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Literature / Circleverse

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The Circleverse is the second of Tamora Pierce's fantasy universes, besides the Tortall Universe. It consists of eleven books split into two quartets and three novels not in any subseries. The three novels, The Will of the Empress, Melting Stones and Battle Magic, are occasionally grouped into the unofficial Circle Reforged series.

A fourth standalone is planned following Tris as she goes to Lightsbridge University to study academic magic.


  • Alternative Calendar: The months are called "moons", and most of the days of the week are named after different things.
    • Months:
    Wolf Moon (January)
    Storm Moon (February)
    Carp Moon (March)
    Seed Moon (April)
    Goose Moon (May)
    Rose Moon (June)
    Mead Moon (July)
    Wort Moon (August)
    Barley Moon (September)
    Blood Moon (October)
    Snow Moon (November)
    Hearth Moon (December)
    • Days:
      1. Sunsday
      2. Moonsday
      3. Starsday
      4. Earthsday
      5. Airsday
      6. Firesday
      7. Watersday
  • Anachronic Order: Melting Stones is set during the events of The Will of the Empress, and Battle Magic is an interquel depicting Briar, Rosethorn and Evvy's experiences during the invasion of Gyongxe first mentioned in Empress.
  • Author Appeal: Pierce states in the notes at the back of at least one book that craftsmanship is as close to magic as the real world gets—the ability to take raw components and turn them into something through the skill of one's own hands. Two of the Circle kids are craftswomen, and the second quartet adds three more ambient mages whose power comes from glassblowing, carpentry, and cooking. The process of these crafts is always described in great detail.
  • Berserk Button: Individual ones vary, but the four main characters have one in common: if you mess with their family (adopted or blood), their teachers, or their students, prepare yourself for a whuppin'.
  • Blessed with Suck: Have the wrong kind of ambient magic with no teacher to help, and this is the result. Those with magic tied to natural forces, like Tris's weather magic, usually die from their own powers if they can't find a teacher.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': From a young age, the four Circle members are all basically decent people with a strong set of morals; even former street-thief Briar has an enormous sense of honor and fair play. Yet let them give into the temptation to vent, grumble or put off unpleasant business every once in a blue moon and the nearest authority figure will jump down their throat. This makes sense when the stakes are high, or their magic threatens to break out, but not so much when a tired child is fed up of having so much pressure on them that their temper snaps for five seconds.
  • Cast from Hit Points: At first, doing any magic deliberately is very draining. The more a mage learns to control their power, the less tired they are after using it, although "great-spells" (ex. Frostpine and Daja's spell in the harbor, in Tris's Book,) can render anyone who does them exhausted. Even worse for novices who do great-spells with no one to guide them: they've been known to get caught up and feed all their magic and energy into the spell, unintentionally killing themselves. The climax of Sandry's Book implies this might have happened to Daja and Briar had Sandry not spun the four together.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience:
    • Justified, for practical and ecumenical purposes, in the Living Circle temples. All novices wear white, but earth dedicates wear green, air dedicates yellow, fire dedicates red, and water dedicates wear blue. Dedicate Initiates wear a black border on their robes, and the Supreme Dedicate, Moonstream, wears a gold border on her blue robes.
    • Also a part of Trader culture. They assign colours to aspects of life and then follow through completely: crimson red for mourning, blue to protect against evil (so little children frequently wear blue), and Trader mages, or mimanders, wear nothing but head-to-toe lemon yellow.
  • Combo Platter Powers:
    • Tris is most often called a weather-witch, and she does work mainly with wind, rain and lightning, but her magic is with all kinds of elemental currents and waves, such as the force of the tides, seismic energy and convective energy, giving her power over lava, earthquakes and the sea. Add in the fact that she can see magic, use academic magic, and is the one-in-a-generation who can scry the wind; she's definitely unsettling even to magic users.
