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Literature / The Circle Opens

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The Circle Opens is the second series in Tamora Pierce's Circleverse. It follows the four young mages as they take their first apprentices. As Sandry stays home in Summersea, Briar, Daja and Tris go on long journeys with their teachers.

There are four books:

  • Magic Steps: Sandry takes on Pasco Acalon, a young man with ambient dance magic who fears he'll never fit in to his family of police (or "harriers"). Meanwhile, assassins stalk the streets cloaked by the half-mythical "unmagic"...
  • Street Magic: In the stone city of Chammur, Briar gets involved in gang wars that begin to target his new, reluctant, student, a girl named Evvy with ambient stone magic.
  • Cold Fire: Daja's discovery that the twin daughters of her Namornese hosts have magic (one cooking, the other woodworking) takes second place to a hunt for a grudge-holding arsonist in the city of Kugisko.
  • Shatterglass: In the strictly class-divided city-state of Tharios, Tris, always the prickly one, has to teach a glass-and-lightning mage to control his powers in order to catch a serial killer.


  • Achievements in Ignorance: Each of the students uses their power in this way. Pasco dances "luck" into fishing nets, for example, and Keth creates a living glass dragon.
    • Neither of which was intentional. Pasco danced a traditional luck jig, but with his magic "imagined fish jumping into the net"; he didn't think it would work, but had been bribed to try due to having small successes with minor things after having danced before them. Keth didn't know he even had lightning magic, and was simply trying to regain his technical glass skill when his magic got loose.
  • Animated Tattoo: Briar attempted to tattoo vines on his hands with vegetable dyes to cover up the X tattoos on his hands revealing he had two prior criminal convictions so people wouldn't judge him. The dyes, being from a plant source, reacted with his power to give him moving tattoos on his hands, with things like blooming flowers and what not, that are far more conspicuous than what he was trying to cover up. (The fact that he used Sandry's needles, which are part of her mage kit, to apply the tattoos didn't help either.)
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  • Anti-Magic: Unmagic in Magic Steps.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The unmage from Magic Steps had his legs cut off to make him easier to control.
  • Arranged Marriage: This is the norm for Namornese merchant families such as those in Kugisko. After Daja reveals that Jory and Nia have magic, their father points out that they'll have to restart the twins' marriage negotiations since some families won't accept mage wives.
  • Asleep for Days: In Shatterglass, Tris exhausts her store of magical power and as a result sleeps for a week.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: The first quartet wasn't devoid of violence and death (what with the pirates in Tris's Book), but this quartet has much more graphic depictions, from messy strangulations to the end of Magic Steps, where Sandry's use of the unmagic net basically causes the assassins to explode all over the room. And that's after several scenes of post-assassin work.
  • Body Horror: Do not activate any one of the four main characters' berserk buttons. Some deaths include being torn apart and cannibalized by plants, being burned alive from the inside out, and having certain body parts violently ripped away.
  • The Bully: Pasco's cousin Vani. He constantly teases Pasco for dancing, and it's his threat to beat Pasco up in "training" that causes Pasco's first deliberate use of magic.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: One of the mental ward patients at the hospital in Cold Fire is lucid enough to help Daja evacuate the rest when the hospital is firebombed. He shows up again in The Will of the Empress, receiving a name and a tragic backstory.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Pasco uses his magic to attract loads of fish to the local waters at the start of Magic Steps. At the end, he does the same thing, but with the unmagic assassins.
  • Continuity Nod: In Shatterglass, Tris sees a tiny, misplaced jungle full of Briar's magic from the climax of Street Magic and what might be one of the fires in Kugisko during Cold Fire.
  • Combo Platter Powers: Glass and lightning, although the guy with them has a lot of trouble getting the hang of it.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Niko finding the four kids in the first quartet is justified, since he's a seer and scryed them all before picking them up. In this quartet, though, the four all just happen to encounter ambient mages in their widespread travels.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Unmagic, despite the horror-inducing description from a mage viewpoint. The one using it is just a kid, and enslaved at that.
  • Death of a Child: All over the place:
    • Magic Steps: A horrified Sandry has to pull a child who had been reduced to a Soulless Shell apart with magic along with his captors in order to save her student. His captors also murdered an entire family, including a little girl and an infant, earlier in the book. The bodies were taken away by the time she reached that spot, but she saw the cradle awash with blood.
    • Street Magic: A bunch of street kids get murdered by gangs and a vile noblewoman who knows she can get away with it.
