I have to be honest- I learned a lot about sex and relationships from Tamora Pierce.
Tamora (or Queen Tammy, as fans sometimes affectionately dub her) is the author of numerous YA fantasy series, including Song of the Lioness, Protector of the Small, Immortals, Circle of Magic, and The Circle Opens. In this post, I’ll discuss why her approach to sex and birth control was so eye-opening for me. I’ll try not to get TOO spoiler-heavy, but if “abc learns xyz about birth control and does some kissing” is considered a spoiler, you may want to skip this post! The primary books discussed will be Song of the Lioness, Protector of the Small, and The Will of the Empress (a continuation of the Circle books.)
This post also discusses things like periods, birth control, and sex, so if those are not your cup of tea, this post won’t be either.
Queen Tammy’s books are set in multiple universes, but they share some similarities. Song of the Lioness, Protector of the Small, Immortals, and other works are in the land of Tortall, a medieval-esque kingdom, and tend to focus on the ruling family, their army, knights, and trouble inside and outside the borders. The Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens, and Will of the Empress are set in Emelan, a realm with a more organized magic structure than Tortall, and focus more on magic schools, the students there, and the struggles they face with their unusual forms of magic. They all feature preteen and teen protagonists, though the adults play important roles as well. They all manage to focus on both the micro – an individual character’s struggles with magic, friendships, bullies- and the macro – a kingdom’s worries about the neighboring realms, or terrifying magical creatures invading.
Here’s something I love about these series- they are NOT romance novels. The plots do not revolve around sex, love, marriage, and babies. Sex, love, marriage, and babies just happen to be normal parts of the plot, because those are things that humans (and shapeshifters, and half-gods, and people-who-used-to-be-crows) experience in normal parts of their lives. They’re also marketed to young adults, teenagers, and even pre-teens: I first encountered Tamora Pierce (probably through Circle of Magic) when I was 10 or 11, the same age as the main characters at the beginning of their story.
In Song of the Lioness (set in Tortall and published in the early 1980s), Alanna, a young noble girl, disguises herself as a boy to become a knight. She has many amazing adventures and faces many challenges in the castle, one of which is the feeling that her body is betraying her. I have heard it argued that the inclusion of birth control and sex ed seemed to have been injected to make the books more feminist and that it did not make sense in a fantasy world. I have to disagree on that. One of the first things a reader thinks when they hear the tagline “young girl disguised as a boy to become a knight” is: okay, cool, but what happens when she’s not such a young girl anymore, when she’s a young woman? Not mentioning her changing body or how she handles it would have left a gaping hole in the narrative. Especially reading the book as someone going through puberty, I would have wondered why Alanna seemingly was not.
First, she starts growing breast tissue (which she binds down with bandages to continue her disguise as a page), and then she wakes up one morning and realizes she has begun to menstruate. This is shocking and horrifying for a girl who didn’t have much education about female anatomy and sexuality, so she panics, confesses to someone, and is brought to a city healing woman. Alanna’s is an absolutely realistic reaction to a first period- for those of you out there who haven’t had this experience, it can be terrifying if you don’t know what to expect, and you’d want to go immediately to a woman you trust. Alanna doesn’t have anyone in the castle she trusts to keep her identity a secret, so she has to hope her city connections will lead her to a discreet healing woman. The healer explains what her period is and realizes that the only ‘sex ed’ Alanna has heard was from the teen boys in the page/squire/knight training programs.
“Do you know what happens when you lie with a man? Well, a woman enjoys it too, and one time is enough for you to get with child. I’ll give you a charm against your getting pregnant, then. If you change your mind, you can throw it away.”
–Alanna, The First Adventure (Tamora Pierce)
As Amanda Diehl says in “The Queen’s Readers: A Collection of Essays on the Words & Worlds of Tamora Pierce” (which is an amazing read, if you’re a fan of Queen Tammy and her works), “That’s it. That’s the information Eleni gives Alanna. She doesn’t tell her to wait, she doesn’t tell her that if she has sex once she’s ruined, she doesn’t tell her that wanting sex is wrong or strange.” And that about sums it up. It’s not a lecture, it’s not a condemnation, there is no assumption that Alanna is promiscuous because she spends her time disguised as a boy and surrounded by boys, it’s just simple facts. This is your period, this is sex, babies are a possible outcome of sex, this is how you can avoid babies.