    • In the first series, especially Daja's Book, the four students' magic bleeds into one another, which results in a temporary, and definitely unwanted, version of this: Briar sprouts lightning, Daja's magic shapes iron into a living, growing vine and Sandry chars embroidery by casting her magic into it. Notably, the only one who doesn't manifest magic from one of her foster-siblings? Tris.
  • Continuity Drift: The sources of ambient magic have become more anthropomorphized as the books go on. They always have been, to some degree (Sandry "frightens" some wool during the first book), but it's usually been a case of mages being able to relate to their own source of magic. By Melting Stones, the ocean speaks directly to Evvy the stone mage and is openly malevolent towards her. Natural events are also more tractable. In the first book, Tris nearly kills herself by trying to stop the tides along a short stretch of beach; in Melting Stones (again), Evvy prevents a Vesuvius-expy volcano from erupting with a good deal of persuasion and trickery.
  • Covers Always Lie: Despite Tris being frequently described as overweight, none of the book covers that feature her reflect this. At most, she just has baggy clothes.
  • Creating Life Is Awesome: Daja accidentally creates living metal, and Keth accidentally creates living glass, and both are treated as marvels of magic. Notably, creating something sentient from magic is uncommon and all cases shown are accidental, but all mages are taught to treat such creations as their own children just in case.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • Granted, she was in the midst of her First Love and the realization of her sexuality, but Daja expecting Rizu to drop her high-status position in the court of an Empress she feels a deep personal sense of love and gratitude towards, for a person she's known for about a month, is pretty silly.
    • Empress Berenene wants Sandry and her friends to stay in Namorn; pragmatically, Sandry is the heir to the money in her Namornese lands and they all have useful mage skills. She advises the court indirectly to entice the Circle to stay. Sandy also opposes the forced-marriage abduction rules, rescuing one woman from an abusive marriage. Thus, it seems logically the best way to win her over is to court her traditionally, the way that Daja has a courtesan lover. Some men then try to kidnap Sandry anyway to force her to marry them, and it's hinted with the Empress's support. It backfires; her friends despite some ambushes are able to rescue her, and they call out the guards for not caring about it. Sandry is also motivated to get herself and her friends out of Namorn because she has a normal response to being kidnapped: relocate to a safer place.
    • Okay, Jak, you want to tell Sandry how truly sorry you are for her mistreatment at the hands of your countrymen and how you so very much disagree with the abduction-marriage tradition. Drawing your sword to force your way into the house very shortly after she's just escaped from one such attempt is, perhaps, not the best gesture of good faith?
  • Earthy Barefoot Character: Rosethorn and Briar. They even have their first bonding moment about this.
  • Elemental Powers:
    • The way ambient magic works, although its a lot more flexible that the traditional four, or even the other more creative ones listed on the trope page. We've seen earth, metal, weather, plant, carpentry, cooking, glass, thread...
    • Oddly enough, there was one set of covers which put Sandry and Tris's Books together in a single volume, and Daja and Briar's in another. They were respectively called, "Water and Fire" and "Air and Earth", even though those categories make no sense. note 
  • Fantastic Recruitment Drive: Academic mages test for magic in children, after they reach a certain age.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Emelan seems to be the south of France. The other small countries surrounding them are the rest of Europe; Namorn is Russia and Tharios is Greece (with the caste system borrowed from Japan, specifically the geisha and the burakumin). Sotat and nearby countries are west/central Asia. Yanjing is China, and Gyongxe is Tibet. Traders have some elements of the Roma, but their cuisine is definitely Lebanese.
  • Fantasy Pantheon:
    • One of the few examples where the actual existence of the gods is ambiguous. Expressly pointed out by Tris in Shatterglass as she rambles about anything that comes to mind to a twice-orphaned little girl.
      "I hope you grow to be someone incredible, to repay you for all this misery. Why is it, do you suppose, the gods are said to be favoring you when they dump awful things into your lap? Is it because the other explanation, that sorrow comes from accidents and there are no gods doing it to help you be a strong person, is just too horrible to think of? Let's stick with the gods. Let's stick with someone being in charge."
