Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce – Advance Review

Battle Magic

Book Jacket:

On their way to the first Circle temple in Gyongxi, mages Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy pay a visit to the emperor’s summer palace. Although treated like royalty when they first arrive, the mages soon discover that the emperor plans to invade Gyongxi, posing a fatal threat to the home temple of the Living Circle religion. Accompanied by one of the emperor’s prize captives, the three mages rush to Gyongxi to warn its citizens of the impending attack. With the imperials hot on their trail, Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy must quickly help the country prepare for battle. But even with the help of new allies, will their combined forces be enough to fight the imperial army and win the war?


So I’m biased, I’ll admit it: I love Tamora Pierce, and seeing as I’ve been a die-hard fan from the age of about eight, it will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that I enjoyed reading this book. I always find Pierce’s stories effortless to read – without fail she draws me into her worlds of magic and adventure, and more than anything else I adore how her stories are populated by girls and women who are very much the heroes of their own stories (not to mention they usually can hold their own in a fight). It’s just always a delight to rest in Tamora Pierce’s capable hands.

Now that said, I did find in a lot of ways I was battling my own expectations when it came to this book. If you’re familiar with the Circle books, you’ll know that we’ve already seen the emotional aftermath of the events in Battle Magic, as they play out across both The Will of the Empress and Melting Stones (stories that take place chronologically after this book), particularly in terms of the PTSD that Briar struggles with in The Will of the Empress. And so I came to this book kind of expecting to experience that trauma, expecting perhaps a slightly darker series of events than this story turned out to be – which made this story both surprising and at times a bit frustrating for me.

First off, this book is a narrative split between Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy, and that split turned out to create a surprising amount of emotional distance from Briar, for me. I really was expecting to live through his story, and to get beat up along the way – and instead this book kind of skirts Briar’s emotional story altogether, such that even when we see through his eyes, we don’t FEEL as much as I was expecting to, especially given the aftermath we’ve already read. In a lot of ways, it felt a bit like Briar was an afterthought, because this book really isn’t Briar’s story so much as it is Evvy’s (though Rosethorn makes a strong showing too). And while I did like that very much – and I appreciated how POV swapping with Evvy and Rosethorn made me not miss Sandry, Daja and Tris quite so much – I just felt like this story was keeping me at arms length from Briar, and I missed him. To be honest, I almost find myself wishing this story had been told entirely from Evvy’s point of view, or only her and Rosethorn’s, because much as I enjoyed Evvy’s story, I still kept reaching for something – for more of Briar – that wasn’t there. And while I suspect that lack was in part by design, in that Pierce didn’t want to re-tread ground she’d already covered in The Will of the Empress, I still was a bit frustrated by it. I wanted more, or perhaps it would be fairer to say, this isn’t the story I thought it was going to be, and it was hard for me to let go of my preconceptions.

In a similar vein, I also found myself kind of parsing this book in search of the full story behind events mentioned in The Will of the Empress – from the big, like Briar’s incarceration, to the little, like his gut-wrenching reaction to temple bells or his violent reaction to sleep spells – and again, it just wasn’t there, because this is not Briar’s book. We never hear the temple bells, on-page; Briar only gets hit with a sleep spell once, and then is quickly saved, and we don’t get to see his incarceration at all (so I’m assuming it happens on the way back to Emelan) – and to be frank, I was a bit disappointed by that. I do wish there had been a few more tie-ins, or Easter eggs, but again, this is not that story, and the thing I was tripping over was really just my own expectations. 

But still, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading this story, because I did. I particularly enjoyed Evvy’s journey, not only in terms of the strange landscapes she wanders and the stranger creatures she encounters there (in Pierce lexicon, this story reminds me a lot of Daine’s journey in The Realm of the Gods), but also in terms of seeing Evvy find the will and bravery to defy the Emperor, a god-like figure who she’s been taught to fear all her life, one who Evvy knows full well has the power to destroy everything she loves. I also enjoyed getting to see more of Rosethorn’s complex personal life, and even getting a tantalizing peek at her childhood (and oh, how I would LOVE if Pierce wrote a book about young Rosethorn and Lark someday), but again, this really is Evvy’s story, and it’s Evvy’s courage in the face of her fear that is the beating heart of this book.

So all the Pierce hallmarks we’ve come to expect – adventure and bravery, magic and wonders – are very much present and accounted for, but I will also say there were two moments in this story that made me cock a slightly dubious eyebrow. The first was the reason behind Rosethorn’s need to split off from the rest and travel on her own – it was an interesting one, but also a bit convenient, not to mention totally out of left field. The second, though, unfortunately, came at the very end – during the last hurrah, the save-the-day moment. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this – it felt a bit too much like a ta-dah, a deus ex machina, and for me it mugged the agency from our main three characters a bit. I guess you could say, in that sense, Pierce has trained me too well – I always prefer a They Saved Themselves as opposed to They Were Saved – but in this case, it was fitting to the story, so I can’t complain too much. It just niggled me a bit. 

So in the end, all else aside, I did still tear through this story without missing a beat. I love Tamora Pierce, I will always love Tamora Pierce, and it’s always a pleasure to re-visit Emelan (and I can’t wait to see what Tris gets up to at Lightsbridge in the next book). So I’ll place this story firmly on par with any of The Circle Opens books (though in terms of feel, I’d say it definitely leans more towards The Immortals quartet). It just wasn’t the story I was expecting, is all. 

Byrt Grade: A-/B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly says:

Pierce continues to use magic creatively…and her protagonists, although not without thorns, are easy to love. The author’s many fans, the first generation of which have now grown to adulthood, should help make this tale as successful as earlier books set in the Circle universe

Kirkus Reviews says:

Though the popular author’s prose and pacing are as fluent as ever, her efforts to elaborate on or at least disguise her cultural models are, at best, cursory, and her plotting is likewise paint-by-numbers.