Tortall (a.k.a. Feudal Fantasy Kingdom)
It's Made Up, And Your Point Is?
As you'll observe in many—er, all—fantasy novels, the location is an invented world, meaning that author Tamora Pierce took ideas and bits and pieces from existing cultures and glommed them all together to make up her own setting. Tortall is a kingdom nestled between Scanra to the north, a bunch of other kingdoms to the east, and the sea to the south and west. Sounds plausible enough, right?
But like any good fantasy novel, there are recognizable parts of our own world in Tortall. The idea of hereditary feudalism (the king's oldest son inherits the throne) makes an appearance, as do the notions of knighthood and chivalry, which come complimentary of the Middle Ages in Europe. The very fact that every hereditary station has its own proper way to be addressed means a lot of title-learning for Alanna and her peers. What else can you spot? Any abuses of absolutist power, like we see in Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail.
Related to the whole "your birth is your destiny" aspect of feudalism is the gender stuff. Sure, Tamora Pierce could've written a novel about a boy who wants to become a knight and…does. By making her protagonist a girl, Pierce gives us some insight into what it's like to be born into a society that looks at your genitals and says, "Here's the rest of your life all planned out for you. You're welcome!" Which is totally different from our everyday society…er…right?
So Alanna faces some unique challenges in this setting because she's a girl. Being a highborn girl would've meant a ton of etiquette and magic lessons (and we're not sure which Alanna would hate more), and then getting married off to some noble dude in order to advance her family's property or chivalry or whatever. Blech. Surely Alanna's not the only noble girl to be unhappy with her fate, so we have to wonder what the other noble chicks do. Are they just resigned to a boring life as a trophy wife? Do they rebel in subtle ways? Sadly, we don't find out in this book.
Pierce also gives Tortall a religion made up of bits and pieces from lots of different Earth religions, with plenty of gods to go around. The Dark God embodies death; Mithros and the Great Mother Goddess show up a lot; and there are hundreds of gods beyond, who are worshiped in the City of the Gods. It seems safe to say that Tortall is a polytheistic (many-god-worshiping) society. These gods seems to be a part of Tortall's history, too, although Alanna isn't exactly a history buff. She is interested in what she knows of the ancient past, asking Myles things like, "D'you think it's true, that the gods were afraid the Old Ones would challenge them, so they rained fire on the Eastern Lands?" (6.96). Good question. We don't know either.
And then there are the differences between our world and Alanna's. Multiple deities are worshiped (as in our world), but they can manifest and give advice and help defeat demons (not generally so true in our world). If an individual can practice magic, that magic usually glows with a distinctive color (Alanna and Thom's magic is purple; Maude's is green, and so on). Nonexistent-for-us stuff changes and affects people's lives even in small ways, as when Alanna uses her Gift to speed up her broken arm's healing process, or when Mistress Cooper gives Alanna birth control in the form of a magical pendant. Cool, huh?
What kind of a place spawns the epically stubborn twins Alanna and Thom? Trebond is "heavily overgrown and rocky country" (1.62), so it's maybe not the most welcoming place to outsiders. Turns out Trebond is situated in the "unfriendly forests of the Grimhold Mountains, the great natural border between Tortall and Scanra" (1.62). What kind of a name is Grimhold? Not one that makes us want to visit, that's for sure.
Thanks to its locations, citizens of Trebond have to be tough. This actually helps Alanna prepare for knighthood: "As the daughter of a border lord, Alanna knew exactly how important the fighting arts were. Every year Trebond fought off bandits. Occasionally Scanra to the north tried to invade through the Grimhold mountains, and Trebond was Tortall's first line of defense" (2.125).
We can see where someone like Alanna would thrive in Tortall, hiking in the mountains and learning to hunt in the forests. But we can also understand why she wants to come to the palace to train to become a knight; a small region like Trebond would only have so many opportunities for a voraciously curious kid.