    • Partially subverted in Battle Magic: most religions have at least one temple in Gyongxe because it's said to be the closest place to Heaven, but while "small gods" like nagas, peak spiders and metal snakes do show up and help in the final battle, the named major gods of the series the All-Seeing, Mila of the Grain, the Green Man, Trader Koma and Bookkeeper Oti and so on don't make an appearance, and the spirit of one of the mountains worshiped by a world religion explicitly states that their myths about him being the sun goddess's husband is untrue.
  • Feminist Fantasy: Unlike the Tortall Universe, though, it doesn't specifically have Jackie Robinson Story/You Go, Girl! plots, instead being set in a world where gender equality is roughly where it is in present-day Real Life maybe even a little ahead. There are countries characters visit where this isn't so, but the characters remark on this.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Not an exact fit, but...
    • Sanguine: Sandry (cheerful, people-person, prone to arrogance, heart on her sleeve)
    • Choleric: Tris (bossy and domineering, passionate, narrow-minded, has a temper)
    • Melancholic: Briar (independent nature but still likable, creative, and as of The Will of the Empress, prone to depression)
    • Phlegmatic: Daja (calm, reliable, the least likely to jump into something without thinking)
  • Friend to All Living Things: Ambient magic works like this. It's not even a requirement that a thing be living, as stone mages and thread mages will "befriend" the objects of their craft and speak as though they have feelings.
  • Gender Is No Object: Most societies have more-or-less gender parity within religion, armies and society at large. There are a few societies seen where the roles of women are more restricted, but this is always brought up by the viewpoint character.
  • Green Thumb: Briar and Rosethorn's magic.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: Years are dated "K.F.", counting "after the Fall of the Kurchal Empire". By The Will of the Empress, the only book the dating system is prominently used, they're up to 1041.
  • Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality: Weather magic. Most rulers are interested for its capacity as war magic or to favor their lands with good weather, which will mess up weather patterns everywhere else.
  • Lethal Harmless Powers: All over the place. Plant magic can make deadly pricker-bushes, thread magic can incapacitate anyone who's wearing clothes, etc...
  • Magitek: Cannonballs in this universe work by filling them with highly volatile substances, leaving a hole in the spells surrounding them, and using a fire spell to ignite them in the air. Empress mentions a room that's magically cooled and essentially functions as a freezer.
  • Martial Arts and Crafts: Ambient magic, the type which all the main characters have, focuses on anything from plants to weather to weaving to dancing. None of these are particularly weak, though; all the characters find ways to make their powers useful for fighting, healing, and a wide range of other applications.
  • Meaningful Rename:
    • It's standard for most mages, particularly those that trained at Lightsbridge University, to take a new last name after finishing their training that is related to their powers. The most prominent example would be Niklaren "Niko" Goldeye, one of the kids' teachers.
    • Dedicates of the Living Circle temples take on new names of their choosing upon taking their vows, always nature-related. Usually these names are related to which element they're a dedicate of, such as Earth dedicates Rosethorn and Vetch, Air dedicate Crane, Water dedicate Moonstream and Fire dedicate Skyfire. You also get some oddballs, like Earth dedicate Lark and Fire dedicate Frostpine.
    • The four main characters have not taken "mage names" in the usual way; Briar already chose his name and sees no reason to replace it, Sandry is still close to her noble family, and Daja won't forsake her Trader heritage. Word of God says that Tris keeps the name Chandler because she wants her neglectful parents and abusive relatives to know who she is and what she's become. She wants them to always remember that if they had treated her well, she would now be an honor to their house and a source of income.
  • Medieval Stasis: Averted; technology is shown to be in visible motion. The first quartet has greenhouses as a recent innovation, and sophisticated quarantine instructions and an astonishingly scientific approach to studying and treating plagues have both been developed within the past twenty years. Said approach involves distilling the "essence" of the disease using fluid samples from infected patients. Pirates also appear to have developed gunpowder very recently. Later on in the series, there's also mention of the new land discovered across the Endless Sea.
