First Test: A school story

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Tamora Pierce First Test Protector of the SmallFirst Test by Tamora Pierce

Throughout Tamora Pierce’s range of fantasy books, the Protector of the Small quartet is unique, mainly because it is not primary a fantasy series, but a school story — more akin to the likes of Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in the School or Mallory Towers. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but on close inspection I think you’ll find it’s true. Though there are fantasy elements present, the main narrative of the book is concerned with topic that you find in other books of the school-story genre (including Harry Potter), including school bullies, malevolent teachers, homework assignments, camaraderie among peers, “hazing” younger students, and even sporting tournaments (though Pierce replaces cricket or Quidditch with jousting and sword fighting).

Ten-year old Keladry of Mindelin (or ‘Kel’ as she’s known to her friends) is the first girl in ten years to apply for training as a knight in the realm of Tortall. Determined to follow in the footsteps of her hero Alanna the Lioness, Kel is eager to begin her training amongst the other young recruits. She seems cut out for the role considering that she’s been raised among the stoic, war-like Yamanis.

But things are not so rosy once she gets to Tortall. Her training-master Lord Wyldon is not happy about her presence there and has forced King Jonathan to place Kel under a one-year probation: if she can’t keep up with the boys, then she’s out. Furthermore, her fellow trainees scorn and mock her, and a few in particular are determined to send her packing.

Kel however, is determined to see her training through to the end, and soon finds things to enjoy about her rigorous program. She befriends the wise-cracking Neal, finds a kindred spirit in her bad-tempered stallion Peachblossom and has an entourage of sparrow companions that come in very handy in a fix. But why is Lady Alanna ignoring her? And will she survive her probation come the end of the year?

The Protector of the Small quartet is also different due to the nature of Kel herself. Unlike all of Pierce’s previous heroines, Kel does not have any magical gifts that can aid her in her struggles. Unlike Alanna (and other heroines in similar stories) Kel cannot fall back on magical powers or disguises to ease her toils, but must instead work for all that she accomplishes. Pierce is extremely successful in capturing this physicality to Kel’s journey: we share every aching muscle, every black eye, every saddle-sore backside.

For those familiar with other Tortall books, there are some nice cameos from several old characters: the most important are from Daine and members of the royal family, but also keep your eyes out for Lindhall Reed, Bonedancer, Tkaa the basilisk, Sir Myles, Stefan and a hilarious episode with an absent-minded Numair.

Despite the differences between this and the other Tortall books by Tamora Pierce, it is an interesting and rewarding read.


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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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