This, the fourth and final installment in the THE CIRCLE OPENS quartet is itself a sequel to Tris’s Book in the original CIRCLE OF MAGIC series. There, the reader was introduced to four immensely powerful but untrained young mages: aristocratic Sandry, stoic Daja, street-rat Briar and outcast Trisana, called “Tris” for short. In a departure from her usual action-adventure stories, Tamora Pierce concentrated on character for this particular series, describing how this disparate group of youngsters was brought to the safety of the Winding Circle temple in order to learn how to control their abilities. Over the course of the four books, the children formed an unbreakable bond with each other and with the teachers that are still guiding them toward mastery of their craft and the responsibilities of adulthood.
With this new series, the circle opens (as the title suggests) in order to follow the four on their personal journeys into maturity, traveling with their teachers in order to hone their magical skills and see more of the world around them. The downside is that they are separated from one another for the first time in years, but the upside is that they each become teachers in their own right when they discover other young people with magical gifts.
In the previous books, Sandry, Briar and Daja have all found young students who need their help in controlling their own innate abilities, as well as dealt with problems ranging from turf wars to arson. Now it’s Tris’s turn, and it’s clear why Pierce has saved her for last. With her short temper and moody disposition, Tris is the last person you’d expect to be an effective teacher.
Yet Tris has grown up a lot since last we saw her, and with her mentor Niko Goldeye she’s learnt to control her powers over the weather. Her hair is a mass of braids and pigtails that store her control over winds, lightning and water, and though she still has to keep a strict watch over her emotions, she’s certainly not the insecure, defensive, irritable young girl that we first met in Tris’s Book.
She and Niko have come to the city of Tharios so that Niko can take part in a mages’ council. Tris is impressed by the beauty of Tharios, but less so by its oppressive social order, in which the lower classes that see to the maintenance of the city are second-class citizens. Also troublesome is their attitude toward death, something that is deemed “unclean” and so dealt with in such a way that involves ritual and cleansing done at considerable time and cost to the people. It hinders the police investigation into the spate of murders that are occurring around the city, for priests instructed to deal with the dead bodies of murdered girls are destroying any evidence that might lead the authorities to the killer, known only as “the Ghost.”
Such is the situation when the book opens, with Tris aware of the crisis but unable to do anything about it, being only a foreigner in a city that strictly adheres to its rigid social customs. But on a jaunt around town she is distracted by the sight of a young man glass-blowing, who is unknowingly infusing his work with magic from the streets around him. His accidental creation of a sentient glass dragon astonishes the two of them, Tris because of the skill and power involved, and its creator because he didn’t realize he even had any magic. Kethlun Warder has come to the city to escape his family, after a stray lightning bolt first left him paralyzed, and then unable to control his newfound abilities. Terrified of lightning and the power he now wields over it, Tris and Niko try to convince him that he’s in need of a proper teacher – though Tris is hardly impressed when that turns out to be her.
There is a twist on the usual teacher/apprentice dynamic, and that’s that Tris is several years younger than her pupil, a man who is initially reluctant to take orders from a fourteen-year-old. Unlike her foster-siblings, Tris actually has to prove herself to her student before she can teach him, but when Keth starts creating strange glass globes that reveal visions of the murder victims strewn about the city, things suddenly get serious. After a run-in with the police (which includes an amusing exchange when Tris passionately defends her pupil and is then asked how long she’s been his teacher: “um… maybe two hours?”) the two team up with the chief investigator to try and catch the killer before more innocent lives are lost.
Short and plump, prickly and sarcastic, with curly red hair and spectacles, someone who would much rather snuggle down with a good book than socialize, Tris is one of Tamora Pierce’s best characters. Pierce has always been excellent at creating balance in her stories, and thus despite the fact that Tris is one of the most powerful mages (with mastery over the elements), it comes with a hefty price considering the headaches and nausea, social exclusion, need for intense self-control, and lack of any real job prospects that comes with it. Yet Tris has always refused to feel sorry for herself, and battles on with trademark determination and responsibility.
Perhaps inevitably, her supporting cast is not quite as vivid; Keth is a little bland, Niko is rather low-key, and we never really get to emphasize with Inspector Dema, but Tris manages to carry the book, and the plot she’s embroiled in certainly makes for one of the creepier problems that the quartet has had to deal with. The city of Tharios seems to be based on Greece, with a strict caste system borrowed from India, and Pierce does a great job pinpointing the unfairness of the system, whilst not doing away with it by the end of the book. Though Tris’s short-term goal is to stop the killer, she also manages to take several needy individuals under her wing, and make a small difference that may have long-term effects on the people of the city.
As always, Tamora Pierce delivers a great story, though not one that’s hinged on the usual fantasy formula. With emphasis on growth, learning and discipline, and an interest in handicrafts (here it’s glassblowing, but Pierce has also included weaving and metal-work in previous CIRCLE books), this series has an interest in human nature and the day-to-day existence of ordinary folk that is so often missing in other novels in this genre.
Now with all the young protagonists on the verge of adulthood, they are reunited again in The Will of the Empress, in which their friendship (so missed in this series!) is explored in greater detail.