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expansive SFF series 9+ books

Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books always seemed like one of those fantasy series that would never see an adaptation. With more than 20 books spanning over 200 years, with the central protagonists growing from teenagers to almost middle age, it seemed like too epic of an undertaking. But isn’t that the case for all the best stories? Now, Lionsgate and Playground Entertainment are embarking on the quest to adapt Pierce’s classic novels for television, all starting with stubborn Alanna of Trebond disguising herself as a boy to train as a knight.

As a fan of these books since I was the same age as Alanna when she cut her hair and rode to the city of Corus with an impossible plan, I’ve grown up with Tortall and can only dream of how it will translate from page to screen. Here are just some of the moments from the Song of the Lioness, The Immortals, Protector of the Small, and more that would make excellent epic fantasy television.

Spoilers, obviously, for all of these wonderful books.

 

Alanna’s First Meeting with the Great Mother Goddess

Tortall’s deities make their presence known early on in the series, gently steering mortal events through visits and magical tokens. Such is Alanna’s encounter (which starts with her endearing habit of sneezing at magic) at the start of In the Hand of the Goddess with the Queen of the Gods: impossibly gorgeous, with a terrible voice like the baying of hounds. The Goddess becomes Alanna’s patroness throughout the series, gifting her with the ember necklace that allows her to detect sinister usage of magic and with purple-eyed Faithful, the very best fantasy cat. Even though Alanna is lacking for female confidantes (aside from George’s mother Eleni and his lady rogue cousin Rispah), the Goddess’ patronage establishes early on in the series that in Tortall, women help each other as much as is within their power to do so.

 

Ordeals of Knighthood

Every detail of Alanna’s knight training is vicarious fun—swordfighting, scouting, bonding with rogues in taverns—but the Chamber of the Ordeal is where shit gets real. Imagine the Chamber of Secrets, but somehow sentient and able to tap into your brain and pull out every nightmare and phobia. Then it makes you watch your friends die or be set upon by spiders or confront a potential future where you just fail—and if you scream, it’s all over. That’s how knights earn their shields in Tortall, and it never stops being terrifying, even through to the Kel books.

 

Alanna’s Duel(s) with Roger

Maybe it’s because I read the books in publication order, but the silken, sinister Duke Roger has always been the OG baddie for me. He is everything Alanna is not—charismatic to her bluntness, embracing his Gift while she shies away from hers—which makes him an excellent foil for the cranky knight-in-training. Especially early on, when he manages to gaslight her and everyone else as to his true nature, so people believe she’s merely jealous of his closeness to his cousin Jonathan when in fact he’s making a grab for the throne. Roger’s slow suspicion of scrappy page Alan blooms into outright hostility, culminating in a swordfight so satisfying because it’s eight years in the making. And then a few books later, we get a rematch!

A TV series would also provide a little more breathing room to build out villains like Roger, and use the plot mechanic of the game of thrones as a way to reveal sympathetic sides to even the scheming duke of Conté.

 

Wild Magic and the Gift

Pierce’s magic system is tactile, straightforward, and ubiquitous in Tortall and elsewhere: People either are or are not born with a magical Gift, which manifests itself as colored fire and a particular proficiency in anything from illusions to healing. Not only would it look cool to see Alanna wielding purple magic while swinging her sword Lightning, but possession and rejection of magic adds emotional resonance to various characters’ arcs, from Alanna fearing her healing ability contrasted with her twin Thom’s incredible power, to the entire world that opens up to Daine once she begins to harness her wild magic.

 

Daine Shapeshifting

Once Daine develops a grasp on her wild magic, it allows her to transform into a wolf and join the hunt, or into a bird so she can scout ahead. This is the closest thing to an Animorphs reboot that will ever be seen on television. Let me have this.

 

Daine’s Skeleton Army

The Immortals series will lend itself to big set pieces involving all manner of herds, flocks, and murders. But one of the most enduring visuals comes from Emperor Mage: Daine, blind with rage and grief, commanding a museum’s worth of skeletal reconstructions to stampede through Ozorne’s palace, hell-bent on revenge. It also leads to the greatest understatement in all of Pierce’s books: “I thought you were dead. I lost my temper.”

