9:35 pm EST, February 9, 2018

‘Tempests and Slaughter’ book review: Becoming Numair Salmalín

By Natalie Fisher | Edited by Karen Rought

In Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce offers an invaluable look back into the past of one of her most beloved characters.

The first thing you need to understand is that the work of Tamora Pierce forged me, in innumerable ways. She’s the greatest long-term relationship of my life, spanning over 20 years. Before I really even had friends that mattered, I had the worlds of Tamora Pierce, and what I found within them shaped everything I was to become as a human being, including my preconceptions about gender roles and my sense of right and wrong.

They also made me into a real fan, and being a fan is one of the greatest defining characteristics of my life. Before Harry Potter, before the internet, before I knew what fandom was, my knowledge and obsession with Tortall was the very definition of fannish — I lived inside it, and could tell you any fact about the world as easy as breathing. I still can today.

As I merged my childhood interests with the internet, I discovered that Pierce was a huge purveyor of side-canon: on her website, on forums, and later on social media she shared frequent facts about her characters and where they were at in their lives since their books had been published.

Unlike other iconic fantasy creators who I don’t need to identify right now, Pierce’s side-canons have always been positive, exciting and valuable, and have only served to widen and enrich her work, so with all that in mind, please understand how deeply and truthfully I mean this when I say that Pierce’s choice to publish an entire prequel series about one of her most beloved characters is one of the most important moments of my life as a reader.

‘Tempests and Slaughter’ review

As I explained when we shared our exclusive audiobook clip, Tempests and Slaughter is the first book in an origin story trilogy. Readers met Numair Salmalín in Pierce’s second Tortallan series, the Immortals quartet, which featured the story of Daine Sarrasri, a young woman with wild magic, a rare bond to animals that many believed to be an old wives’ tale. Numair, in his late twenties, became Daine’s teacher, constant companion, and eventually — in later books still — her husband.

Numair’s immense power — as well as being the world’s leading expert in wild magic, he’s also one of only seven ‘black robe’ mages, the highest possible academic credential for magical power — and his past, having run away from Carthak and changed his name, feature heavily as one of the driving forces of the Immortals quartet, with the Emperor Mage of Carthak, Ozorne Tasikhe, serving as that series’ primary antagonist, both on- and off-page.

The Numair Chronicles promises to tell that story in full, up to and including Numair’s exile and his time on the streets of Tortall, before catching the attention of Alanna the Lioness and King Jonathan. But before that, we need to go back in time and discover how and why Numair — once Arram Draper — ended up exacting the wrath of not only an emperor, but the man who was once his closest friend in the world. Yes, this is basically the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy of the Tortallan world, but don’t worry — this one’s actually worth it.

Before Arram became Numair, he was a student at the Imperial University in Carthak — the biggest center for magecraft in Pierce’s world. It’s here we meet him, at 10 years old — he’s been a student since he was six, and he tells the other children that he’s actually 11, still several years younger than most of his classmates. As Immortals shows us, Numair’s magical Gift — in this universe, if you’re new here, having standard magic is known as having the Gift — is immensely powerful, sometimes to his own detriment.

Even as a black robe, Numair can’t do simple spells, like lighting a candle, without blowing something up — his magic is huge, impractical and esoteric. As a child, this causes him some serious problems in his standard schooling, so he’s moved into a different type of study, alongside two other unusually advanced younger students, Varice Kingsford and Prince Ozorne Tasikhe, one of the many princes in line to the Carthaki throne — so low-ranking that gossipers call him “the leftover prince.”

Arram is instantly accepted by many masters who also find him to be something really special, not only as a mage but as a human being. He also ends up — as all Pierce’s heroes tend to do — with a foundling pet to care for, and is the unwilling focus of unusual interest from more than a couple of gods. He’s clearly very, very unaware of the magnitude of his power — he just thinks he’s bad at controlling it — and his masters mostly tend to keep it that way for his own protection.

