Exciting Journey, Rough Ending: Review of Mastiff by Tamora Pierce

Bookworm Wednesday: Review of Mastiff by Tamora Pierce

Title: Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3

Author: Tamora Pierce

Genre: YA Fantasy

Where I Got It: I bought this one (hard copy)

Score: 4 out of 5

Because Mastiff is the final installment in a trilogy, and I didn’t review the first two books here (having read them before I’d really started blogging), I should give you all a quick overview of the series:

Beka Cooper is a young woman living in the capital city of the kingdom of Tortall (a few generations before the bulk of Pierce’s Tortall series takes place).  In the first book, Terrier, Beka is beginning her training and work as one of the “Provost’s Dogs,” a kind of proto-police force that patrols the city streets, and hunts and captures criminals.  The system is filled with corruption, but most involved are well-intentioned, and Beka believes in the good the Dogs can do.  As she works with her trainers Tunstall and Goodwin – two of the best and most incorruptible Dogs in the city, Beka learns how to survive as a Dog and often serves as a moral compass for some of her less-than-reputable friends – including Rosto the Piper, a thief with whom she keeps up a harmless flirtation.  And, of course, Beka and her two partners solve a series of murders.

The second book, Bloodhound, finds Beka partnering with Goodwin alone on a mission to another city, to discover the source of a counterfeiting operation that could ruin the kingdom.  While the first book dealt with many social issues as well as the solving of murders, this second books focuses almost solely on the crime and Beka’s “Hunt” – her mission to find the counterfeiters.  But now, she has the help of Achoo, a scent hound she rescued from an abusive owner, who is well trained in tracking, and who could make all the difference in the Hunt.  In the course of this book, she meets Dale Rowan, a charmer banker she thinks she might be able to fall in love with, and a few other friends.  But the focus is on the Hunt, which Beka will, of course, triumph over.

Now we come to the third book, Mastiff.  In this, the final installment of the series, we suddenly jump ahead a couple years.  At the opening, Beka and her friends and mourning the death of fellow Dog Holborne, who was apparently Beka’s fiancé during the space between books 2 and 3.  But the mourning doesn’t last long as Beka and her partner Tunstall (Goodwin having retired at the end of the Bloodhound) are called out of the city on a secretive Hunt to find out who kidnapped the King’s son and track them down.  On this mission they are also joined by a mage named Farmer Cape, whose goofy exterior hides a shrewd mind and powerful magic, and Tunstall’s lover, the Lady Knight Sabine.  (And, of course, the famous scent hound Achoo is with them as well).  This Hunt leads both the characters and the readers to deal with the issue of slavery, an issue brought up in the first book as well, and how it affects both individuals and the country as a whole.  As these four track the King’s son and his slaver-captors, they must deal with betrayal and secrecy, and each other.

Now, let me just say that I adore Tamora Pierce.  And I own every book she has written, except the White Tiger graphic novel that she wrote for Marvel Comics (and I’ll get around to that one someday, no doubt).  In other words, Tamora Pierce can do very little wrong in my book, so it should come as no surprise that I liked Mastiff.  However, there were some problems with this installment.  While I can honestly say that I love The Legend of Beka Cooper series as a whole, and it may even be in contention as my second or third favorite out of Pierce’s six separate series, I honestly think Mastiff might be one of the weakest individual novels Pierce has yet written.

What I Liked:

All that is not to say I didn’t like it.  Because I certainly did.  For starters, I absolutely ADORE Beka.  All of Tamora Pierce’s main characters are intelligent, spunky young women (which is, of course, what first draws most female readers to her to begin with), but all Pierce’s female characters still succeed at begin unique and individual, rather than just reiterations of essentially the same character.  Beka is whip-smart and observant, she is deeply compassionate, but she is also more than a little prickly, excessively shy and hard to talk to, and her upstanding moral character makes her just a touch self-righteous at times (but never so much as to make her annoying to the readers).  One of the things that makes her unique in the books is her ability to talk to pigeons, which carry the souls of the dead, and to dust-spinners, which carry and repeat whatever bits of conversation are on the wind.  These two talents help her as she investigates crimes, and makes some people around her nervous, but these bits of magical ability are not especially integral to the plot.

