In the first chapter of Briar’s Book, Briar’s new friend may be the sign of something terrible in Summersea. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Circle of Magic.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of disease, poverty.
As I have now started the final book in the Circle of Magic quartet, I’m still astounded that these books could feel better than the work in Tortall in some ways. I expected a similar experience to my journey through Tortall. I assumed that these four books were published early in Tamora Pierce’s career and would have the same sort of gradual improvement in writing and plotting and development like the Tortall books did. I know that this is probably a silly way to go into these books, but I was prepared for the same sort of growth. I was not ready for the Circle of Magic novels to feel so different from Tortall.
I think that this is partially because Pierce so readily jumps into a number of uncomfortable and painful issues that took a while to appear in the Tortall books, at least in as much detail as we see here. So there’s probably a bias on my part, since I’m drawn to narratives about exclusion, poverty, and oppression, and GUESS WHAT. THAT’S A HUGE PART OF THESE BOOKS. Plus more! So much more!!!!
And shit, that’s precisely the case here in the first chapter of Briar’s Book. There’s an obvious struggle at the heart of this book, and it concerns Briar’s place in the world now that he’s no longer suffering in poverty. It’s an experience I deeply understand as someone who grew up poor and went through bouts of homelessness. I remember when I moved to the Bay Area in 2010, I managed to secure a job where I got my first salary that was as close to a living wage as I’ve ever gotten. It was only for a year and a half, but it was EXTREMELY BIZARRE. I had no idea what disposable income was like until that period of my life. (I am back to that sensation, because even though I am making money from all this, I have a very strict budget that leaves almost no room for personal spending.) I didn’t have to worry about how to survive beyond rent and bills. That is something that a lot of folks deeply understand, and a lot of other people can’t even conceive of. Money-related stress is a nasty, all-encompassing thing, and it’s something Briar’s consciously aware of when he returns to the worlds he used to be a part of.
Granted, Briar didn’t live in the Mire, but he grew up in the slums of Hajra, and there’s little difference between the two experiences beyond the details of them. I imagine that this is why Briar is so displeased by Rosethorn returning to Urda’s House to do work for the poor. It’s not that he doesn’t want her to help these people; I think the place reminds him too much of his time in Hajra. But he makes the best of these trips by spending time with a local friend, Flick. I was actually kind of surprised by the appearance of a character who was friends with one of the four main characters because it’s been so rare for this to happen. They’re not isolated, of course, but they’re mostly friends with each other, not people outside of Winding Circle.
But I also understood that there was likely some familiar ground on which Briar could base a friendship with Flick. She knew bits of Briar’s past, and that meant that she was probably able to trust him more than anyone else. (Note that both Alleypup and Flick are reluctant about Rosethorn, which makes sense. She might not understand their lives or their predicament, so they’re not quick to trust her.) This is demonstrated here when she sends Alleypup to bring Briar to her so he can hopefully diagnose whatever strange disease she has. There are logistical issues, obviously, that prevent her from walking into Urda’s House to get help. She’s poor, first of all. She also couldn’t make it past any of the city’s guards because she’s literally filthy. They wouldn’t have let her go anywhere, especially looking as sick as she does.
Yet she chooses Briar for a reason. His journey to Flick is one that reminds him of Hajra and the life he used to live, and it’s not lost on me that he travels through filth and muck in order to get to her. It’s something he was once a part of, but now? How does he deal with knowing that he has a meal? A place to live? That he’s used to taking showers? That he never has to question whether or not all of this will be snatched away from him? That’s his life, now that he’s a part of the Winding Circle. It’s in stark contrast to Hajra, where he lost his mother at four (FOUR!!!! WHAT THE FUCK), where he was contracted into working for the Thief-Lord while he was still an actual child, where he fought fiercely every day just to survive, where he was in prison before he even had acquired two digits in his age.
I’m really interested to see what Pierce is going to do with this. I’M SO INTO IT.
And then there’s Flick’s sickness. I don’t think this is one that’s naturally occurring in our world, so I’ll wait to see what Pierce calls it. But it’s clear from the severity of the symptoms and Rosethorn’s reaction that this is not a good thing, and it might just be the main conflict of this book. BECAUSE SERIOUSLY:
At last Rosethorn stood, holding the lens out for Briar to take. As he did, he saw that drops of sweat had formed like pearls on Rosethorn’s pale skin. For all that she acted calm, she was upset, as upset as she’d ever been when facing pirates or forest fires.
NO. NO, THAT IS NOT OKAY. She knows what it is, doesn’t she? And she knows it’s highly contagious, too, since she tells Flick that they’ll have to track down everyone she was in contact with once she got sick. THIS IS REALLY BAD, Y’ALL. Really, really bad.
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