In the twenty-fourth part of Mastiff, Beka makes progress. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Mastiff.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of slavery, child abuse/abuse in general, trauma.
I’m still terrified of this book, I feel justified in that, but y’all, what a beautiful thrill this section was. There’s a brief reference to the end of Bloodhound here, and it made me reflect on just how relentlessly upsetting, terrifying, and suspenseful this trilogy has been. I genuinely think that in terms of tone and execution, this is Tamora Pierce’s best writing. I know that I’ve also had the privilege of getting to read the Tortall books roughly in publication order, and that means I’ve gotten to watch her grow as a writer. It’s true that there are a lot more “adult” concepts in the Provost’s Dog trilogy when you compare it with Song of the Lionness, but I also think that classifying it as such makes it too easy to dismiss what these fine Doggy Books might help kids understand about the world. I’ve personally never liked the idea that there are topics only adults can understand, and these books are a fantastic example of how difficult themes like oppression, slavery, grief, and death can be brought up in a story to help younger folks deal with them.
I’m also gonna turn 31 next month and I don’t give a fuck, I love these books. MORE BOOKS FOR EVERYONE.
So let’s start out this review by talking about the surreal experience that is the opening scene. As a thunderous battle between Farmer and Elyot continues to rage above Beka, she is… well, CALM. I mean, I got the sense that she certainly appreciated that she had a limited amount of time, that the stakes were disgustingly high, and that she needed to find Gareth RIGHT THEN, but her sense of duty keeps her in the kitchen. She methodically cuts pork for the slaves hiding in the shadows, then fetches cherries, then passes along bread and cheese and honey to the child slaves, all while CHAOS IS REIGNING ABOVE HER. It’s an unreal juxtaposition, and it’s one of the more nerve-wracking things Pierce has pulled off in this book. (Which is saying a lot because this book in particular is a non-stop ride of terror.)
It’s also incredibly fucking heartbreaking because Beka cannot end slavery here. She can’t, and despite that she wants to, she has to deal with the logistical nightmare of what she witnesses here. She’s helpless. She has to save Prince Gareth, but she can’t really take all of these children with her. Despite that she does an undeniably good thing for them by giving them so much food, she has to be kind of brutal about it. It’s a means to an end: to locate Gareth. But I also appreciate that Pierce doesn’t allow Beka to become the harmful savior here. It would have been so much easier to write Beka saving the day and freeing these slaves, and in doing so, ignoring a pretty terrifying reality for these kids. Instead, she spells it out for the reader, and it’s viciously uncomfortable, and that’s how it should be:
He chose to stay where he was, eating hurriedly, while I turned to the others and held up my picks. They shrank back, behind the oldest girl, who shook her head.
“They’ll kill us if they catch us without the chains,” she said. “They’ll kill us if we try t’ run. There’s more slaves comin’ in every this time o’ year and we’re the cheapest sort.”
These kids already know that they are disposable and replaceable. It’s also important to note that this happens after Beka finally finds Prince Gareth, and the evidence of this horrific practice is all over his body. From the scars to the bruises to the infection caused by the shackles, he’s been put through a hellish experience. And he doesn’t even know why! God, that line destroyed me, and it’s one of a countless number of moments that broke my heart. It doesn’t matter what this child represented to anyone. He is still a child who can’t understand the world he’s in. Well, no, that’s not quite right. I think one element of this that’s so sad and tragic is that he does understand the world in a new one, and it’s unfortunately in the worst way possible. He already understands the importance of a name, and now he’s got a trigger that’s going to remind him of this experience for the rest of his life:
I turned my head to look at the prince, who had frozen in place. Tears ran down his cheeks. “What is it, my boy?” I asked him softly. I swiveled on my feet to wipe his face with my hand. He was no prince to me in that moment. He was just a little fellow who’d gone through a month of ruin with no understanding of why.
“My – friend, Tassilo, that protected me,” he whispered. “He – he’d give me rides on his back. He fought right in front of me and they killed him.”
Well, I’m done. Done now, done forever. And that’s not even the only evidence of trauma. Look at the way he reacts to Master Farmer later on! That kid is going to be terrified of mages forever, and I don’t blame him.
I heard a sound and looked back. Gareth had backed up two steps rather than come to me. He pulled his thumb from his lips. “Mages were there,” he whispered, his eyes huge. “They let the murderers in. They burned everything.” He put his thumb back in his mouth.
Understandably, it takes a lot for Gareth to be won over by Farmer. He’ll always associate pain and misery with magic because of this experience. It helped, though, that Farmer and Beka revealed themselves to be Provost’s Dogs because then Gareth knew that these two worked for his father. Hell, the kid latches on to it, talking about his desire to be a Dog one day, and I’m guessing he does this because he’s desperate for any sort of familiarity in this strange land, far from home and anyone he knows. So he reacts with terror and mistrust every single time Beka comes across someone new, and, again, it’s entirely understandable. Both Daeggan and Gareth look to Beka for a sign that they’re amongst friends because… well, she’s their constant in a sense. She’s the only thing they’ve had in their lives to remind them that there still are good people in the world. Hell, the kid admits that he has no interest in leaving Beka’s side when Tunstall tries to convince him to leave on his own. Beka is the only one he and Gareth trust!
Which is a necessary thing because HOLY SHIT, THEY’RE ALL REUNITED WITH TUNSTALL AND SABINE AND…. Nomalla of Halleburn??? (Do any of my American readers constantly resist saying “Nomalla of Halliburton? Because my brain wants to do it all the time.) Oh my god, they gained a new ally. And if anyone was going to switch sides, it makes sense that it would be Nomalla. Now I understand why Pierce wrote her the way she did earlier!!! I GET SOMETHING, EVERYONE, I GET IT.
“Farmer’s gone somewhere – he locked Elyot into a substance like glass and tore the main hall apart.”
I pointed to Nomalla. “Why are you trusting her?”
“She freed us,” Tunstall said.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Nomalla told me. “You’re a Guard, you’re for sale to anyone with a sufficient bribe. A knight has her honor.”
I’m so thankful that Sabine immediately calls this out as bullshit, BECAUSE IT’S BULLSHIT. You were going to commit treason! Glass houses, Nomalla!
Unfortunately, there’s still one glaring thing not dealt with yet, and it affected how I viewed the final scene of this section: WHO THE FUCK BETRAYED THEM? Who is the traitor? Does that mean my theory that it was none of them was correct? Because Nomalla and Sabine don’t lead them to the dungeons like I suspected they were doing. I got so nervous when Daeggan began to freak out because I did not want them to be the ones who had sold them out. But this inevitable reveal I kept expecting didn’t happen. No, Nomalla and Sabine lead the group out of the castle through the complex labyrinth of tunnels under the ground. Granted, it’s but one small victory. They’ve got a long way to go, and by this time, I’m sure everyone’s realized that their prisoners have escaped. But…. why? Why are you doing this to me???? I’M SO FRIGHTENED.
The video contains use of the word “mad.”
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