I was so disappointed by this book. Tamora Pierce is one of my favorite authors, and I had such high expectations for Battle Magic because everything Pierce writes is normally of very high quality. In this case, however, I feel like she fell very, very flat. Part of this is the nature of the book. It's an "in between" book, a book that happens between two other books but is written and released after them; in this case, Battle Magic comes after Street Magic but before Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress. Now, doing short stories and novellas in between other works is all the rage these days, but Battle Magic doesn't fit that description. It's a full-fledged novel, at well over 400 pages. But, having devoured everything Pierce has written, including Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress, I already had an idea--a pretty good one--of what happened in this book. That didn't deter me. I re-read books all the time, and knowing what's going to happen isn't necessarily a bad thing. Good writing an easily compensate for that. But in this case, I felt that the writing just...wasn't...good.
It absolutely breaks my heart to say that, but it's true. Pierce spent this book fleshing out a conflict mentioned in Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress, between two countries that seem to be very loosely based on China and Tibet. Gyongxe is like Tibet: a high mountain country that is one of the holiest lands in the world, a place where the gods are closer. Yanjing is like Imperial China, and wants to take over Gyongxe. Now, these two countries aren't copy-and-paste representations of their real-world "counterparts," but it's easy to see where the inspiration came from, especially in the beginning. As the book goes on, Pierce fleshes out the countries more and more (this is something she's so good at) and the differences become more marked, the distance between reality and fantasy wider. That's as it should be. Pierce also incorporates a wonderful magic system that we haven't seen before, based on teamwork and shamanism rather than the individual mages featured in her other books. And all the hallmarks of a great, gritty fantasy are there: an invading force, a defending country, a small group of people trying to make a difference, and such wonderful magic. But then it just fell apart.
Going into this book, I knew things wouldn't go well. I knew, for example, that there was going to be torture; Evvy talks about her feet being caned in Melting Stones. "Wow," I thought. "Pierce is really getting grown up with this one." But she didn't. There's a short torture scene, but I felt it lacked real emotion. I felt that most of the pivotal scenes in this book lacked the emotion that Pierce is normally so good at portraying. Big, pivotal moments were brushed over and skipped. It felt like Pierce couldn't decide if she was writing an advanced young-adult fantasy or one for much younger readers, and that muddle really got in the way of enjoyment. And the end...which is a literal deus ex machina. Pierce's characters normally have such agency and direction in her books, and in this one they were just dragged about and didn't really affect anything, especially at the end. Without them, everything would likely have been pretty much the same, and that was disappointing.
This was most definitely not Pierce's strongest work, and considering that I waited so long to read it, I was extra disappointed. Some of the settings and magic were lovely, and we actually get some scenes from Rosethorn's perspective, which was nice, but so much was just...missing. I'm very, very sad about this.
2 stars out of 5.