Last year, I began a journey through the lands of Tortall, the incredibly rich and exciting fantasy world created by Tamora Pierce. This year, I continued the adventure by listening to the audiobooks of the Beka Cooper trilogy — and now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
The Beka Cooper books take place about 150 years before the beginning of the Song of the Lioness quartet, Tamora Pierce’s first Tortall books, which introduce the young squire who would grow up to become Lady Knight Alanna. The Beka books were published after the Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly books, yet they are chronologically the first books in terms of the kingdom of Tortall. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure about going back into the kingdom’s past and the pre-Alanna days… but I can tell you now that these books are very much worth it!
Beka Cooper herself is a wonderful lead character, everything we could hope for in a young female protagonist. In terms of how these books relate to the (chronologically) later books in the Tortall universe, Beka is George Cooper’s ancestor. That’s about all you need to know, but it does tie together quite nicely.
The story of Beka Cooper:
In book #1, Terrier, Beka is a young woman just starting out as a “puppy” (trainee) in the Provost’s Guard — the kingdom’s law enforcement department, whose members are referred to as “dogs”. Beka is smart and strong, from the poorest neighborhood of the capital city of Corus, raised in poverty until she and her siblings became wards of the Lord Provost himself, Lord Gershom. As an untested puppy, Beka is paired with Tunstall and Goodwin, two highly respected and experienced dogs, and before long she proves herself in a variety of street fights and arrests. Besides her fighting skills and sharp eye for clues, Beka has a touch of magic: She converses with the spirits of the dead, who come to her attached to the city’s pigeons, and she can also converse with dust spinners — the funnels of swirling dust that show up on street corners, collecting and then sharing with Beka the random bits of conversation they pick up from passers-by. Over the course of her puppy year, Beka becomes embroiled in a life-threatening search for a murderer, digging into the corruption polluting the highest levels of money and power in the lower city.
In the 2nd book, Bloodhound, Beka is no longer a puppy but a fully qualified dog. Here, she is assigned with her partner Clary Goodwin to track down the influx of counterfeit coins that threaten to undermine the entire kingdom. Beka goes on the hunt with Goodwin to track down the counterfeiters, along the way making enemies of the criminal kingpin of a nearby town, but also finding herself romantically involved with a handsome gambler who may or may not be trustworthy.
Finally, in book #3, Mastiff, we rejoin Beka a few years later, still working as a dog and with the reputation of being one of the most talented and determined. She’s committed to fighting injustice and keeping people safe, especially those who can’t fight for themselves. When an attack is made on the royal family, Beka and Tunstall are sent out to track the evildoers, in a case that involves high treason and the realm’s most dangerous and powerful mages.
These books are long and complicated… and I just can’t say enough good things about them! My daughter has pushed me to read them for years, but the first few times I picked up Terrier, I was put off by the language. Tamora Pierce gives her characters a street language that’s rich and flavorful, but which at first glance seemed too out-there to me. When I finally gave it a chance, though, I ended up loving it. Probably listening to the audiobooks helped — I was able to get the feel of the words and their rhythm without getting too stuck on reading written dialect. It’s helpful, though, to keep a hard copy of the books on hand even if listening to the audio version, since the printed books include a glossary at the back, and it’s essential, especially when first entering Beka’s world.
Beyond the amazing language of the books, Beka herself is a wonderful character. Like many of Pierce’s heroines, she has an affinity for animals, and cat Pounce and dog Achoo become major characters in their own way over the course of the three books. Likewise, the supporting characters are fully developed, so we’re left in no doubt about their essences, values, skills, etc — except for the cases where someone’s motive are meant to be questionable, of course.
Pierce doesn’t shy away from sexual relationships, although thankfully she doesn’t seem to feel the need to give us anatomy lessons. Beka and others have sexual relationships as part of their natural lives, not a big deal, no moralizing or agonizing over whether to do it or not. Young women like Beka get charms to prevent pregnancy when they become sexually active, and that’s that. No fuss, no muss. Beka retains full agency over her body and her choices, and it’s a low-key message of empowerment that’s woven into the overall story.
By setting the books so much earlier than the other Tortallian books, we get a glimpse of how certain facets of life in the later (chronologically; earlier by publishing date) books came about. In the Beka books, women are well represented in law enforcement as well as among the knighthood — yet in the Alanna books, it’s considered unheard of for women to become knights, something that hasn’t happened in centuries. So how did the kingdom go from a fairly progressive stance toward women in combat or physical roles toward the idea that women must be proper ladies relegated to fashion, etiquette, embroidery, and other ladylike pursuits? We get a hint of the origins of this change in Mastiff, as Beka travels to one of the kingdom’s fiefdoms where the cult of the Gentle Mother seems to be taking hold — setting the standard that fighting is for men and that women’s greatest joy lies in hearth and home. Likewise, we see how the kingdom moves from a land that tolerates the slave trade to one where slavery is outlawed, thanks to the events initiated in this trilogy. It’s really fascinating to see the seeds here for the changes that are so apparent in the books set later in the kingdom’s history.
The audiobooks are narrated by Susan Denaker, who does an amazing job with the character voices, capturing the regional accents of characters from different geographical and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the language and slang differences in the dialogue of characters from different social strata, from street thugs to children of lower city slums to the nobility and even royalty.
I really, truly adored getting to know Beka, who instantly jumped onto my ever-growing list of favorite fictional characters of all time. I’m absolutely loving my adventures in the world created by Tamora Pierce. Fortunately, I still have a few books to go!
Terrier – published 2006
Bloodhound – published 2009
Mastiff – published 2011