Arram is also not free from the indignities of puberty, as Pierce’s Tortallan girl heroes growing up also needed to handle on-page, but as he grows, the story is more about Arram as a young man discovering his moral compass, beginning to question the established practices of the society he lives in and why so many freely accept, or even enjoy, practices that seem so wrong to him. And in Ozorne and Varice, he has, for the first time, friends — two students close to his own age who truly adore him, and it’s the three of them against the world.

Pierce has a habit of course-correcting her own work — she’s always had the best of intentions at heart, and even her earliest books imbued young readers with an ingrained sense of justice and injustice, feminism and empowerment in the days before children would have necessarily had the language to understand that. I personally never really had to learn that girls could do anything boys could do, or to fight for the underdog. Tamora Pierce taught me that so thoroughly that I expected that it was a given in every human being and was stunned to find that it was not.

But times have changed, over the 35 years. Society has changed, progressiveness has changed, and Pierce’s books have changed with it. Regardless of when they’re set — whether we’re talking about the Aly books, set a generation in the future, or the Beka books, set centuries in the past, Pierce’s more recent publications have been more actively woke. Themes of racism and classism; the corruption of religions to push a personal agenda; and of course many gay, bisexual, asexual and transgender characters, have been featured in her novels, as have explicit condemnations of colonialism and empire-building.

A fair bit of that is present in Tempests and Slaughter — including Arram’s race and his odd gay panic, the worry of what people say about him and Ozorne, despite his wholehearted acceptance of other gay couples, which makes me believe that there may actually be something romantic regarding him and Ozorne (who is very queer-coded in later books) like an unrequited love, that contributes later to their falling out. But more subtly, there’s also the wonderful handling of Varice, who’s an incredibly feminine, beautiful girl who’s also an expert diplomat, smart as a whip and extremely powerful.

When we met Varice in Emperor Mage, Daine was — putting it mildly — not a fan. Most of Pierce’s girl heroes are unfussy warriors, and Daine did not feel fondly about meeting Numair’s ex-lover, finding her fanciful and glamorous in a way that she judged her rather harshly for — of course, there was a tinge of jealousy involved. Now, viewing Varice as an insider rather than an outsider, Varice’s brand of womanhood is validated so completely in this book, and she is allowed to exist as she sees fit, and be loved for it.

Pierce promotes Varice’s choices and her power in a way that honestly casts Daine in a bad light, retroactively, but that’s okay — as feminists, we’re always constantly learning to better accept any choice a woman makes to empower herself, rather than seeing the more traditionally-gendered ones as oppressive.

If Varice is a victorious revelation, then the real tragedy of the piece, of course, is Ozorne, because the Ozorne that Arram knew as a boy was utterly lovely. Yes, as an Imperial prince he possesses an ingrained expectation of privilege which sometimes shines through — he expects to be obeyed, when it suits him, for example, and he’s also deeply racist against everyone he suspects to be from Siraj, a conquered Cartharki state, because his father was killed by Sirajit rebels.

But to Varice and Arram, these are understandable flaws, and despite them, Ozorne is a generous, charming boy who adores animals and birds, and who does not like a song-and-dance regalia about his status. All three of the gang prefer quiet chats to raucous parties, and Ozorne extends every opportunity to his friends in order for them to rise alongside him in the world. This seems to be done out of genuine love and generosity — Ozorne’s rather addled mother has plans for him which he does not want to follow, and he wishes to prove to the palace that his friends are worthwhile companions so he won’t be separated from them.

He originally expresses a dream to be left alone by the palace and manage a small estate with Varice and Arram as part of his household, and does not want to become emperor, but subtly, over the course of the novel, as two of the many heirs separating Ozorne from the succession die, his dreams seem to change, to the point of him openly speaking with Arram about conquering the Eastern Lands — Tortall and so on — to reunite the original single empire of legend.