Mark Oshiro, of the site Mark Reads, also had a great reaction to this moment, pointing out something I didn’t even consider:
“Pigs might fly,” the girl muttered. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, ALANNA OF TREBOND. Which is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with motherhood! There’s not! I just like that this is a fantasy novel where sex education and women’s health knowledge is passed along very matter-of-factly, and Alanna is not criticized for not wanting children. THIS IS REALLY LOVELY.
Alanna ends up in sexual relationships in her books, but they’re not explicit – Tamora Pierce manages to discuss teens having sex without it being pornographic or judgemental. It is simply painted as a part of their experience- girl disguises as a boy to become a knight, girl fights bullies, girl kisses a boy, girl practices magic, girl has sex, girl rides with desert tribe and helps them, etc. And she (spoiler alert?) DOES eventually have children. She just waits until she is settled and ready.
Keladry, in Protector of the Small, has a similar sex ed discussion with her mother. The Lady Ilane (an intimidating woman who once defended priceless artifacts with a polearm) informs her daughter that even if she doesn’t plan on having sex soon, sometimes things happen, and it’s better to be protected. Kel agrees and takes the protective charm. Though Kel is allowed to pursue her chosen career path openly as a woman, she is still one of the few women around, and it is important for her to know her body and what it is capable of.
Tammy’s other universe, Emelan, is different from Tortall because birth control isn’t brought up for the young women. Instead, it is Briar, a boy street urchin turned plant-mage, who mentions birth control. He is all grown up in Will of The Empress and seeking comfort from any woman who will have him; sex helps him forget the horrors of war he saw in his travels. His foster-sisters are worried about him, and one of their male relatives chides him about the possible outcomes of this habit:
“Well, if you fertilize any of the fields you till, I hope you will fertilize the mothers’ purses as well,” Ambros said. “A man should take responsibility for what he sows.”
“Responsibility is my middle name,” Briar told him, earnestly. “Droughtwort is my other middle name.” The droughtwort herb rendered any man who ate it sterile for days. Briar was determined not to sire any children who might be left parent-less if something happened to their mothers.
–Will of the Empress, Tamora Pierce
While I was thinking about birth control and sex-ed in fantasy literature, this scene made my jaw drop. Here is a young male character who has taken responsibility for birth control in his sexual relationships. He is aware that he would not be a good father to potential offspring, so he takes steps not to have offspring. He discusses this openly with an older male role model. And again, like in Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small, it’s matter-of-fact. Just part of life. Guy travels, guy works in gardens, guy gets traumatized by seeing war and murder, guy has sex, guy takes herb so he won’t get anyone pregnant. Guy thwarts and/or encourages rebellion (No spoilers here!).
This book in particular addresses a few other interesting sexual/romantic themes: bride kidnapping, lesbian relationships, and marriage to retain property. Tamora Pierce, despite being a ‘genre writer’ of YA Fantasy, is not afraid to challenge her readers.
As an adult, I love thinking about the birth control amulets and herbs as progressive and feminist; but as a young teen, they were simply parts of the book. As someone who hopes to one day have children, I would gladly give Tamora Pierce’s books to my daughters and sons: young readers of any gender deserve a realistic look at puberty and relationships. I don’t feel they are pushing an agenda: they don’t say “Go, Alanna, have sex with everyone without consequences!” They simply say, “your body is now capable of doing some things, you should understand them and know you have options.”
I enjoy books with realistic approaches: I like to hear about what people are eating and where they’re sleeping, even when the overarching narrative isn’t about food or sleep. Tamora Pierce will forever be in my heart with her practical, realistic approach to sex-ed and birth control. Can a girl become a knight? Yes. Can a girl decide what she wants to do with her body? Of course! Can a boy also have a say in if he makes babies or not? Absolutely!
The author of this post would like to remind readers that magic charms and droughtwort (unfortunately) don’t work in real life. For information on real-world sex ed and birth control, please contact your doctor or Planned Parenthood.
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.