It’s ironic that feminist writer Tamora Pierce’s only male character, the self-named Briar Moss, is one of her best characters. Amongst the rest of the mainly female cast, his charisma, street smarts and ongoing inner conflict between his younger, wilder instincts, and his older, more civilized self, makes him one of the most lovable and well-rounded characters in the Circle of Magic series.
The first four books gathered together four magical protégées: aristocratic Sandry, moody bookworm Tris, stoic Daja, and street-rat Briar, all of whom have complimentary powers that allowed them to perform startling acts of magic. Underlying their feats are the strength of the friendship and the bonds of trust that they forge, making the original four books one of the most touching examples of a self-made foster family in young adult literature, particularly if you include their long-suffering teachers.
This follow up series, The Circle Opens does something that is initially rather unthinkable: it splits up the foursome and sends them out on journeys with their teachers in order to hone their magical craft and see more of the world they inhabit. Divided from their foster siblings for the first time in years, the quartet finds it hard to adjust without each other, until they are caught up in adventures of their own.
Briar is staying with his teacher Rosethorn in the ancient city of Chammur, where the two plant mages can lend their skills to the tired farmland and their healing abilities to the local hospitals. While scoping out the marketplace, Briar is struck by the extraordinary sight of a young girl using magic to polish a merchant’s gemstones. She flees at the first overtures of friendship, but Briar is informed by Rosethorn that since he is the mage who discovered her latent power, he is now responsible for ensuring that she gets a teacher.
Little Evvy is hardly interested in the prospect of lessons and training, but her fascination with Briar and Rosethorn’s abilities gradually draws her out into the open. While she and Briar strike up a tentative friendship, gang warfare in the city escalates as (unbeknownst to the protagonists) an aristocratic woman funds one of the lesser-known gangs in order to make her mark on the city. When her attention falls upon Evvy, it’s up to Briar to protect his new charge from danger.
The plot of Street Magic is very much in line with the others in the book. Like his foster-sisters, Briar finds an untrained mage in an exotic location and must take responsibility for their well-being, with the experience pushing them further toward adulthood. The secondary plot, which contains the suspense and action, is quite reminiscent of Magic Steps (which also had gang warfare) and Shatterglass (which involved a series of murders). Though they are not similar enough to warrant a miss, it’s also worth saying that the Circle Opens series is structured in such a way that the books can be read out of order. Each installment is self-contained, and though Street Magic is the second book in the quartet, I read it last, and I don’t feel out-of-sync because of it.
It is the characterization that lifts Street Magic from a good book to a great one. As said, Briar has always been my favorite character in this series, and here he compensates for the absence of his foster sisters by having on-going conversations with them in his head — whether he likes it or not! And if Briar is my favorite character, then Briar and Rosethorn make up by favorite teacher/student relationship. Though Rosethorn herself is quite low-key in this book, her strict, prickly, ill-tempered exterior always belies a heart of gold.
Rounding out the cast is Evvy, who is also easily the most interesting of the “next generation” students. Sold as a slave by her parents when she was just a child, Evvy scrounges out a living amidst the rocks, avoiding the gangs and dwelling only with her cats. Spunky, streetwise, suspiciously and yet immensely vulnerable, she was obviously popular enough with the author herself to warrant a spin-off novel: Melting Stones.
Pierce also introduces a unique villain, Lady Zenadia, who is still a frightening figure despite her rather one-note characterization. Here is a woman who is not acting out of malice or greed or vengeance, but simply sheer boredom, with a lifestyle that has produced a complete disregard for the lives of the children she employs. Although she is dwelt with a tad anti-climactically (Pierce introduces the possibility of Evvy going undercover into Zenadia’s house, an idea that is sadly does not come to pass), she is an intriguing look at psychopathic self-entitlement. Fans of Agatha Christie may well be reminded of the terrifying Lady Boynton from Appointment With Death.
As always, Pierce’s imagination is on full blast, and particularly rewarding is the way in which Briar utilizes his powers. This is not merely in his wonderful storming of Zenadia’s estate at the climax of the book, but in more subtle ways as well; such as increasing the potency of catnip in order to tame some feral cats, or realizing that there are dead bodies under the earth due to the rather crazed nature of the plants that grow over them. Briar *thinks* in terms of plants, and it makes for an incredibly personalized narrative.
The Magic Circle series as a whole is far more slow-paced and mellow in content than many of Pierce’s previous novels. Here, the emphasis is on characters and their place in the world, and on teaching, growing and learning rather than the adventures and romance of Tortall books. They’re not for everyone, but for those who appreciate strong characters, careful plots, and extensive world-building, then give The Circle Opens a try.