    • Cold Fire: An arsonist sets fire to a home where children are having a party, and several of them die. When Daja tries to save an infant from the fire, he suffocates while she's carrying him out.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Most of society in Tharios is much, much more concerned with 'purity' than with the lives of the low-class entertainers who have been murdered and left in public places. Dema, who's also bothered by the deaths, struggles to get any of his fellow cops to care - they refer to cases involving the lower classes as 'okozou', 'no real people involved' - but is repeatedly chewed out by his superiors for not preventing the desecration of public spaces.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Tharios, at least in Tris's opinion. The Assembly is corrupt and spends a lot of time blaming things on each other; up until that point, Tris had only experienced monarchies with Royals Who Actually Do Something. However, the Assembly doesn't do a whole lot to contradict her opinion either.
  • Deus ex Machina: In Shatterglass we never get any explanation for why Keth was able to make globes that predicted the Ghost's killings. Given that glass is commonly used in scrying, his ability to make Chime is similarly unexplained, and there are no explanations for why some characters can scry and others can't, it's likely just magic.
  • Dirty Harriet: In Shatterglass, a serial killer stalks the female yaskedasi, members of the entertainment class. Quite a few police officers (of both genders, but mostly women) go undercover as yaskedasi, but this is played logically when someone points out that the grimly staring few who can't dance, juggle, or sing really stick out.
  • Empty Shell: Prolonged exposure to unmagic causes a person to become this.
  • Evil Feels Good: Ben Ladradun, the arsonist in Cold Fire, realizes he likes killing people in fires, and goes from trying to teach people to respect fire to just plain killing everyone he can.
  • Fantastic Drug: Dragonsalt in Magic Steps. It's a highly addictive stimulant similar to meth, deemed so dangerous that dealers are executed. The assassins use it to keep their unmage pliant. Later, they take it themselves to counter the listless apathy caused by unmagic. It also makes them much more violent in their crimes, and long term use makes the user a hollow shell of themselves with no want except more salt.
  • Fantastic Honorifics: Each country the kids travel uses untranslated forms of address (seemingly equivalent to Mr. and Ms.) along with a separate one for mages, which may or may not be gender-specific. For example, dhaskoi/dhasku (male/female) is the word for "mage" in Tharian, while in Namornese, it's viynain/viymese (male/female).
  • Firefighter Arsonist: The book Cold Fire involves a serial arsonist. Turns out it's the firefighter Ben Ladradun. After his wife and children died in a fire, he was unhappy that his warnings about the dangers of fire were being ignored, so he secretly started setting fires himself and they finally formed a fire brigade. Then he accidentally killed a woman in one of the fires, and found out that murder gave him a thrill, so from that point on his intent was to kill people.
  • Fresh Clue: In Shatterglass, the more lightning in Keth's blown glass, the closer they are to the time of murder (unfortunately, that also means they can't see the location, murderer, or victim until it's too late). Dema, Tris, and Niko also have a significant amount of trouble talking the religiously sterile bureaucracy into letting them look for fresh clues before a site is magically cleansed of all evidence.
  • Freudian Excuse: In Shatterglass, the killer claims to be the illegitimate child of a yaskedasi and someone of the first class, and was abandoned among the prathmuni. Tris, however, thinks that this was just a fantasy he made up to justify it.
  • Gang of Hats: The street gangs in Chammur all identify themselves with different signs: Camelguts with green sashes, Gate Lords with black-and-white colour-blocked outfits, and Vipers with a nose ring. Briar mentions that his old gang sign was a blue armband.
  • Human Resources: Lady Zenadia of Street Magic uses the bodies of people she has killed as fertilizer for her garden.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Happens to Kethlun on Yali's account in Shatterglass, combined with Stuffed in the Fridge. It's especially surprising for Tamora Pierce of all people to create a Disposable Woman.
  • Impact Silhouette: Daja, keeping herself warm through magic, melts a perfect outline of herself in the snow when she falls into a bank of it in Cold Fire. The onlookers are puzzled.
  • Insult to Rocks: Olennika once called the local mages in Kugisko "parasites". Heluda Salt thinks that this is insulting to parasites, since at least parasites are useful in that they're able to be a meal for other creatures.
  • I Owe You My Life: Alzena the assassin in Magic Steps. She feels indebted to the Dihanur family for taking her in after her parents' murder and giving her a husband.
  • It Gets Easier / It Never Gets Any Easier: Dema, the mage policeman of Shatterglass, knows some hardened colleagues who can see a murder victim and immediately enjoy a good meal, but even after eight months on the force he feels shocked and injured when he sees a body, as if a member of his family died. Partly this may be his culture, which holds that human corpses are spiritual pollution, and his social class, which is supposed to be responsible for all citizens, and which he takes seriously.