  • Mundane Utility: The main use of ambient magic, whether it be for actual arts and crafts, medicine, scientific research (really), or any use you can think of.
  • Parental Substitute: With the original four kids being orphaned or disowned so young and developing strange magic, their teachers more or less become their parents. Lark and Rosethorn are already a couple owning the house the children live in, the other two come and go more often. Every teacher but the more formal Niko states at some point that their student is like their child. Niko's relationship with Tris eventually becomes less parent-child, but they're still very close.
  • Parents as People: All four's teachers try their very best to do right by their charges, and all in all are generally Good Parents, but they become more strained in a crisis and some are prone to Anger Born of Worry.
  • Personality Powers: Downplayed. In Briar's Book, Dedicate Lark complains about the dedicates of the Water Temple being "wishy-washy", emotional, and not too good on planning ahead. But given that a large number of mages in Winding Circle are academic mages, and therefore those dedicates chose the gods of water, it might be an inversion being emotional and wishy-washy led to a person preferring water, rather than the other way around.
  • The Power of Blood: Blood can be added to spells to strengthen them. It's considered ethical (but risky) so long as you use your own blood, but using someone else's blood opens the door to some really nasty magic.
  • Psychic Link: The magical bond the four main protagonists form at the climax of Sandry's Book gives them one of these.
  • Required Secondary Powers: Daja, Frostpine, Jory, Olennika, and Kethlun are all resistant to heat, as their magic involves working with it. It's implied that there are other mages who aren't so lucky. Daja's resistance only goes so far she can handle any normal fire's heat without a second thought, but when dealing with the molten rock under the world's crust, she would melt without shields.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Pierce has revealed that Rosethorn's appearance and personality were heavily inspired by Kira Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
    • At Winding Circle, the First Dedicate of the Fire Temple is General Skyfire, who had a massive change of heart and left his armies to live in the peaceful temple community when his wife and unborn child died, an exact inversion. However, since the books in the first quartet, where this was established, were published between 1997 and 1999, this is just a coincidence.
  • Shown Their Work: The author's notes usually have her crediting a lot of people for the knowledge about sailing, glassblowing, the psychology of serial killers, etc.
  • Single Substance Manipulation: Ambient Mages, a.k.a Mages whose powers center around concepts such as clothing, weather, plants, metal, lightning, glass, stone, and dance. Mainly expressed by physical manipulation of such, except for plants, which allows forced growth, which is still technically "telekinetic plant control", and dance, which is Magic Dance.
  • Single Tear: A couple characters do this; mostly it's because they're about to start crying, and they wipe it away and force themselves to get past it because it's a bad time to cry.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: There's a university at Lightsbridge for mages to gain accreditation in particular fields. One mage describes the principle of reproducibility (although Daja dismisses it as part of his general unpleasantness). A good chunk of Briar's Book is spent in a sterile microbiology lab to study the Mystical Plague, and Shatterglass involves a conference of vision mages.
  • Superpower Lottery: Tris is capable of controlling the raw forces of nature itself, including weather, tides, and geological forces, within limits. It's stated she might just be the most powerful mage in the world. In The Will of the Empress, it's implied she may also be a rare mage who can do both ambient and academic magic. Her power is such that The Will of the Empress sidelines her during the climax to give the other three a chance to shine. Mind you, this power doesn't make her happy, since her code of ethics means she refuses to use her power to alter weather patterns since it could do massive damage, and she refuses to be a battle mage because of both her ethics and trauma from fighting a pirate fleet at the age of ten.
  • Tattooed Crook: In most countries around the Pebbled Sea, a conviction of one lesser crime equals an "X" tattoo on their right hand. A second nets one on their left hand. If they get caught a third time, they don't go free again. This almost happened to Briar.
