is still able to play up the flaws of characters we find likable. Earlier in this book, she did that with King Jonathan, and it made him a richer character in the process. Here, we see how Raoul’s impatience and constant need to do what he wants results in him getting literally sent to his room by Queen Thayet. Of course, THAT IS THE FUNNIEST VISUAL IN THE ENTIRE SERIES. But given that Kel has some rather stubborn ideas of what she wants, I think that this is a way for her to see what would happen if she did behave like Raoul often does.
Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a valid criticism in Raoul’s angry outbursts. Even the king himself is frustrated by the fact that he’s expected to continue with the Great Progress instead of helping out his own men who are fighting bandits and Scanran clans. Again, this is yet another example of Pierce demonstrating how politics can affect the decisions that leaders must make. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a criticism of this monarchial system, though you could probably make a case for that. Instead, I’d say that this is a clever and realistic way for Pierce to explore the complications of this world and this military culture. There’s even that bit about the “price” that King Jonathan had to pay for using the Dominion Jewel, which shows us just how layered this reality really is.
I think that we’ve also seen that last of Kel’s visions at the door of the Chapel, and this final one is a doozy. Again, Kel’s fears are all rooted in her sense of utility. If she cannot help or assist others, she feels utterly powerless. Every vision that the Chapel has given her has touched on this. In this case, it’s the death of Cleon that haunts her. But I think it’s also interesting that this vision only focuses on one single person instead of a menagerie of the people that Kel cares about. To me, that speaks to Kel’s fright over love. It’s a scary thing to love another person. It’s a vulnerable state, and I know that I share a very similar fear to Kel. Hell, I’ve always had it with people I care about, even with my current boyfriend. I am terrified of the idea of them being taken away from me because I can’t protect them. In that sense, Kel (and perhaps myself) are frightened by what others might do. Yes, this is all rooted in a sense of self-worth and ability, but she doesn’t have visions about her being inept or unqualified. She knows she can help and save others, but her visions concern her being prevented from doing so. They’re all external forces that she can’t control.
So it makes sense to me that this chapter then transitions to Kel’s first true experience with the perils of war. They are things she cannot control. Note how pleased she is at helping people versus grandiose displays of power. I think that is why she is initially excited about the prospect of heading north. Okay, perhaps “excited” is not quite the right word here. Anxious? Anticipatory? I mean, Kel’s wanted to see action, and you can tell she’s looking forward to it, and then Pierce casually drops in Glaisdan of Haryse’s death as a painful reminder that people die in war. Still, Pierce says that Kel is “edgy and eager” to “see the kraken,” the Company’s metaphor for finally seeing war. For Kel, this is her chance to prove herself to everyone around her.
Except that doesn’t really happen, and I think this is the most brilliant part of chapter sixteen There isn’t a single battle for months. As the Company sets to work taking care of the logistics for war, nothing else happens.
Soon she discovered what most of Third Company knew: war was boring. They were ready for the Scanrans in April. The Scanrans were not ready for them.
I love that this isn’t some instant adventure for Kel because it feels so real. Also, I have to point out that Lerant raises an orphan squirrel. YEAH. I would definitely read an entire book about that. Also, the Third Company has chess tournaments. And yet all this silliness and banality gives way to horror. Because when war comes, it is not what Kel wanted.
Kel was ashamed that she had longed for battle. She’d forgotten that people might die when she chafed at the top of a tree.
Okay, I love this so much. So much of the fantasy that I have experienced speaks of the honor and valor of war. (And, for that matter, so did my own father, who would frequently tell me horrible, traumatizing stories of the awful things he and his squadron did in war, and then follow it up with a nostalgic vow of honor and duty.) Yet here, Tamora Pierce determinedly avoids that, showing us through Kel just how upsetting this is going to be.
Gildes dies. Kel is forced to kill numerous men, and she doesn’t take it lightly. She’s nearly killed when she foolishly doesn’t wear her helm. And yet, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel:
The hit-and-run battles had one good result. No one, not even Flyn, questioned her ability to fight anymore.
OH MY GOD, MY HEART. I love this book so much.
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