I was given this book by a student teacher placed with me some time ago, a major Margo Lanagan and Isobelle Carmody fan who was scandalised that I hadn’t read any Tamora Pierce. And I finally got around to reading it, hurrah! (She also gave me a pencilcase that she made herself and decorated with important history dates – how cool is that?? – and a copy of A Woman in Berlin which I haven’t read yet but I WILL, I SWEAR.)
So, I should say upfront that I don’t think I loved this book as much as M wanted me to, and I think that is entirely the fault of my age and cynicism. Oh, I fully intend to get my hands on the rest of the series at some stage because I do want to find out what Pierce does with Alanna, especially once her secret is out… but it’s unlikely to be a Great Classic in my heart.
That said… some spoilers follow, because I want to dissect a couple of bits.
So, that said… I liked Alanna, although the 30-cough-something in me is intensely amused and eye-roll-y at a ten year old having the nous to set up such a trick on her father. It’s interesting that Pierce made the father neither evil nor dead (the dead bit is left to Mum) but so intensely disinterested and absent that this trick could work; I would have thought this would have a rather larger impact on the child than it appears to. Anyway; it’s set up as ‘special child with special talents’ right from the start, so that’s not something I can complain about. And I DO genuinely like Alanna. Much as I deplore the violence I admire the pluckiness of wanting to beat your own enemies; I like that she speaks in a forthright manner, and her determination to be as good as the boys – and that she fully intends to reveal her secret when she’s passed her tests and go on to have adventures. I really, really liked that Pierce addressed the issue of menstruation and Alanna’s annoyance at having biology forced on her (also, the bit where she realises her chest is jiggling? Priceless). I am sad that she has the “but I’m not good enough because I’m a giiirrrlll!” tantrum, but I do like that it’s the male companion who tells her not to be so ridiculous.
I forgot to mention the premise of the story. Alanna wants to be a knight. Her twin brother doesn’t; he wants to be a sorcerer. Conveniently, boys are taught magic at the convent to which Alanna is to be sent to learn How To Be A Lady; and Thom, the brother, can forge Dad’s handwriting. So, switch-a-roo and Alan(na) is off to the big city to learn how to cudgel opponents… I mean how to be a knight. Essentially this is a boarding school story but rather than being nerds or wizards or international students, this is Knight School. There’s all the sorts of things you would expect – fitting in, working hard, dealing with bullies, annoying/scary/awesome teachers – with added swords.
There are some nicely subversive elements here, against the traditional Learning to be a Knight story, especially in the form of Sir Myles. (It must be said I was a little afeared that Myles was going to end up having a sexual attraction to young Alan, when he suddenly asked Alanna to accompany him to his home castle. Lucky it was only inspired by a dream! Haha!) The undercutting of chivalry, and the seeming contradiction of what is expected of a knight – honour vs beating opponents up, etc, isn’t fully fleshed out and may simply pass a young reader by – but I appreciated it. Especially in contrast to the “yeh, beat up the bully! That’s the solution!” rhetoric, which kinda revolted me.
Things that made me very eye-roll-y: Alanna is so fed up and tired after two days that she decides to leave (but of course changes her mind…) and THEN, a few months later, has enough time to go out and do EXTRA training with George so she can beat up the bully? Really? So she magically found time for travel AND for the lessons?
Also: George. I’m as much a fan of your King of the Thieves as the next person who read David Eddings as an impressionable teen, but… a king in their late teens? Named George? With such a highly developed sense of morality? I don’t buy it.
Also also: “the Gift.” The reality of this magical ability just wasn’t developed enough early on – either what it is or why Alanna hates it so much – for me to be particularly impressed when she pulls out the stunt of making Jonathan recover. I am intrigued by the fact it appears, at least in this use of it, to call directly on the gods – gods who don’t appear to have much impact on everyday life, as far as I can see, in terms of worship or morality.
Things that concern me: I worry that Alanna and Jonathan will end up having a Thing. That will annoy me. Or Alanna and George. So the prince and the king of thieves will end up fighting for her hand. That would be BAD.
All of this aside, I really will look up at least the next book, to see where Pierce takes Alanna. My version of this first book has the opening chapter of the second, as a teaser, and… yeh, I am intrigued.
I remember these books! I didn’t mind the first one. Found they get worse though. Too romanc-y and emotional. I liked the villains though. They were pretty good.
Romance and emotion do not put me off, unless they are unrealistic. I don’t want to see Alanna’s talents swamped by romance, since that would negate everything set up about her character so far; but negotiating relationships as well as becoming a knight and saving the world will make sense.
I read these books at exactly the right time! (ie as a teenager) I read the second one first though, which is where Alanna grows up (she’s an adult for the last two) and so always struggled going back to the more babyish first book.
I think Tamora Pierce’s work is really important in the history of fantasy – her exploration of epic fantasy tropes had some serious innovations which meant I took certain things for granted as I went forward into the genre. Such as having female characters that get to do things, romance that isn’t necessarily about The One And Only (Alanna has several relationships with men, of varying degrees of romance/sexuality, rather than simply having one romantic narrative), and most importantly of all, contraception!
Having said all that the Alanna books are obviously her first – purple eyed heroine, anyone? – and I think her later books address some of the more obvious limitations of this particular heroine. In retrospect Alanna’s general despisal of anything ‘feminine’ is a bit of a turn off (she does improve in this regard as she goes, but still), and she struggles to form female friendships that mean as much to her as her friendships with men. Also as you say, she verges on the superhuman at times.
On the other hand, teen girls can do with a superhuman protagonist or two to follow and Alanna is a lot more progressive than many characters you find in current YA series! (though in all fairness many current YA authors cite Tamora Pierce as a major influence)
My favourite books are probably the Daine and Keladry series rather than the Alannas, but she is still imprinted on that very early reader part of my brain as far as my expectations of physically capable female characters in fantasy.
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