  • That Old-Time Prescription: This is present in the series even to the point of actually using willow bark tea by name for headaches and fevers and the like. At one point there is an epidemic, and very modern steps to quarantine the disease and develop treatments through experimentation are undertaken. Somewhat justified in that magic has allowed people in that universe to be much more knowledgeable about the mechanics of the world.
  • Theme Table: Four adopted siblings, each with a particular kind of magic, a teacher, a student, and a tendency to not fit in wherever they go.
  • Town Girls: The series has a trio of these: girly-girl Sandrilene fa Toren; aromantic asexual Tris Chandler, who states openly in the later books that she's not interested in either men or women; and blacksmith Daja Kisubo, the tallest and physically strongest of the Winding Circle quartet and the one who, initially, has the most experience with physical combat, thanks to Traders teaching their kids how to use staffs in fights.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Mages have a law whereby, if a mage discovers anybody with untrained magic (usually children, but the occasional adult does pop up), the mage is required to become their teacher, or find someone better for the job the reason being that magic can be quite dangerous to people if they don't learn to control it.
  • True Companions: The defining relationship of the four protagonists, despite it having been created by magic and their often complaining about each other's flaws; they themselves, following the language of their world, describe their relationship as that of siblings, or, if you press, them as foster-siblings. Briar refers to the girls as his "mates", a gang slang term.
  • Unequal Rites: Ambient magic is rare enough that many academic mages don't believe it exists. That it's also harder to detect doesn't help. As a result, there are academic mages who don't take ambient mages seriously. This is most clearly shown in the books taking place away from Summersea and Winding Circle, since Winding Circle is described as the world's preeminent centre of ambient magic.
  • Unperson:
    • Daja's status among Traders as trangshi. As she is the Sole Survivor of her family's shipwreck, the first Traders that she met afterwards assumed her to be cursed with fatally bad luck, and they marked her accordingly with a staff capped in flat, unmarked bronze (all other Traders' staves have some symbols of their family and life on them). Other Traders won't interact with her or acknowledge her presence at all, and in Daja's Book, when Polyam has to interact with her to purchase Daja's superb metalwork on creating a living metal tree, the older woman has to go through numerous (and inconvenient) ritual purifications.
    • Polyam herself is a downplayed example of this trope, hailing from the same culture. She survived a landslide but lost a leg and an eye, and was terribly scarred to boot, and it seems that Traders regard her similarly cursed to Daja. She's the daughter of the caravan's leader, but since her accident is demoted to the lowest place on the Trader social rung interacting with outsiders to get needed supplies and services unrelated to bargaining. Before the accident she was the caravan's best horse tamer, but afterwards her lost leg, combined with Trader's apparent Crippling Overspecialization (no pun intended) when it comes to a person's place in their society, was no longer "useful" to her people and so lost status.
  • Wandering Culture: Daja's people, the Traders, are nomadic merchants who live in caravans or trade ships. A lot of their customs are based on the Roma, including less-portrayed ones like strict taboos (Daja is made an unperson due to being the Sole Survivor from her family's shipwreck, since they believed her to be cursed as a result with some incredibly bad luck), and ritual purification must be done if they're ever violated. However, unlike in most portrayals they're black people.
  • Weather Manipulation: Tris' power, which in this case extends not only to the sky (wind, rain, and lightning), but to the sea (tides) and the earth (earthquakes and lava).
  • Wrong Context Magic:
    • Sandry isn't just a thread mage, she can control magic itself if she visualizes it as thread. This allows her to fuse together the magic of her and her four friends, turning them from powerful but ordinary mages into mages so much more powerful than anything that came before that they had to be given mage medallions at age 13 (most regular mages don't receive this rank until age 21+). Later on, she uses this ability to counter the otherwise unstoppable unmagic.
    • Unmagic itself also fits this trope. The tangible incarnation of nothingness, it can negate any amount of regular magic, negate the laws of space and time (allowing the wielder to jump from one place to another), erase physical objects from existence, and make its wielder invisible to any form of perception whatsoever.