  • Jerkass: Jebilu Stoneslicer in Street Magic, a Fat Bastard stone mage who used his influence to outlaw all other stone mages in Chammur (a city that really needs multiple stone mages, as it's primarily on/in rock) so he wouldn't have to compete with anyone, tries to shirk his teaching responsibility to Evvy, and who is refused by Evvy once Rosethorn forces him to do it.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Ben initially starts setting fires to test his trainee firefighters and prove to the Kugisko councils that they need his firefighters. Setting fires was wrong, but he was actually exactly right — Kugisko is about 95% wood, and fires can break out at any time.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: One of the biggest reasons (along with both the victims and the killer being Beneath Notice) that the murders in Shatterglass take so long to solve is that the policemen have to struggle against the religious authorities' attempts to ritually cleanse murder sites, which destroys evidence in the process.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: The villain of Street Magic thinks that she can get away with her crimes because she is a noblewoman with a lot of power and incredibly powerful connections, but by the end of the book, she finds out the hard way that nobody can get away with things forever.
  • Karmic Death: In Cold Fire, it's mentioned that arsonists are burned alive at the site of their worst crime. Sure enough, Ben is sentenced to that very fate. However, Daja and several others end up making it quicker and less painful.
  • Land of One City: Chammur and Tharios are both city-states. Chammur is de jure part of the kingdom of Hajra, but de facto independent.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything: Kethlun Warder, Tris's student, was a talented glass blower with a tiny amount of ambient glass magic before he was hit by lightning. He's still partly paralyzed and shell-shocked from it, and had to re-learn glass blowing from the ground up — only to discover he'd manifested unpredictable ambient magic related to glass and lightning, and it's up to Tris to help him learn to control it.
  • Lovecraftian Superpower: Unmagic in Magic Steps. It's described as something unlike and alien to any other form of magic, not to mention that just having it used on or near you will gradually eat away at your mind and eventually leave you an Empty Shell if you're not cleansed of it. Whenever handling or cleansing unmagic, the mages of Winding Circle use precautions reminiscent of those needed to handle lethal toxins or radioactive waste, and having to spin unmagic to make the net to trap the Dihanurs gives Sandry waking nightmares.
  • Magic Dance: In Magic Steps, the power exhibited by the young mage boy Sandry finds.
  • Mauve Shirt: Magic Steps has Wulfric Snaptrap, an irascible but likable harrier-mage who Sandry helps to investigate the Rokat murders. He's abruptly killed when they enter the latest crime scene.
  • Merchant City: Chammur in Street Magic sits on the intersection of trade routes between Yanjing and a few Pebbled Sea countries, attracting buyers and sellers from all over. Much of the book happens in souks, as Briar sets up a stall himself.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In Cold Fire, it turns out that the fire-proof gloves Daja makes out of living metal for Ben allows him to start even more fires in the city, since he was the arsonist they had all been hunting.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Of course, by using Daja's gloves, Ben allows investigating mages to trace him by tracing Daja's magic. Which means that he gets caught since the mages know that Daja isn't setting the fires. Daja also catches up to him and uses the gloves to create impromptu handcuffs.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Averted with the strangling deaths in Street Magic and Shatterglass.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: In Cold Fire, we aren't told exactly how Morrachane Ladradun was killed, just that the sight of the body is enough to make Nia faint and Daja vomit. Considering the amount of gore on full display elsewhere in the series, the effect is rather horrifying.
  • Perception Filter: Unmagic can be used to create one of these, strong enough for the assassins using it to get away with murdering people right in front of others. However, it's not infallible, as demonstrated when, after the Rokats are given shelter in Duke Vedris' inner keep, he puts what are described as "carpets" of guards in the hallways leading there, which Alzena finds she can't get past without drawing someone's attention.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Jory and Nia Bancanor from Cold Fire. Jory is outgoing and has ambient cooking magic, which gives her fire resistance. Nia is shy and has ambient woodworking magic, which makes her afraid of fire.
  • Portmantitle: Shatterglass.
  • Power Incontinence: The reason why it's so important that all the new mages have proper teachers, though none more so than Keth, who found himself burdened by chaotic and uncontrolled lightning magic after being struck by lightning.
  • Power of the Void: Unmagic is described as being nothingness, the absence of everything else.
  • Pyromaniac: The arsonist in Cold Fire. Who turns out not to be a mage at all.
  • Renowned Selective Mentor: Addressed in Cold Fire when the local celebrity cook-mage tests Jory before agreeing to train her, being accustomed to dumb kids trying to get her attention but who can't actually do magic or handle her workload. Jory proves that she has the power and the determination to succeed.
  • Required Secondary Powers: At the end of Cold Fire, Daja walks through a burning building. While she can handle the flames just fine, she has to watch out for falling objects, since a falling beam or chunk of roof won't be stopped by her power. (Also, while Daja, Frostpine, Jory and Olennika all have fire resistance thanks to their magic, what they don't have is the ability to shrug off smoke entirely- a little smoke resistance, yes, but not that much, so too much will screw up their lungs like anyone else.)
