Alanna: The First Adventure: Swords, sorcery, and fun

Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.

Alanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young AdultAlanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce YA fantasy book reviewsAlanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Alanna: The First Adventure is, indeed, the first volume of well-known fantasy author Tamora Pierce’s four-book series THE SONG OF THE LIONESS. First published back in the 1980s, the quartet was remarkable in many ways, tackling issues like gender roles, cultural tensions, self-determination, and inherited versus achieved power. Written at a time when “young adult” didn’t exist as a genre and feisty teenage girls couldn’t find much positive representation in mainstream fantasy, the series laid out many of the familiar paths and tropes of what has become modern YA fantasy. Since I’ve read a lot of novels influenced by Pierce’s work, the series’ 2014 hardcover re-release and their attending Author Afterwords was rather like following a river back to its source.

Why didn’t I read these books when I was younger? I certainly was aware of them. In fact, I have a distinct memory of standing in my middle school library at the age of thirteen, reading the synopsis of a paperback edition of Alanna, and feeling distinctly unimpressed. A girl who wanted to ride horses and learn sword fighting rather than be married to some noble’s son just seemed so obvious to my oh-so-worldly younger self. What girl wouldn’t want that? What girl didn’t chafe against societal expectations that felt viciously unfair? What girl didn’t look at her brother and think that the genetic lottery had been kinder to him? I wanted a heroine who was proud of her identity, who had nothing to hide, who would shatter the pre-conceived notions of the Patriarchy and reassemble the pieces into something more fair for everyone. (I was not a fun kid.) In the faulty assumption that Alanna would be stupid and a waste of my time, I put the book back on its shelf and checked out one of my standbys in the Star Wars expanded universe.

Alanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young Adult

Decades older and a skosh wiser, I’ve flung myself headlong into Fantasy Literature’s noble quest to review every science-fiction and fantasy book ever written. With that in mind, and to satisfy my own curiosity, I approached Alanna with a decidedly more patient and hopeful attitude than I previously had. And you know what? It’s a lot better than I gave it credit for. There are some weak elements, particularly with regards to the system of magic, and Pierce was definitely writing for a young demographic, but the story is solid and Alanna of Trebond is a captivating character.

When the story begins, ten-year-old Alanna and her identical twin brother Thom are bemoaning the fates planned out for them by their emotionally distant father: Thom will be sent to train as a page in King Roald’s palace, while Alanna will be sent to a convent and taught lady-appropriate skills like comportment and flower arrangement. Alanna comes up with a plan for them to masquerade as twin boys, one to be sent to the palace and the other to the convent, where boys are allowed to learn magic. Thom forges a letter from their father, Alanna cuts her hair short, and their adventures begin. Unfortunately, we see very little of their interactions before this point, so the remarks other characters make about their inseparability have to be taken at face value. Thom does occasionally appear throughout the rest of the series, but only in the context of how the events of his life affect Alanna’s. This is a shame, as I would have liked to see what magical training in the City of the Gods would be, especially since we are told that Thom is a prodigy. As Alanna and Thom grow over several years into their own identities, the differences between them would have more emotional heft if the reader had seen their “twinness” beforehand.

Alanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young Adult science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAlanna — newly dubbed “Alan” — rides to the capital city of Corus with her manservant Coram and is quickly installed in a page’s daily duties: education in various disciplines like history and mathematics, weapons and battle training, nightly table service in the banquet hall, and more. Since she’s smaller than any of the other pages or squires, and all of this is overwhelmingly new and difficult for her, it’s no surprise that she has a minor breakdown after just a few days:

I’m going from sunrise to sunset and after without a stop, and no end in sight. My free time’s a joke — I’m out of free time before I get to the third class of the morning. And they expect me to keep up, and they punish me if I don’t. And I have to learn how to fall; I’m learning the stance with the bow all over again when I was the best hunter at Trebond, and if I say anything I get more work!

She doesn’t quit, of course; she learns valuable lessons about humility and discipline, forcing herself to practice with swords and staves long into the night and for hours before anyone else is awake. It’s this years-long process which so endeared Alanna to me, and which I was grateful to see Pierce employ. Perfect characters are boring characters, and watching Alanna mature into a capable warrior who fully appreciates the results of her hard work is rewarding. She earns her accolades, she earns her friendships (and her fair share of animosities), and experiences a logical arc of character growth.

Life at court is generally segregated by gender, so the majority of Alanna/Alan’s social interactions involve the other boys in training, their male instructors, and Duke Gareth, who oversees training at the palace. She makes friends with courteous Prince Jonathan, friendly Gary (son of the Duke), and sly George Cooper, a local teenager who happens to be the King of Thieves. She gains the respect and trust of Sir Myles, the history teacher. There is one noted bully, Ralon of Malven, who picks “Alan” as his pet project and mercilessly torments the young page until she becomes strong enough to defend herself.

Alanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young Adult science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

At all times, however, she is careful never to let her friends get too close, because she will absolutely be banished from training and the palace if her secret is known. This bothered me because, on her first trip into Corus, Alanna makes note of the heavily-armored and –armed women guarding the Temple of the Great Mother Goddess. Someone must train them, and obviously it’s acceptable for some women to take up arms in certain circumstances, but no women train with the young men, and somehow any other circumstances are forbidden. I would have appreciated a little more information explaining this aspect of life in the realm of Tortall, since much is made of the necessity of secrecy.

I would also have liked to see more female characters of significance than George’s mother, a noted healer in the city of Corus. Alanna takes Mrs. Cooper into her confidence once puberty strikes, since hiding her physical changes becomes quite a bit more complicated after that point, and Mrs. Cooper provides Alanna with a special charm which somehow has birth-control properties. She also encourages Alanna to begin informing her friends of her secret, which is the sort of advice you’d expect to hear from a sensible person.

