Revisiting the Circle of Magic Series

I’m about to say something blasphemous. There is a book series which has shaped me as a person moreso than the Harry Potter books did.

I know. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Jo Rowling and everyone in my life who has known me as the Harry Potter girl, gotten me Harry Potter gifts every single year for every gift-giving holiday, and lost to me in Harry Potter trivia games. I’m sorry for misleading you. None of the following is meant in any way to downplay my enduring and overpowering love for Harry Potter and the entire universe of its canon.

The Circle of Magic books, by Tamora Pierce, are coming of age tales about young, magically-gifted children from varying, but usually generally orphan-like, circumstances. They are brought together by these powers into what is, for all intents and purposes, a magical school, where targeted harassment, class and race differences, and natural disasters force them to come to terms with their powers and the responsibilities they entail, when they are very young. While this reads like the back of every single book I picked up between the years of 1997 and 2008, what I have always found unique about this series is the impact it had on my social consciousness. I didn’t come to realize how strong an influence it had over me and my core beliefs about how the world should work until I was much older, and my political ideals became something I thought about and applied to my interactions on a more regular basis, but looking back, most of those ideals are things that I was first exposed to in the Circle of Magic quartets.

There are eleven books in the Circle of Magic canon; the first quartet The Circle of Magic, with each book named after a protagonist but taking place in the same location and in a specific order; The Circle Opens, wherein the protagonists each get a story separate from one another; and the Circle Reforged books, containing The Will of the Empress, which deals with all four original protagonists, and Melting Stones and Battle Magic, both of which focus on a character introduced in The Circle Opens. I have heard rumors of a fourth Circle Reforged book in the works, and am desperate for more. (Do you hear me, Tamora? DESPERATE.)

The first book, Sandry’s Book, I will also admit to having picked up based on appearance, but my excuses (I was eleven, it was pretty) still hold up, in my opinion. What’s more, I picked it up in the same shopping trip in which I first encountered Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and strangely, Little House in the Big Woods.

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Lady Sandrilene fa Toren is an orphaned noble child, wealthy and the niece of the Duke of Emelan. Raised in part by her nomadic, non-traditional parents, and in part by a nurse from the gypsy race called “Trader” in this universe, Sandry is left hidden in a dark storage room when mobs of sick and destitute overrun the plague-ridden city in which her parents died. Her nurse is killed directly outside Sandry’s hiding spot, and nobody is left who knows where she is. As her lamp runs low, the eleven year old braids silk embroidery thread to keep her mind together. She discovers her power with threadcraft this way, by begging the light to leave her lamp and come into the braided silk she worked on, but she loses control over the working when rescuers arrive and she is temporarily blinded by sunlight.

Daja Kisubo, also orphaned, is a black Trader, whose entire clan is killed in a storm which destroys the ship which was their home. Waking alone on a life raft, surrounded by the wreckage of her ship and bodies of her family, Daja discovers her affinity for metal-working magic by begging the metal in a crate of supplies to come to her across the water. The supplies inside sustain her until rescuers arrive, but because she is the sole survivor of her ship, Trader courts declare her an outcast, and forbid any of their race to speak to or interact with her, lest they contract her bad luck.

“Roach” is an orphaned boy living on the streets with his gang of miscreants and surviving by theft. He’s a talented thief, but is controlled by the “Thief Lord” and taxed harshly by him on his loot. He’s caught for his third and final strike, the tattoos on his hands betraying his criminal history, and is in jail awaiting a life sentence of hard labor when he, too, is rescued, and offered a chance to spend his life at the Winding Circle temple, rather than working on the docks. Seeing this as a chance to escape, he agrees, and takes up the new name of “Briar Moss” to honor two plants that he emotionally connected with in his youth.