Many of the other characters are also, of course, likable.  Tunstall and Sabine, who have been around since the first book, are likable as ever.  And Farmer Cape, the new addition for the book, is funny, a touch mysterious, and pretty damn cool, too.  Also, just to give something small away (though it’s pretty obvious from the get-go), he’s the new love interest as well.

The plot is intricate and exciting.  We follow Beka and company as the travel across quite a bit of the Tortall landscape, chasing down the slavers, fighting off ambush attacks and magical defenses, braving through swamps, and so forth.  And all the while there are many questions about how the slavers could get into the castle to kidnap the prince, who might have helped them and why, and how deep the betrayal might go.  Once I got into the meat of the story, I could not put the book down!  I was desperate to know what would happen next.

And Pierce’s writing is, as ever, wonderful.  Her attention to detail and ability to describe things so that the readers can really imagine them, are amazing.  Her pacing was strategic, and downright intense as you get into the second half of the book.

What I Didn’t Like:

However, as I have said, there were some problems with this novel.  First, the opening with the death of Holborne was strange and, in my opinion, completely unnecessary.  I think I vaguely remember a character named Holborne being briefly mentioned in book 1 or 2, but this is not someone we the readers know.  It’s not someone we care about it.  So we have absolutely no emotional investment in learning about his death at the beginning of the novel.  And, quite frankly, his apparent betrothal to Beka, which we never see and never care about (and which we learn near the beginning, Beka herself had stopped caring about before his death), seems out-of-place, out-of-character for Beka, and unnecessary for launching the story.  Nor does it play any real factor later on in the story.  People mention it, and Beka’s first-person-narration wallows in guilt for awhile, but none of it is important for the plot or much of the characterization.  One can only assume that it was meant to add some tension to Beka’s growing attraction to Farmer throughout the novel, but there are other things to fill that role – including the fact that she barely knows him, they’re in the middle of a Hunt, and Beka suspects someone has betrayed them and she doesn’t know who.  That addition of a dead fiancé she didn’t really love anyway just doesn’t actually add much.

My second big problem is the issue of slavery.  My problem is not that they talk about it, or that it is portrayed as a problem (as it obviously is), my problem is that none of the characters really wrestle with it.  Beka is opposed to it, but even she does not talk about the problems of anyone owning anyone else.  Her main problem is with the ways families will sell their children into slavery because they are too poor to support them.  And none of the other characters really seem to have much of a problem with it at all.  We all agree that slavery is wrong now, but in a medieval setting, it wouldn’t be so clear-cut and I would have liked to see the characters really thinking/talking about it.  Also, the way the slavery issue is resolved at the end, while nice and touchy-feely, is wholly unrealistic.

My third and biggest problem with this novel is something I have to talk about only vaguely with veiled references, otherwise I would ruin the biggest climax of the novel.  So, let me just say, that what Pierce does with one of the characters is just WRONG.  Flat out and completely WRONG.  And it comes out of NOWHERE.  Now, looking back and I can see where she was trying to maybe hint at something, sort of… but what happens is so completely out-of-character that I just can’t swallow it.  This is just an issue of readers not accepting that characters they like sometimes do bad things, because I get that.  It’s a problem of characterization.  Because Pierce does absolutely nothing to make me BELIEVE this character would do this thing for this reason under these circumstances.  It just doesn’t work.  Period.

So, while I loved most of the book, despite the flaw of Holborne at the beginning, the climax and ending were really marred for me. Which is something that I don’t think has ever happened to me in a Tamora Pierce book before.  That’s why it gets a 4 out of 5, when almost all of her others would either receive a 5 or even a 6.

It’s still a lot of fun to read, I assure you.  If you like Tamora Pierce, and have enjoyed any of her other novels, I DEFINITELY still recommend this book, and this series as a whole.  However, I will warn you that it is not the best one she’s ever written.  And if you’ve never read anything by Tamora Pierce before, I suggest you start with her two best series: The Song of the Lioness Quartet, and The Immortals Quartet.