Protector of Small Steps

I’m wearing a t-shirt that says Lioness & Wildmage & Protector & Trickster & Terrier and I’m holding on to my beat-up copy of Squire when I settle on my exercise bike for my five-minute workout. The t-shirt is an accident. It’s the first thing I pulled out of the closet this morning. The book isn’t. Truth this, I reread the Protector of the Small series several times this year.

I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books when I was in my early twenties. It was the classic sequence of reader meets book in a charity shop, reader takes book home, and reader realizes this is book two in a series so they should probably order the other three books—and the other three series.1

Because I knew, without a shred of doubt, I was going to like the books. Pages and squires and knights? I devoured stories like that. My favorite duology in the whole wide world was and is Tonke Dragt’s Letter for the King and Secrets of the Wild Wood, a Dutch series about a young squire and his first adventures as a knight. 2 Those were the books that inspired me to become a writer.

I got a master’s degree in medieval history, because I—secretly—also wanted to become a knight.

So when I stumbled across the Tortall books—featuring girls who wanted to become knights and spies and wildmages—I knew I was going to like these books too. What I didn’t anticipate was just how much the Tortall books would come to mean to me.

Or how much they would help when I started recovering from Covid.

Five minutes on an exercise bike on the lowest setting shouldn’t be hard, but it is. The first bike test I did this year lasted six minutes. I was ill for two days after.

Still, that was seven months ago. During that time, I’ve also gone from barely being able to walk around the block to comfortably walking 10-15 minutes a day.

There’s a line in First Test, the first book of the Protector of the Small series, where the main character Kel starts doing pushups to gain strength in her arms. The first time, she can manage three pushups.

“Eda promised her that if she kept exercising, she would do better soon.”

Rationally, I know it’s not as simple as that. I have lived with chronic fatigue before. I live with chronic pain. For those of us with complicated bodies, it’s not always a matter of just keeping at it. But for me, right now, it’s good to keep in mind. It makes it easier to keep going. And it makes the minutes tick by faster, to be reading.

When I dove into the Tortall series, I fell head over heels in love with the books from the very first page.3 Now, I know the various series are not perfect. Sometimes, they’re painfully imperfect.4 But I found so many parts of myself in these books—and in their heroines.

At first, it was Alanna who mattered most to me. The stubborn young girl who disguises herself as a boy to win her shield. She’s the quintessential hero. She rises to become the King’s Champion—and she has a mythical status as a book character too.

She resonated with me for an obvious reason: when I picked up the Song of the Lioness books, I didn’t have a word for nonbinary yet. At some level, I understood that my wanting to become a knight was wrapped up in gender feelings, but I didn’t know yet how to quantify that. After all, it’s hard to put a name to your feelings when you don’t know the words exist. But that first time I read about Alanna, I recognized myself in her discomfort with gender. I envied her for being able to convincingly present as a boy. And when Alanna finally dropped her disguise, I felt bereft because the idea—the possibility—of her challenging gender meant so much to me.

Still, I read her when I needed to read her. When I started asking questions. When I began to figure out the puzzle pieces of who I was.

(I read those scenes differently, now that I’m more comfortable with who I am.)

Next, it was Aly, Alanna’s youngest daughter, who becomes a spy in a strange land. Aly, with her blue hair, her schemes, and her stories. So unlike Alanna. So much like me in other ways.

I loved Aly in the same way I love politics. I loved her for asking question upon question upon question. I loved her for reading body language encyclopedically and being flawed and headstrong. I loved her notes and plots and schematics, and when I look at my own whiteboard full of questions and checkmarks and my drawers full of endless sets of notecards and plot points, I like to think our desks wouldn’t look too dissimilar.

Obvious gender differences aside, she’s probably more like me than any other Tortall heroine.

But in 2020, it’s Kel who matters to me most.

Kel helps me ride my bike.

I got Covid back in March, a week and a bit after The Oracle Code came out. I got lucky. Despite being high risk, my experience was considered mild. I didn’t have to go to hospital. I didn’t end up on oxygen. I spent three weeks in bed, where I coughed until my head and chest hurt. I couldn’t finish a sentence without gasping for air. Taking a breath felt like inhaling small shards of glass.

After three weeks, my fever broke. I wasn’t coughing so much anymore. And my physician stopped checking in with me daily, because I’d passed the danger zone.

I should have recovered. I didn’t. At least, not fully.

Weeks passed, and while I could write while lying down, I’d also done that while I was still sick. I gave answers to interview questions. I wrote the first issue of a comic series. I tinkered with a script and a manuscript. I’ve learned, over the years, to do a lot of things in spite of health or lack thereof.

But I didn’t bounce back to where I was before Covid. I couldn’t go on longer or even shorter walks to clear my head, not even with my trusted cane as support. I couldn’t return to work at my desk. I still couldn’t breathe properly.

I could lie down. Write, read, sleep, repeat.

Because reading took effort and energy I barely had, I found myself rereading a lot. I found myself reaching for old favorites and comfort reads. I reached for books that I knew would make me happy, and it’s continuously a skill I admire in other writers.

Somewhere during those first months of recovery and therapy, I picked up Kel’s books again.

Now, if Aly is most like me in many ways, Kel is always my other choice. I love that she’s the type of person who forgets to eat when she’s busy. I love that she’s ace. I love that she’s conscientious and determined. I love that she’s constantly learning.