Trisana Chandler has been abandoned by every one of her family members, and when we meet her is staying at a boarding school in a different temple, being bullied by her peers, but not going out of her way to try to make friends. When Tris is angry, strange things happen--lightning when there’s no storm, tremors, rain, and changes in air pressure surround her. Additionally, she can hear voices carried to her on the wind, though she assumes for a long time that she’s just crazy. She only enjoys reading and heavy weather, and though her family are merchant class, wears cheap and aging clothing on her plump frame. Magic testers have passed her over, but her caretakers believe she’s possessed or haunted, and so send her away, begging the same man who rescued the other three, Niklaren Goldeye, to take her to Winding Circle, where the dedicates are used to what’s referred to as “strange cases.” Resentfully he agrees, but forms a bond with Tris later on during a storm on their ship, when she controls a ball of lightning which forms on the mast.

At Winding Circle, the four end up in the same household after staying in the dormitories and being  shunned by their peers for various reasons. Briar’s tattoos give him away, and a thieving noble-teen frames him for his own crimes. The ensuing fight leads Briar to be sent to “Discipline,” a cottage run by polyamorous magical lesbians Lark and Rosethorn, whose specialties are threadcraft and plant magic respectively. Daja, being bullied by various noble girls in the cafeteria, reluctantly accepts Sandry’s friendship when Sandry, in a display I have envied my entire life, invites the Trader to her own table and beautifully snubs all of the offending girls. Daja is attacked in the night by several of these girls, and using her “Trader staff”--a large pole carried by adults of her culture--thoroughly destroys them, and is sent to Discipline to keep her away from these types of challenges. Sandry, a noblewoman who is not supposed to take an interest in craft and labor, is sent to Discipline for sneaking out to the loom-houses. Tris, however, chooses Discipline at Niko’s (Niklaran Goldeye) behest after not quite fitting in in the merchant class dormitories, and accidentally frying a small tree with lightning. However, the day that the four children move in together is the day of the first large tremor of earthquake season, and Tris is particularly affected both before and after these tremors.

While Sandry and Daja are already friendly, the four don’t take up together easily. Merchant classes are traditionally suspicious both of Traders and thieves, there are a number of racist superstitions surrounding Traders which Briar uses to taunt Daja. Though Sandry is altogether too eager to befriend literally any person, all three of them are wary of her due to her incredible wealth and standing, which shows even in her clothing and demeanor. That said, each of them is an outcast in their own class for personal reasons. Tris is eschewed by merchants for her unpredictability and general lack of useful skills. Briar teased among street rats for his gentle love of plants. Daja, shunned literally by her entire culture for being bad luck, is also interested in metal-craft, which is seen as a “creation” role rather than a “selling/buying” role and is disallowed in Trader culture. Sandry, having not been raised in court or with courtly manners, is happy to befriend people of any class or race seemingly except for her own, and is more interested in threadcraft than is acceptable for a noblewoman.

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While Briar and Sandry both find their eventual teachers in their house--Briar taking up with the prickly and threatening Rosethorn, and Sandry with the kind, patient Lark--Tris sticks to Niko when he visits, and studies independently otherwise, and Daja eventually meets the blacksmith mage Frostpine, who takes her on as an apprentice. While none of the four know yet that they are what’s called “ambient mages,” they do have inklings of their own power when they work in their element, and when Niko demands they take regular lessons with him in meditation, which is meant to help them learn the much-needed skill to contain their abilities; when Briar steps into Rosethorn’s garden, her vines wrap themselves around his legs, Daja sees runes that have been laid on metal around the temple city, Lark’s carded wool sticks to Sandry and refuses to let go, and Tris could accidentally kill someone with lightning if she got too angry. But when the group goes to the local market and escape supervision for a short time to come to the rescue of a stray dog, their inability to control their abilities becomes more than just a household nuisance and more of a threat to the world at large. They’re confined to the temple grounds by word of the Duke until their powers are under control.

What’s interesting in that situation is that, if you recall, the Duke is Sandry’s uncle, and when all's said and done, the punishment for the activities of that day is a little light, so Sandry loses some of the standing with her foster-siblings that she’d gained by standing up for them to the Duke in the first place. However, this is one of the first instances in which Sandry employs diplomacy over a snarkier type of rage to efficiently make her defense, and from that point forth, Sandry is the spokesperson for the group when they address adults with their observations or problems. Another interesting thing about the scene is that the fines addressed for the various crimes of those involved are immediately compared to the annual wages of various classes, and it’s shown why these people would rather not have the law involved in solving their issues--it’s not affordable. And it’s really not something I’d thought about as a child until I read this: justice ends up being proportional to people’s ability to pay for their own defense.