I’m all for including the mysteries of the arcane in a fantasy novel, but I’m of the opinion that magic must follow a system of internal logic. If the pages must be instructed in the proper uses of magic and its applications, I don’t want to then see authorial hand-waving when someone is given a supposedly magical trinket. How would a charm worn around the neck interfere with a complex and internal biological function? Would there be any side effects? Wouldn’t any magically-inclined person notice a protective or inhibitive aura around the charm? If Alanna wants to become pregnant at a later date, does the charm’s protection stop as soon as she takes it off? I doubt that the intended audience will ask these sorts of questions, and that’s perfectly fine, but I did stop to wonder about these things for a while.

Pierce seems to fall back on magic whenever a plot point requires a bit of grease: Alanna has access to great reserves of healing energy or various other magical Gifts that appear just when the plot calls for them, but doesn’t put any of that healing power to use until her friend Prince Jonathan falls deathly ill. She also has visions and portentous dreams throughout the series, and despite the fact that the visions always factor into each book’s principle conflict, Alanna ignores them as nonsense until a certain point, when they suddenly become of crucial importance. But ultimately, that’s a minor annoyance when compared to the other, well-written aspects of the novel.

There’s court intrigue, an attempt to usurp the throne, algebra homework, and the unrelenting pressure of maintaining a false identity while following one’s heart. There’s sorcery, swords, and a forbidden Black City deep in the desert. Alanna is a quick, easy read, and generally quite fun. As the series goes on, the material becomes gradually less kid-friendly, but adults and teenaged fans of fantasy should find it quite enjoyable.

~Jana NymanAlanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young Adult


Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce YA fantasy book reviewsI’ve been reading Tamora Pierce novels since I was ten years old, but for whatever reason I’ve never gotten through all four books of her first series: SONG OF THE LIONESS. I’ve no idea why, but it was well past time to rectify that omission.

Alanna: The First Adventure introduces us to Alanna and Thom: two red-headed, violet-eyed twins with a disinterested father who plans to send each of them off to pursue separate educations — Thom to become a knight and Alanna to become a lady. Neither one is remotely interested in these futures, so they concoct a plan to avoid a life of misery. By forging a couple of letters, Thom will be admitted into a convent where he can learn sorcery, and Alanna (after disguising herself as a boy) will train to be a knight in the king’s army.

By today’s standards, this is fairly generic fantasy material, but back when the book was first published in 1983, it was revelatory — not necessary the idea of a woman becoming a warrior (after all, the likes of Mulan and Éowyn and Joan of Arc have been around for a long time) but because Pierce was uncompromising in her portrayal of Alanna’s physical and mental journey. If she wants to be a knight, she damn well has to WORK for it.

Every cut, every scrape, every bruise that Alanna sustains throughout her training is recounted here; nothing comes easy for her, and it takes every ounce of her grit and determination to achieve her dreams. It’s a book that’s very much about a person’s physicality, and how it can improve over years of hard work.

Alanna: The First Adventure Tamora Pierce science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews Children Young Adult Yet more than that, Pierce never loses sight of the fact that Alanna is also a young woman. She’s not magically better than the boys just because she’s the heroine of this story; in fact, there are some areas in which she’s always at a disadvantage (wrestling, for example). And of course, once she’s hits puberty, she has to deal with her first period and a growing chest. Even today, I’m impressed by Pierce’s realistic and uncompromising depiction of Alanna’s body — it doesn’t exist to be admired or worshipped, but for her to train and strengthen and oftentimes struggle with.

This first book covers several years, and reads like a series of experiences that Alanna learns and grows from. In many ways it reads more like a school story than a fantasy one, as she moves through her training and education, faces a series of morally challenging decisions, and makes both loyal friends and committed rivals.

Among them is Prince Jonathan, who — as the heir to the throne — has even tougher hurdles to overcome than Alanna, George Cooper, the cocksure rogue who provides Alanna with a spy network, and Sir Myles, an older knight who’s fond of his drink, but who takes a kindly interest in Alanna’s progress (or as she’s known: “Alan”.)

It’s fun to look back and see how much Pierce has improved as an author since her first book, yet at the same time there’s plenty of skill on display in how she presents the reader with a fast-paced story and a cast of lovable characters. The final chapter is a little anti-climactic (Pierce introduces a set of nigh-invincible enemies only for Alanna to overcome them effortlessly) and a lot of what’s presented here is set-up for the next books in the series, but Alanna: The First Adventure ends on a note of promise and hope.

~Rebecca Fisher

Published in 1983. From Tamora Pierce, the first book in the Song of the Lioness Quartet, honored with the Margaret A. Edwards Award. “From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.” In a time when girls are forbidden to be warriors, Alanna of Trebond wants nothing more than to be a knight of the realm of Tortall. So she finds a way to switch places with her twin brother, Thom. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins her training as a page at the palace of King Roald. But the road to knighthood, as she discovers, is not an easy one. Alanna must master weapons, combat, and magic, as well as polite behavior, her temper, and even her own heart. Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and make her a legend in the land.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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3 comments

  1. 1980? The dearth of strong female characters doesn’t seem so surprising. It still would have been nice to have some.

    • There are certain authors (like Andre Norton, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Madeleine L’Engle) who were writing in the 1970s and 80s, and because I’ve read their female-centric work so often, I tend to forget that they were often the exception rather than the rule. :)

  2. I love this quartet! Tamora Pierce still doesn’t get the recognition she deserves!!!

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