A New View of an Old Favorite: A Review of Tortall: A Spy’s Guide

Tortall: A Spy’s Guide (2017)
Written By: Tamora Pierce
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 320 pages (Hardcover)
Series: Tortall
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers

Why I Chose It: Anything by Tamora Pierce is an instabuy for me. I even dragged my husband and child to the bookstore at dinner time because two-day shipping wasn’t quick enough.

The Premise:

The secrets of Tortall are revealed. . .

As Tortall’s spymaster, George Cooper has sensitive documents from all corners of the realm. When Alanna sends him a surprising letter, he cleans out his office and discovers letters from when King Jonathan and Queen Thayet first ascended the throne, notes on creating the Shadow Service of spies, threat-level profiles on favorite characters, Daine’s notes on immortals, as well as family papers, such as Aly’s first report as a young spy and Neal’s lessons with the Lioness. This rich guide also includes the first official timeline of Tortallan events from when it became a sovereign nation to the year Aly gives birth to triplets. Part history, part spy training manual, and entirely fascinating, this beautiful guide makes a perfect gift and is ideal for anyone who loves Alanna, King Jonathan, Queen Thayet, Kel, Neal, Aly, Thom, Daine, Numair, and the unforgettable world of Tortall!

No Spoilers.

Discussion: While this is Tamora Pierce’s newest work, it is not really her newest novel. Tortall: A Spy’s Guide is more of a reference source or deleted scenes for the Tortall series. The book is presented as a collection of papers, notes, and anecdotes compiled by George Cooper as he clears out a storage room at Pirate’s Swoop. And if you’re looking at this as just a stack of random papers you’re sifting through, it’s pretty fun and interesting. Fans of the series will find lots to enjoy between the Whisper Man’s secret files on certain well known characters to Daine’s notes on Immortals. I especially enjoyed the history of Tortall as told by George’s bored ten-year-old son (and the tutor’s accompanying notes). But I have to say, I kind of expected more from Tamora Pierce.

I really felt like this could have been an illustrated series guide, like The Art of Discworld or The Dragon Lover’s Guide to Pern, both of which are beautifully done, with detailed sketches and pages of notes from the authors. They hold places of honor on my bookshelves. The intelligence files and the notes on Immortals would have lent themselves wonderfully to that sort of thing. But I felt like the artwork was really lackluster and very sparse.

Photo from Amazon

Since it became obvious pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be that sort of guide, it was more like a story itself, I expected it to have some cohesiveness, with its own internal story arc. On the very first page Pierce presented a twist for long time readers of the series that I felt would have made a great frame story. It was even the reason George was clearing out the storage room and compiling his notes in the first place. But she never really picked up that particular thread again to tell us what happened. In fact, given that she never came back to it, I can’t figure out why it was included in this “spy’s guide” at all except as fan service.

Even as a collection of papers with little formal organization, I could have used something to tie all the itty-bitty pieces of information together into a whole. With dates attached to every note and correspondence, I should have been able to at least do that myself, comparing them to the timeline of Tortall and the series as I knew it. But I kept getting lost trying to follow the jumps to different points of the series. This is where a frame story would have really helped. Notes from a present day George could have put each piece of the puzzle into the context of the whole or related them to his current situation.

Some things, while fun to read just as a fan, felt really random. I enjoyed the ramblings of an overworked palace cook, but I wasn’t really sure why the Whisper Man had him under surveillance. Even worse, the whole book ended on a vague-ish reference to a disturbing event that (as far as I can remember or determine with the timeline) never occurred in the series. And I’ve read each book in this series multiple times, so I’m very familiar with it. So I was left flipping back and forth saying “wait, when did this happen?” Definitely not a great feeling to end on.

In Conclusion: I’m a completionist so I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad it’s on my shelf despite the fact that I was disappointed that it wasn’t a lot more than it was. If you’re a fan of Tamora Pierce and the Tortall series you’ll have lots of fun with references to the characters and backgrounds you didn’t know before. Pierce has a great sense of humor and it’s still present here. But if you’ve never read Pierce’s Tortall series, this is not the place to start. Go back and read the series first. My favorites are Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen but you can’t go wrong with going all the way back to Alanna: The First Adventure. The prequel about Numair that Pierce has been promising for years is supposed to come out next year. I’m looking forward to that one since I’ve been a little bit in love with Numair ever since I read Wild Mage when I was fourteen.


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