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Tharians believe that dead bodies spread death to those who touch them, and as such have anything connected to a dead body cleansed completely. In addition, they have a rigorous sanitation program for garbage and sewage. They attribute the city's survival of a hideous plague to these practices and while it surely did the job, they think the matter is of spiritual pollution, not germs — therefore it's more important to cleanse a crime scene than allow it to be investigated, and it's okay for the already-polluted prathmun caste to be forced to live where sewage pipes are dumping into the river. They also don't clean up after the bodies of animals so stringently as it's only the "highest form of life" that carries this kind of pollution.
  • Serial Killer: An element of all the books, but the villain of Shatterglass fits the bill particularly well, embarking on a spree of murdering female entertainers and dumping their bodies in public locations.
  • Serial Killer Baiting: In Shatterglass a serial killer stalks the female yaskedasi, or members of the entertainment class. Quite a few police officers (of both genders, but mostly women) go undercover as yaskedasi, but this is played straight when someone else comments that the grimly staring few who can't dance, juggle, or sing really stick out.
  • Shown Their Work: An interesting variant in Shatterglass. Proper glassblowing terms are used and the techniques described are real, but some of the injuries suffered by the glassblowers are downright bizarre. Keth and first-time glassblowers accidentally breathe in and inhale drops of glass — in reality, molten glass loses heat so quickly it would be solid less than an inch down the blowpipe, and it's too thick to be affected by someone simply inhaling. Long hair does occasionally get singed while glassblowing if left loose, but singeing one's eyebrows as described in Keth's recollections would be close to impossible. On the other side of the coin, a still-molten Chime lands on Keth's head and all this does is set his hair on fire, when the heat would have easily given him a third-degree burn.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Jory and Nia in Cold Fire. Jory is outgoing and energetic, while Nia is quiet and focused.
  • Street Urchin: Evvy and the gang kids that Briar befriends in Street Magic.
  • Strictly Formula: Circle kid leaves Winding Circle with teacher, finds kid with ambient magic, teaches kid with ambient magic while simultaneously trying to solve a strange series of crimes, with some help from local mage police. It's not ironclad, though — Sandry actually stays in Emelan, Briar receives little to no help from law enforcement, and Daja is able to find other ambient mages in Kugisko to do the lion's share of teaching for the Bancanor twins. And Tris' student is an adult, which creates quite a different dynamic.
  • Takes One to Kill One: In Magic Steps. The nature of unmagic is the absence of true magic, so the only way to stop the unmage is with unmagic. Since Winding Circle has no unmages, the only thing that can do that is Sandry's ability to spin magic.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: In Shatterglass, the serial killer turns out to be one of the Hindu Untouchable/Dalit Expy characters who have been constantly on the outskirts of the protagonists' radar, cleaning, being abused, and biding their time.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: When Briar and Daja imagine Tris having to handle their recalcitrant students they picture her resorting to violence. In fact she's mellowed out considerably since Circle of Magic and is much quicker to see other peoples' points of view, though she still has a temper and is something of a Trickster Mentor to her reluctant, older student.
  • Villainous BSoD: After being caught, Ben ends up in a mute state. At his trial, he's unable to speak to defend himself, though by that point everyone knows he is guilty.
  • Vomiting Cop: In Shatterglass, Dema feels the need to hurl after seeing one of the sites where the serial killer has dumped one of the bodies.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In Cold Fire, Ben Ladradun initially sets his fires to convince the city officials that firefighters are necessary. At first, he was always careful to only set fires to abandoned structures or at times when no one was inside, but when he unintentionally kills a homeless woman in one, he realizes he likes the feeling and that people are listening more closely to boot.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: The reaction of the Acalons, a police family, to finding out that Pasco has dance magic. That is, until Sandry explains and demonstrates some potential uses of dance magic — attracting criminals towards them, for instance.
  • What You Are in the Dark: In Street Magic, a potential teacher for Evvy gives Briar money to send her to Winding Circle instead. Since the mage also insulted Evvy, Briar refuses. Once the mage has left, with the money still sitting out, Briar realizes he could go back and pocket it for himself, but he chooses not to.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?:
    • Pasco's siblings, cousins, parents, and adult relatives are forever shaking their heads at his flibbertigibbet ways.
    • Keth's family used to give him some flak for only having a tiny amount of glass magic, but he always reminded them that his considerable mundane skill made up for it.
  • Wrong Context Magic:
    • In Magic Steps, Sandry has to figure out a mage whose magic somehow manipulates sheer nothingness. His magic is so drastically different from anything seen before or since it may count as this.
    • In addition to Sandry's magic manipulating thread, she can also use it to manipulate magic itself by visualizing it as thread. Lark specifically states that she's never seen or heard of another ambient mage who can do that, when explaining to the Duke why Sandry is the only one who can counter the unmagic-using assassins.