on 24 March 2011
First of all I want to make clear that this book does contain all of Tamora Pierce's Tortall stories, including all those published in other anthologies, such as Young Warriors. So if you're looking at buying those books as well, to have a complete collection, you don't need to.
So... you should be aware that this is in some ways not a coherently planned collection. These stories weren't written to be published together, as a companion to the Tortall universe, but were written over a period of over twenty years, for many different publications and many different reasons. For this reason, it is noticeable in a couple of the earlier stories, that the... philosophy of the magic, if you will, is a little different. The rules by which it works are slightly different. Clearly, between writing Plain Magic in 1986 and the Immortals quartet some years later, Pierce had developed her views on dragons.
In addition to this, I want to note that only three of the stories in this collection contain familiar characters, and one of these, the one about the apple tree Numair turned into a man, has Numair only indirectly (his projected thoughts, to be precise). The other is about Kitten, Daine's adopted dragon. And the third, the only one that really concentrates on main characters, is about Nawat becoming a father. Two of the eleven stories are not set in Tortall at all, but in the real world, or real world fantasy.
Despite the seemingly negative overtones of these observations, however, I found these aspects of the collection to be a strength. In my experience, short stories written specially to be 'add-ons', to further illuminate a beloved character, are generally weak, as their motivation is character rather than plot. So too are short stories written all in a rush to fill an anthology. These stories, on the other hand, have the intensity and richness of detail and story that spring from real creative inspiration, rather than a deadline, or a desire to please crowds. The first story in the collection, for instance, A Student of Ostriches, contains within it all the familiar tropes, mixed with the diversity of culture and character, that characterises Pierce's strongest and best quartets. You can see within it how easily it could have burgeoned into a fantastic quartet in it's own right. This was my favourite, not because it had anyone familiar in it at all, but because the new character's themselves are fantastic. The main body of stories are like this, and the only reason I gave this four stars rather than five was because they weren't all--and because it was just over too fast!
Further to my point above about 'add-on' stories, I thought the Nawat story was the weakest of all, even though it had Aly and Nawat etc in pride of place: nothing happened. It was all about a thought process, and a variety of weak interactions between characters. However the problem that Nawat struggles with is refreshingly complex for fantasy and truly thought-provoking.
In short, this collection shouldn't be seen, as the Amazon blurb implies, as something that fills "some gaps of time and interest" between the Tortall quartets, but as yet another fantastic volume of excursions into Tortall: a volume of stories of great fantasty literature that stand entirely on their own merit and that in the quality of the prose and story can really be said to be Classic Tamora Pierce.
As for the two none-Tortall stories, they are both interesting reads too, though very different. One is very American high school, and reminded me of nothing so much as a better written Meg Cabot story. The other is semi-autobiographical, about a house-mother for teenage girls. Rather a diversion from the main theme, certainly, and more desciptive than plotted, but for someone who has been teased for a decade (which is how long I've been a Pierce fan) by the mentions in author-bios and on websites of Pierce's long stint working in these places, I found it pretty interesting. In short, I didn't feel that these two tales let the collection down, or were very out-of-place.
N.B. the book itself is a beautiful edition, with a silky dust-jacket and high-quality paper. This is the American hard-back edition. Also, if you want a full description of all the stories, this can be found in reviews on the US Amazon site.