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After this incident, it’s hard for the children to deny they have magical gifts, and they reluctantly share their own tragic stories with one another in the interest of untangling the situation. They confront their teachers as a group, frustrated that they were being taught while being kept in the dark, and in another rare instance, they are taken quite seriously by their mentors. Their lessons become more specific, more magic-oriented, and more intensive in their field afterwards. Additionally, the four start sharing knowledge with one another, and applying insights about different crafts to their own work, and it allows them to create unique products of their power unlike those of high-powered mages of the same type. Things begin to get better for the four, both with regard to their friendship and their schooling, and they work to build a camaraderie until one day a large earthquake strikes the city, and they’re trapped underground as another earthquake quickly approaches. They have to spin their magic together to keep themselves alive long enough to escape, and in doing so, break fundamental rules of how magic in that universe is known to work.

The coming-together of these four classes of people with such differently-themed abilities to form a single unit of power, strong enough to survive the actual molten heart of the earth, is both the unexpected ending of this book and the thematic beginning of the rest of them. Their abilities morph and change, and they gain the ability to read one another’s thoughts at great distances, and to lend magic to one another when needed, all of which is unheard of in their world. However, it has a greater effect on them as individuals than it does on magical doctrine. Suddenly they can’t protect private thoughts from one another, they can’t work their own craft independently of other trades, and they no longer fail to realize the value in one another’s differing learning styles, magical traits, and specific skills, as they had previously done. They’re forced to respect one another’s interests and abilities, and to rely on total cooperation.

While the meat of the story has enough social-justice porn to keep me busy, the settings and general framework of the types of communities in the “Circle Universe” also helped lay the groundwork for what I’ll refer to as my quasi-socialist mindset as an adult. Winding Circle Temple is a religious facility, yes, but it provides education and housing, as well as food, to people from all walks of life. They charge the rich, and not the poor, for equal services, on what appears to be a sliding scale, and this allows them to distribute their aid fairly in times of crisis. Relationships of many types are exemplified without explanation or excuse. Rosethorn and Lark are romantically together, adopt and raise troubled children together, and live together, but when Rosethorn travels, she finds new partners wherever she goes. Frostpine displays healthy but brief sexual relationships when he travels. Lark stays at Winding Circle, and does not seek new partners, but doesn’t begrudge them of Rosethorn and isn’t less secure alone than she is with a partner, and in fact, adopts more troubled youths on her own. Briar, a hormonal and growing teenage boy, lives with three girls, and is never inappropriate or involved with any of them, and in later books explains how growing up with three female peers enabled him to be a more respectful, and artful, date to women on his travels. Taxes are explained heavily in later stories, as Sandry helps her uncle with the running of an entire country during crises like earthquakes, forest fires, and pirate attacks.

I read these stories over and over growing up, and all the while, I never realized I was being taught core values and exposed to concepts about the workings of the greater world, but I found myself more readily able to accept and adapt to these concepts as I got older because I had preconceived notions of them from the Winding Circle books. Since I’ve seen this functional, productive society with socialized healthcare and education, and global communication in times of crisis, disaster, and war in order to equitably distribute necessary resources, I feel it’s possible in reality. I of course understand that things aren’t as simple in reality as they are in fiction, but I hold these hopes and ideals more strongly now, I think, than I would had I never been given an example. The topics of taxes, of violence, of law and order, are not shied away from or downplayed in this series just because the intended audience is children. I felt respected as a young adult reader when I took them in originally, and as an older reader now I can appreciate the content because it isn’t dumbed down at all. While the characters are juvenile, their experiences are not unheard-of in reality, and it’s easy for the reader to empathize at any age.

I think my point is, if you’d like to raise a progressive child, this is a good series to hand to them when they’re eleven. It’s a subtle way of explaining the ways in which empathy can be applied not only to personal relationships, but to international relationships, to political theory, to economic theory, and to our considerations of other cultures, while still allowing you or your child to go on a few adventures with young wizards, as Harry Potter fans (LIKE ME)  will appreciate.