"A Fair, if Heavy, Hand:" Despotism and Decency in Tamora Pierce's Emelan
All of the books in Ms Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet involve criminal justice of some kind. In the first, a Mafia-like feud complicated with illegal drugs must be resolved; the second deals with gangs, and the third and forth with arson and serial murder respectively. Also of note is the location of each book: all take place in different countries with different states of judicial integrity. It is the setting of the first in the series, also of the prequel quartet Circle of Magic, which will be treated the most closely here. This is the state of Emelan, ruled over by the virtuous and just Duke Vedris IV.
Briar, in Street Magic, yearns for "Duke Vedris's fair, if heavy, hand in such matters [of the law]" when confronted by the corruption of the Arabian-like city he is in. Interestingly, even Ms. Pierce's characters, inhabitants of an often-brutal medieval world, think the duke is somewhat overly severe, echoing our own sentiments as we are shown his kind of justice: ten years of hard labor for the possession of illegal drugs. But he is also concerned with cruelty to animals: torturing a dog brings a very stiff fine in his dukedom. What is the character of such a man, who is at once a paragon of enlightened kindness and justice in a corrupt world and a strict patriarch, who legislates modern values with medieval harshness?
The personality of the duke is most interesting in that it is nonexistent. He seems to have a fatherly love for his niece, and the existence of his budding relationship with a lower-class woman is hinted at, but he is far too stiffly cast in the role of an impassive and absolute arbiter of justice for these few instances to make much of a dent in his lack of personality. He is a figurehead and an archetype; to the reader he is a distant, even a foreboding figure.
Into books concerned with crime, the law must almost invariably enter, and The Circle Opens is no exception. We see the law most clearly in its first book, Magic Steps, whose principal character Sandry is conveniently the duke's great-niece, allowing us to peer into the inner working of medieval justice. For Emelan's world is a medieval world, as Ms. Pierce is determined to show. Even in the realm of this most enlightened prince, execution is often summary and brutal: public disembowelment is the penalty for peddling certain illegal drugs, for example. This is interesting as it is a juxtaposition of medieval and modern mores. We do not disembowel, and rarely even execute, and the people of the middle ages would not have been so concerned with drugs, would not have outlawed them.
Instances like this force us to view Duke Vedris with something of a twenty-first century outlook, as we are wont to with the entire world of Emelan, where diversity seems to reign and discrimination, whether by race, gender, or otherwise, is virtually unknown. In many ways, Emelan is the utopian fulfillment of many ideals that our own society is still attempting to achieve. In Emelan, all religions are created equal: women hold high posts without comment, and a rainbow of skin colors live in perfect harmony. And this apparently without Affirmative Action or any of the other crutches we use to create some semblance of equality in our world. There is only one hint of discrimination: the semi-nomadic Traders are said to be despised by all, although they are protected in the realm of the good duke. The Traders hold something of the same place as did the medieval Jews: they are stereotyped as mercenary and grasping, and the old charge of blood libel is ascribed to them. In their turn, they consider themselves the Chosen People, are insular, and in their own language, have words for outsiders with connotations at least as offensive as the Yiddish "goy." But for all that the reputed prejudice against Traders, it is only in ignorant children that we see it come out. The adults of Emelan and her world are wise enough to know better.
We are bound to hold the duke and his justice to something of our own standards then, because he conforms to them in so many other ways. We notice, for example, that Vedris is in fact an autocrat. This would have been commonplace in the Middle Ages, but out of place in the enlightened society he rules over. Noblesse oblige is the way of the world; the nobility are educated to rule over and protect the masses, which serve them in return. This all begs the question: how has a society which has eradicated the glass ceiling of gender and of race not done anything to begin to shatter it for social class?
Democracy is in fact frowned upon by Ms. Pierce's usually open-minded characters. In Shatterglass, Trisana Chandler is in contempt of the efficacy of the semi-democratic assembly that rules the city-state of Tharios, preferring instead, "a proper rulerlike Duke Vedris of Emelan" (Italics mine). It is not surprising, perhaps, that the duke is first such "proper ruler" to come to her mind, as, prior to her travels, she had spent quite a few years in his dominion. Vedris indeed is the epitome of a proper ruler: he does good and helps his people wherever he can, and at the same times imposes lawfulness and virtue among them. This is the true fantasy of these books: a government that does only good; an enlightened despot who brings prosperity and protection from the evils perpetrated by criminal minds; a country where everyone is accepted equally, and none desire to change their station. This has even less of a base in reality and history than all the magic worked by the main characters' Circle.