Bright Lights, Big City
Corus is Tortall's capital city, about a four-day ride from Trebond. In case you're not used to calculating distances in terms of horse-riding days, we calculate that puts it between 80 and 160 miles away from Trebond, or about an hour and a half by car. Gee, things sure were different back then. Er, wait. This is all made up, right?
Anyway, since Alanna grew up in the country, she's blown away by her first impression of Corus:
Never in her life had she encountered so many people! She saw merchants, slaves, priests, nobles. She could tell the Bazhir—desert tribesmen—by their heavy white burnooses, just as she spotted seamen by their braided pigtails … Alanna blinked her eyes at the bright colors—piles of orange and yellow fruits, hangings of bright blue and green, ropes of gold and silver chains. Some people were staring as openly as she was. Others shoved their goods under people's noses, shouting for them to buy. (1.106)
In other words, we're seeing a dense and diverse population and a sense and diverse marketplace. We're betting that—for a price—you could find pretty much anything or anyone you want on a market day in Corus.
The layout of Corus reflects the functions of the city: the marketplace gives way to the Temple District, which houses hundreds of gods (and their devotees). On top of a hill sits the royal palace, no doubt situated there to improve its defensibility—but it also makes the royal family feel a little distant. Speaking of getting whatever you want, there's a sizeable population of thieves inhabiting the lower city and answering to the King of the Thieves (who happens to be Alanna's friend George).
At one point, Alanna comments on how his people call him "Majesty," and he responds: "Why not? I'm king here—more king than the man who sits atop the big hill. My people wouldn't give him a word in passing, but they follow my slightest wish" (3.181). So yeah, it looks like there may be more than one king in Corus. That could get complicated—and, to a newb like Alanna, just as intimidating as the massive city and royal palace.
Olau, the home of Sir Myles, is about a day's ride from Corus. Alanna notices right away how different is it from her home, Trebond:
Unlike Trebond, Barony Olau was no fortress built to fight off mountain bandits and raiders from Scanra. Myles's home was set in a long valley and surrounded by acres covered with brown stubble. Toward the hills Alanna could see rows of trees. (6.124)
Myles explains the rows and rows and trees: turns out, the people of Olau are farmers (one perk is that their apples are apparently pretty tasty). Another fun thing about Olau is that it houses some of the ruins left by the Old Ones, the mysterious people who inhabited Tortall in the distant past. The peasants think the ruins are haunted, but Myles wants to explore them for his scholarly research.
The ruins are pretty astonishing to Alanna: "In some places the walls were taller than she was. They were built with marble, and the stone gleamed as if it had been carved the day before. A gate made of heavy black wood dangled half off its bronze hinges" (6.144). Hm. Sounds like, as fantastical as Tortall might seem to us, there was another, earlier civilization that was even more fantastical. Maybe Tortall's writers pen fantasy novels about them.
The Great Southern Desert, Persopolis, and the Black City
The Great Southern Desert is—you guessed it—south of Corus and most of the rest of Tortall. Alanna notices that the landscape is totally different: "The hills were rockier. The trees were shrunken and twisted, and the ground plants seemed to fight for each drop of water they took from the earth. The ground itself was brown and dry, torn with cracks" (7.1). Yep, sounds like a pretty standard desert.
Persopolis is the one city that the Bazhir (who are normally nomads) built in the Great Southern Desert. It's a fortress town, built over five springs, but there's more to the city than meets the eye. As Ali Mukhtab, governor of Persopolis, explains to Alanna, "we built Persopolis, so that we might watch the City, always" (7.50). And indeed, the view of the Black City from the west-facing Sunset Room of Persopolis is pretty sweet. Bazhir folklore says that the Nameless Ones of ancient history enslaved the Bazhir, who rebelled and burned their city, and then built Persopolis to always keep an eye on it. Supposedly, Bazhir youth vanish within the Black City's walls and never are seen again.
If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like our Middle East, we think you're right. So tell us: does this have some weird implications—like why the white European-style folk ruling over the brown desert people? Is Pierce using her fantasy setting to say something about our world?
Nah. That would just be crazy. (Or would it?)