July 1, 2012

Review: Mastiff by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff by Tamora Pierce
Published: 2011, Random House
Series: Beka Cooper, #3
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
Contains spoilers for Terrier and Bloodhound

“I hate the waste of it, the waste of life that criminals leave behind…Each of us has power, a kind of magic,” he told me, speaking as if I were a scholar like him. “We spend it somehow as we live, in great and lesser ways. Those three never even had a chance to use theirs.”…

…I said nothing, I was thinking about his words. They made sense. That was one of my reasons for doing what I did. I want more folk to make sommat of their lives, instead of losing them to slavery or prison or murder. But I’d never thought of it this way, that we each had a fire of some kind. We could each make a difference.

My thoughts on the final installment in Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy are not easily definable. In some ways I really enjoyed the story, while in others it provided a less-than-satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

Once again there’s a large time gap between the previous book, Bloodhound, and this one. Roughly two years and nine months have elapsed since we last saw Beka and Goodwin stop the colemongering in Port Caynn. A lot has happened in Beka’s life since then – and I mean a lot. She’s now a fourth-year Dog and has an established position in the Evening Watch with her partner, Matthias Tunstall. She also was engaged to another Dog, Holborn, who is now deceased.

Mastiff begins with Holborn’s funeral and Beka’s internal guilt that she was no longer in love with Holborn and was actually about to break off their engagement. The night after the funeral, she and Tunstall, along with her scent hound Achoo, magical cat Pounce, Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill, and mage Farmer Cape, are summoned on a secret mission by the Lord Provost. Tortall’s young prince has been kidnapped, and the Lord Provost wants the best scent hound team to track him down before the realm dissolves into chaos.

Since this is the third book in the trilogy, the stakes are at their highest. I loved how Pierce uses this novel to question two main aspects of Tortall that many of its inhabitants have taken for granted: the morality of the slave trade and the consequences of changing a society run by the privileged. Those are important questions in any age in any world.

I think one of the reasons that I have enjoyed the Beka Cooper trilogy is that it seems to be written for an older audience. It still contains many young adult elements, such as a young protagonist who is trying to establish her place in the world. But this is also far darker than Pierce’s other Tortall books. Although I like young adult books, sometimes it’s nice to read about a protagonist closer to my age, one who seems to be a little more established in the world  (at this point) and who is not constantly fixated on a love interest.

In Mastiff, Beka acts like and is viewed as an adult. She has strong beliefs which are not easily dissuaded. She’s dealt with her fair share of crimes, murders, and other tragedies, but that hasn’t caused her to lose sense of herself or her duties. Although Pounce accompanies Beka on this journey, I had full faith that Beka would be able to put together clues and retrieve the prince even without her constellation friend’s help. At times Beka comes across as apathetic or cold, but she is dealing with emotional trauma. If nothing else, Beka is efficient and good at what she does.

One aspect that was frustrating for me as a reader was how, because each of the books tackles a problem in a different area, there is no constant cast of characters in the series. Although I’m sure I would be bored reading only about Beka tackling criminals in Corus’ Lower City, I wish that I could have seen Beka establishing true relationships with other characters. Goodwin and Tunstall are Beka’s mentors in Terrier, but then Bloodhound focuses on Beka and Goodwin, excluding Tunstall, while Mastiff focuses on Beka and Tunstall and excludes Goodwin.

I liked the addition of Sabine and Farmer to the mix, but they are both new characters so once again Beka must learn to start forming relationships with others. I felt as though by not giving Beka enough characters with whom to establish a long-lasting relationship that I could experience through the books, Pierce reinforces Beka’s status as a loner. That’s not a bad thing, but I just wanted to see Beka grow and learn through solid relationships, platonic and romantic.

I really liked how Terrier seemed to set up a potential conflict of morality for Beka as she shared an apartment and became friends with members of the Court of the Rogue, specifically Rosto, Kora, and Aniki. I assumed I’d read about a good friendship, perhaps one that is always teetering on the edge, based on their different allegiances, but certainly an interesting one. I guess Beka’s friendship does continue with them all, but unfortunately I am not exposed to any development in friendships in the second and third books.

I had some problems on subject of romantic relationships. Through very brief periods of guilt over her inability to mourn her fiancĂ© Holborn, Beka reveals that he was verbally abusive. While others might disbelieve that Beka would allow herself to be in any abusive relationship, that’s not what bothered me. I wanted Beka to experience some emotions over the course of the book. She’s obviously damaged. There’s a little guilt mentioned, but I wanted more. I was not able to connect with Beka enough on this, and I just don’t believe she’d get over the trauma of her relationship and Holborn’s death so easily, even if she is on a Hunt. And then the new relationship that Beka forms is very much an insta-love relationship. There’s not enough buildup. As others have said, in the real world this would totally be considered a rebound. After months of working up her courage to end an abusive relationship, Beka’s obligations are freed through death. I get that she stopped loving Holborn. Really, I do. But I don’t get how quickly things escalate, nor the relationship decisions she makes by the end. It seems unrealistic of the Beka I’ve come to know.

The twist in the end took me totally by surprise, and not in a good way. In my review of Terrier, I mentioned that I did figure out the twist before it was revealed. Given my choice, I’d rather have my books be that way, especially because I don’t believe that Pierce gave any indication of this potential path. Mastiff’s twist caused me reevaluate everything I knew about the characters. What happened was simply not believable. It seemed to be done more for convenience’s sake than anything else, which is a bit of a disappointment.

It may sound as though my criticisms of the book are more numerous than the praises. I did enjoy the book. It’s well-written, tackles some very important issues, has a strong female protagonist, and a very interesting plot. I guess all of my main problems with the book have to do with character development. I feel as though this book is much more focused on the plot than the characters. I did, however, appreciate how everything started to fit together and I could imagine the foundations for the Tortall of Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly being set. In my opinion this trilogy is even with the Aly series (Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen): I enjoyed it, but it’s not as good as Pierce’s other series.  
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

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