Ozorne, as emperor, is famously two-faced and conniving. Tempests and Slaughter raises the question of how calculated that behavior is — whether he’s always been consciously been playing sides, or whether he’s compartmentalizing in a way that he isn’t aware is tyrannical. Is he lying and manipulating even now? It’s genuinely hard to tell, but most of what he talks about feels authentic. Arram and Varice would die for him, and I’m already so heartbroken about the options that lie ahead — either the discovery that he has been playing them the entire time, or the thorough and complete corruption of the wonderful young man he seems to be.

As for Arram himself, littered throughout the novel are delightful gems, sparkling with clarity, that tease the development of all the powers, specialities and personal habits that we recognize in Numair as outsiders, viewing him as Daine does in the Immortals quartet. Even more wondrous is the introduction and deeper understanding of characters other than Arram — some, like the animal mage Lindhall Reed, eagerly expected, and some, like Numair’s known University contemporaries Tristan Staghorn and Gissa of Rachne, are entirely logical.

But then there are some surprising ones, which go deeper still, and their presence hints at the fallout that we know is yet to come. One is Musenda Ogunsanwo, an enslaved gladiator who saves young Arram’s life in the first few pages and reoccurs throughout the book as Arram gains an adult’s understanding of the slavery, corruption and violence that the Carthaki Empire functions on.

Musenda, who becomes known as Sarge, is the former slave Daine meets working for the Queen’s Riders back in Wild Magic, but his personal connection to Numair was not a feature of that book. Here, Pierce retroactively ties their histories together, and given Arram’s abhorrence of the gladiators’ arena and slavery in general, it’s very likely that his future clash with Ozorne will fall somewhere in the realm of human rights.

The other is Master Chioké, who appears in Tempests and Slaughter as one of the university masters and is revealed to be Ozorne’s personal master, as mandated by his family as a condition of the prince studying at the university instead of dedicating himself to Imperial duties. During this novel, Chioké does a number of things that clearly identify him as a future threat. He’s in charge of medicating Ozorne, who is very clearly portrayed as mentally ill, probably bi-polar, suffering lows of anger, extreme paranoia and depression — and he’s also in charge of instructing him in many courses of study, including battle magic.

Chioké is obviously eyeing Arram’s raw power as a boon for Ozorne’s future household, and encourages Ozorne to think of Arram as a weapon of mass destruction. He’s distrusted by many of Arram’s beloved masters, who seem to believe he may have been responsible for framing another university mage for an accident that brought Ozorne closer to the throne, and Arram secretly observes him rigging fights at the gladiator arena. By the time Numair returns to Carthak in Emperor Mage, Chioké is head of the university and one of Ozorne’s closest advisors. Tempests reveals that rather than merely a loyal subject of the Emperor, Chioké likely played a large part in leading Ozorne down the path he ended up on.

As I mentioned, whether Ozorne has taken any steps along that path yet is somewhat of a mystery, as is the question of whether he’s intrinsically a bad person, or if he was groomed and conditioned into what he became. Tempests and Slaughter concludes when Arram is around 14 or 15, and he, Ozorne and Varice are still the best of friends. It’ll be three years before Ozorne ascends the Carthaki throne, and a couple more years into his reign before Arram flees Carthak. Shadows of conflict are growing, as Arram finds Ozorne’s occasional cruel humor a little hard to bear.

On a larger scale, Arram is very clearly not willing to be complicit in the way things are in Carthak, making him feel torn between his beloved friends and living with circumstances he cannot bear. However, when we leave the trio, a true-love romance beginning to blossom between Arram and Varice that deftly does not devalue their platonic bonds as a group, Arram is under the apprehension that if Ozorne becomes Emperor, things will change for the better.

Tempests and Slaughter is a beautiful, genuine exploration education and friendship, which somehow is not devalued whatsoever by the knowledge of how this tale ends. Instead, that irreversible future predicament makes Arram’s story even more heartfelt. As insane as it may seem, to be rooting for this group to succeed, it’s unavoidable while reading Tempests, and the pain of that reality is what elevates the Numair Chronicles from fascinating to unforgettable.


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