I’d like to think that I’m as level-headed as Kel is, but let’s be honest, that’s not how my brain works. Does it work that way for any writer? I can think of a thousand and one things to worry about, and a thousand and one ways to make it worse. Still, Kel isn’t without her fears either. She learns to act in spite of them. She rationalizes. She hides.5 For better and for worse, that felt familiar too.

And Kel, like Alanna says, bless her, she’s real. She isn’t a hero right from the start. She is just like other girls. When she falls, she gets back up again. She’s on a mission and she works hard to get where she wants to be. She even makes exercise seem fun and meaningful.

That particular aspect of Kel—those muscle strengthening exercises and pattern dances—always nagged at me to be better about my own physical exercise. I’ve had enough physical therapy in my life to know how important it is for me, and I’ve always had the best intentions to Keep It Up. Over the years, I’d pick up the books again and plan to add longer walks to my daily schedule—or sword dances, perhaps.6

But I never really made it past those first few days of good intentions, before the weather would turn or a deadline would pop up and I would figure I’d catch up tomorrow. Then the next day. And then the next.

I started physical therapy for post-Covid recovery in May. First, my physical therapist and I talked about goals and expectations. No one knew entirely what “long Covid” was yet, or what to expect, but it seemed sensible to focus on breathing exercises and slowly building up strength and stamina.

Next, I did that bike test. Six minutes at low wattage to figure out a baseline. It was followed by 48 hours of fever, joint pain, and trouble breathing.

Turns out, our starting point was Not That, so the next weeks were focused on trying to determine what the baseline was. Five-minute walks? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? (Yes, that last one was ridiculous at six weeks post-illness. But let it never be said that I can’t be a stubborn fool if I want to be. I just wanted to feel better.)

It was hard. It was hard because I was terrified to fall ill again. It was hard because I’d lived with chronic fatigue before and it took me years to recover.

But the only thing I could do was walk for five minutes, then spend the rest of the day lying down.

The only thing I could do was gradually learn to walk for ten minutes before I had to lie down again. Or maybe spend some of the day sitting up. Or push too hard and try too much, and fall back. I did that a fair few times too.7

I read Kel’s books in the midst of that struggle. And perhaps as a result of that, this year, for the first time, I connected with Kel’s determination in a way I’d never done before. Like probably most disabled people, I have a visceral response to the word inspiration. But she inspired me. That simple message that I know is so much more complicated in real life, gave me something to reach for.

“…if she kept exercising, she would do better soon.”

It resonated with me so strongly, to see a character struggle and gradually improve. When I dove back into the books, Kel’s determination became one of the things that helped me keep going.

I read Alanna’s books when I needed to read them. I reread Kel’s when I did, too.

If I kept exercising, perhaps I would do better soon.

And if not soon, then steady.

Five minutes on an exercise bike. Once a day. One step at a time.

To my own shock—and perhaps slight horror—Kel’s determination to find consistent improvement (combined with the insistence of my physical therapist) also helps me pace myself.

It helps to see Kel prove herself, not by trying to change the people around her or by trying to force what she cannot influence, but by keeping her head down and working. By staunchly doing what she has to do. The protector of the small reminds me to take small steps. It’s better to gradually expand limits than to push through them.

Even if it takes time. Even if it takes months.

During my most recent physical therapy session, we did another baseline test. A nine-minute walk—cut down from twelve halfway through, because my oxygen saturation dropped and we’re being sensible now8—and a handful of exercises with weights.9 By the end of it, I’m tired but not exhausted. I take the slightly longer walk home.

I spent the afternoon on my feet, baking gingerbread cookies.

And the next day, I go through my exercises with sore muscles. It feels both awful and wonderful, all at once. We’re not there yet, but it’s progress, and that’s what matters. It’s not a constant upward climb, but it’s a steady journey in the right direction.

I’d like to think Kel would approve.

 

1 My first introduction was to Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly. And although Beka’s first book—Terrier—had just come out, I didn’t devour it with that same immediacy. Those were different, both narratively and emotionally, and while I enjoyed keeping up with the series, unlike the rest, I haven’t reread them since. Maybe someday.

2 Yes, I know there’s a Netflix series. It’s, ah, rather loosely based on the book, both for better and for worse.

3 Um. Pun not intended.

4 One day, perhaps, I’ll write about disability in the Protector of the Small series and how casually harmful many of the throwaway comments are.

5 I know many people read Alanna as autistic, and I certainly understand why. I see bits of it in Aly too, in her learning to read body language and facial expressions. But oh, I love how for Kel her emotions aren’t the be-all-end-all of her, and that her rational approach is never shown as lesser than or uncaring. Even when she’s bullied for her apparent lack of feelings, Kel doesn’t change. Seeing that mattered.

6 There are quite a few swords and daggers in my office. That can’t be particularly surprising.

7 Let me also note here: I can advise against pushing too hard. But beyond that, recovery looks different for everyone. What works for me may not work for others, and it’s important to recognize that.

8 Character growth! (Maybe.)

9 Some of the same exercises that I’ve done before countless times, and that I’d based Babs’ journey in The Oracle Code on. Some days, it seems, the universe has a peculiar sense of humor.

 

Marieke Nijkamp

Marieke Nijkamp is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of YA novels, graphic novels, and comics, including This Is Where It Ends, Even If We Break, and The Oracle Code. Marieke is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and geek.

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