January 18, 2007


Flora Segunda. By Ysabeau S. Wilce. Harcourt. $17.

Beka Cooper, Book I: Terrier. By Tamora Pierce. Random House. $18.95.

     Heroines who grow and grow up during their books, who survive and prosper through brains rather than beauty (even when they have the latter), who make mistakes and pay for them and emerge stronger as a result, and who above all remain true to their own inner cores – these are the central characters in Flora Segunda and Beka Cooper: Terrier.

     First-time novelist Ysabeau S. Wilce (what an enchanting name!) and longtime Tortall chronicler Tamora Pierce are equally adept in these novels at creating central characters who rise above formula, and plots with sufficient intricacy to keep readers turning pages – in Pierce’s case, a lot of pages (nearly 600).  Wilce has a very strange imagination indeed: her protagonist, whose actual name is Flora Fyrdraaca (think “firedragon”), lives in a house of 11,000 rooms, which shift at random.  Those confusingly mobile staircases in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are nothing compared with Crackpot Hall, which is presided over by Flora’s commanding mother (commanding indeed: she is Commanding General of the Army of Califa).  Flora’s father, Poppy, is quite ineffectual, and Crackpot Hall is a mess because the Butler who used to take care of it, Valefor, has been banished.  Why?  Well, Flora Segunda is an immensely and delightfully complicated novel, with secrets within secrets and machinations within machinations.  The title itself is a plot point: it seems there was once another Flora, who was captured in war along with Poppy, but who was not ransomed when Poppy was.  It takes some time to figure out what is going on here, and it is time well spent.  Wilce blithely tosses out amusing and portentous echoes of other supernaturally inclined works, such as a book called the Eschatanomicon, which the Butler – whom Flora finds while being somewhere she should not be – gives to the girl (“he reached up and plucked Something from Nothing”), and whose wonderful title echoes that of the dread Necronomicon invented by H.P. Lovecraft.  The Butler, Valefor, wants Flora to restore his power so he can make everything tidy again at Crackpot Hall (yeah, right), and he has some insights into the Fyrdraacas that are just a little too knowledgeable.  Oh, and then there is the red dog…well, there is actually a lot in Flora Segunda, and just about all of it is wonderful, including the chapter titles, such as “Nausea. Discussion. Tea. Sigils.” and “Ambushed. Gramatica Exclamations. A Coyote.”

     What Flora eventually learns is this: “Nothing is stronger than your Will. …No one can take you from yourself, Flora, unless you allow them to.”  And this is what Rebakah Cooper, called Beka, learns as well in the first book of her adventures – which is Tamora Pierce’s 15th tale of the medieval realm of Tortall.  This novel takes place early in the human era of Tortall, specifically in 246 H.E., when Beka is a rookie member of the Provost’s Dogs – the nickname the people of the city of Corus give to the Provost’s Guard.  The Dogs are law enforcers in a world of magic, and their rookies are deemed Puppies.  Once accepted by the Dogs, Beka asks for duty in the Lower City, where she was born – a rough area whose veteran Dogs, Mattes and Clary, are none too happy about their new assistant.  This could be simply a police procedural in medieval guise, but of course Pierce makes it much more.  She gives Beka a magical power that does not in itself seem like much but that quickly brings Beka into contact with more magic than she can handle.  Beka is a listener: she hears the information that flows like air through the Lower City, whether whispered by people, by pigeons or by ghosts.  And it is through this listening that Beka learns of a terrifying threat to the order the Dogs are sworn to uphold: a brutal someone, or something, that is orchestrating a crime wave while frightening the entire population into submission and silence.  Beka comes across as quite human – she says of a boy, “He makes my skin, my peaches, and my other parts tingle in an agreeable way,” and comments elsewhere, “I hate it when people talk about me whilst I’m in the room.”  But she is first and foremost a Provost’s Dog, or is becoming one – and it is the way she handles herself in her first case that earns her the admiration of the residents of Corus, who give her the compliment of calling her Terrier.  There will be further Beka Cooper adventures, further challenges, further nefarious doings, and further chances for this Terrier to grab evildoers and refuse to let go.  Good thing, too: this first Beka book, for all its length, will leave readers wanting more.

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