It’s no secret that Tamora Pierce is one of my favorite authors. With the relatively recent release of the third and final book of her Beka Cooper trilogy, I set about to read all three books in quick succession. An ancestress of George Cooper, king of thieves and romantic interest from Pierce’s well-loved Alanna series, it’s fittingly ironic that Beka Cooper stands firmly on the side of the law. Over the course of the three books, Pierce follows the trajectory of Beka’s career as a Provost’s Guard, or “beat cop,” patrolling the slums of Corus, the capital city of Tortall.
In book one, Terrier, we first meet Beka, a no-nonsense mot from a working class background who is an aspiring Provost’s Guard, known in street talk as a “Dog.” Beka sets herself to work with gumption and unwavering determination, fighting to be the best training dog around. She chooses one of the toughest beats, the Lower City district known as the Cesspool, her home turf. For all her backbone, Beka is also painfully shy, and her lack of comfort in social situations causes trouble for her as she navigates the harsh trials of her rookie years. A stroke of good fortune lands Beka with two experienced guards of the Evening Watch, Mathias Tunstall and Clara Goodwin. The “quiet” days of training quickly dissolve into mayhem when a child killer/kidnapper known as the Shadow Snake unleashes its reign of terror on the Lower City. It is up to Beka and her partners to stop the Shadow Snake before it throws the delicate equilibrium of the social underworld into chaos.
The second book Bloodhound relays the trials of Beka’s first years as an official Dog. Out from under the supportive wings of Tunstall and Goodwin, Cooper has difficulty adjusting to new partners due to her stringent commitment to justice and her work. When she sees another Dog mistreating a scent hound, Beka snaps, chewing out the senior officer. Her outburst earns her a new, furry partner named Achoo. When a flood of false currency entering Tortall via the gambling dens of the Lower City threatens to destabilize the realm, Beka embarks on a secret mission which takes her away from the familiar slums of the Cesspool to Port Caynn.
Pierce rounds out the Beka Cooper trilogy with Mastiff. Now an established Dog with an impressive track record, Beka is once again called away from the comforts of the Lower City. Woken in secret in the dead of night by her old friend Tunstall and spirited away to the Summer Palace, Beka engages in her highest stakes hunt yet. More so than ever before, the future of the realm rests on her shoulders. Prince Gareth has been kidnapped. Beka and Tunstall, together with lady knight Sabine Macayhill and an unorthodox mage named Farmer Cape, embark on a quest throughout Tortall to find the lost prince. But with the odds decidedly in favor of their enemies, even the heroic Beka may not be able to escape intact.
Beginning in Terrier, the first in the trilogy, Pierce adopts a first-person narrative voice–as opposed to her habitual third-person writing–and a diary format to convey Beka’s story. Conceived of as a training journal, in which the heroine practices jotting down her observations in as detailed a fashion as possible, this new point of view compliments the story and subject well. It allows Pierce to focus specifically on conveying Beka’s unique, authentic voice and on elaborating Beka’s thought processes and observations as she works her various cases. Pierce’s Beka speaks in a language all her own. More so than in her other books, Pierce creates a complex web of neologisms and a vernacular which colors how Beka expresses the world around her. Descriptions of mots, gixies, and pox-and-murrain problems effectively build the richness of Beka’s world. Pierce’s Beka Cooper books are a stellar example of how a first person point of view can be used effectively in young adult fiction.
As fantastical police procedurals, the plots of Terrier, Bloodhound, and Mastiff rely on the thrill of the chase. The reader follows along with Beka and her allies as they glean information to catch their perp(s) by the end of each story–questioning witnesses and criminal contacts, tailing suspects, magicking crime scenes, and investigating evidence. In Beka’s case, part of the chase also involves working a bit of magic. Through a unique family gift, she can communicate with pigeons and dust spinners, who function as her own special informants. But life as a Dog is not all about gathering leads–Beka must also hobble cut purses, pursue criminals, and defend her fellow Dogs in physical confrontations, giving Pierce’s Beka Cooper books a certain gritty realism.
The rough-and-tumble elements of Beka Cooper’s adventures, however, are offset by warm friendships with supporting characters. Beka’s fury friends Pounce, the constellation cat, and Achoo, the scent hound, are particularly endearing, drawn with the care of a true animal lover. Her human friends, on the other hand, push Beka to see that the law is not always black and white. In the company of Dogs, who bend the rules to cope with real life conditions, and rogues, who uphold their own standards of justice, Beka Cooper runs with a diverse crowd that proves educational for both the heroine and the readers.
While some portion of Pierce’s worldview has always wound its way into her stories, in the Beka Cooper books more so than her other titles, the author tastefully embeds messages about social issues important to teens today–gay love, women’s empowerment, body image and confidence issues, sex before marriage, class and race-based discrimination, birth control, and healthy romantic relationships.
After a thirty year career as a writer and with a bibliography of over twenty-five books and counting, Tamora Pierce is one of the most consistently talented authors of young adult fiction still active today. The Beka Cooper books, while perhaps not quite as wonderful as Pierce’s other works set in the Tortall universe, rest head and shoulders above a majority of comparable YA titles in terms of overall quality, originality, worldbuilding, and character development. As always, anything written by Tamora Pierce is a delight.
Yes, you do want to know more. Here are links to several interviews with Pierce and to her website:
A selection of interviews with Tamora Pierce from adlit.org
Tamora Pierce’s website