 

Stormwings and Dragons and Krakens, Oh My

See above—what sea battle is not improved with a kraken throwing its tentacles into the fray? And while Daine doesn’t go full Mother of Dragons by hatching an egg on a funeral pyre, she and her sassy dragonet companion Kitten get to attend a full-blown dragonmeet. But the creature I’m most excited to see realized are the Stormwings, nightmarish combinations of human heads atop razor-feathered bodies, harbingers of war and desecrators of corpses. Considering that certain Stormwings, like Rikash and later Ozorne, demonstrate the humanity found in monsters—and the monstrousness found in men—these could be truly memorable roles for an up-and-coming actor, not to mention new opportunities to expand the field of motion capture performance.

 

Kel Overcoming Prejudice

While Alanna disguising herself as a boy to train as a knight is trope gold, Kel’s journey to knighthood is even more compelling because she does it as a girl… and encounters every obstacle you can imagine. Despite a royal edict allowing girls to train as pages, Kel must undergo a probationary year, and Alanna is not allowed to have any contact with her. It’s the first of several gut-punch reminders that aspiring lady knights have to prove themselves twice over. It’s the most important lesson in Protector of the Small, and even more gratifying when Kel proves that one “lump” (her charming nickname) is worth two (or more) men. Never has a jousting match been so damn cathartic.

 

Every First Kiss—or Not

From Alanna and Jon in the palace gardens on her birthday to George catching Alanna with her hands full to Daine and Numair’s oh-my-gods-spidrens-didn’t-kill-us embrace, these books were swoon city for my younger self in terms of the love stories. What’s more, the books didn’t bat an eye at young women exploring their sexuality, whether by talking plainly about sex and desire or by having multiple partners. Hopefully an adaptation could smooth out some of the more problematic age gaps but keep what made the romances so resonant.

The only downside is that these are mostly heterosexual love stories. It would be wonderful to see some queer romances centered in the plot instead of just a Dumbledore-esque retconned background love story. And while Kel has her flirtations in adolescence, Pierce has confirmed that the character is asexual and aromantic. I would hope that an adaptation would honor this facet of her character.

 

Provost’s Dog as Fantasy Procedural

The Provost’s Guard is a mostly background element throughout the early quartets. But the Provost’s Dog trilogy, a.k.a. the Beka Cooper books, jump back in time almost 200 years to examine how the city of Corus’ police force was founded. With a focus on commoner life and some darker mysteries, it would represent a grittier tonal shift from the stuff of legends that makes up Alanna, Daine, and Kel’s stories. That’s assuming that those books got adapted into a later season; they could also be a flashback plotline within one of the other seasons. Either way, a procedural full of magic and intrigue would provide some welcome narrative texture to the other epic stories being explored.

 

People Become Legends

Each quartet spans about four years in real time, but there’s also a ten-year time jump between the end of the Song of the Lioness and the start of The Immortals. So by the time Protector of the Small starts up, it’s been about 15 years since the battle for Tortall that put Alanna and her peers in the history books. One of my favorite aspects of Kel’s series is witnessing through her eyes these figures as living legends: Alanna the Lioness, her idol who she ironically never gets to interact with aside from small moments; her knightmaster Raoul; King Jonathan and Queen Thayet. There is something so satisfying about feeling like you’ve “grown up” with these characters during knighthood training, then getting to jump ahead to them in adulthood, or even approaching middle age, and the new contexts in which they rule and fight and protect the realm.

 

I didn’t even get into the Trickster duology simply because it’s lower on my favorites list, and The Numair Chronicles because it’s still ongoing. But what are the Tortallan moments—from these or from the series above—that you can’t wait to see on TV?

Natalie Zutter loves these books so much that they inspired an epic fantasy play about lady knights. Squee with her over this adaptation news on Twitter!

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