Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
Ah, Tamora Pierce. My friend Kaitlin from high school adores Tamora Pierce. One of the first years we went to Dragon*Con, we immediately split in the Hall of Fame—she to Pierce, I to Sean Astin. For some reason, she and Mercedes Lackey are connected in my head—something about impressively named women writing about girls whose books sold well at the Scholastic Book Fair every year in middle school. (I loved book fairs. Man. We should start doing those for adults.) But I never read either as a kid, so I knew that I would have to approach The Song of the Lioness as an adult, and that hasn’t worked out well for me in the past…
Alanna: The First Adventure follows, well, Alanna of Trebond. It’s forbidden for girls to become knights in the kingdom of Tortall, but Alanna and her twin brother Thom, who would rather be a sorceror, switch places when they’re sent off at the age of ten to pursue their careers. Disguised as “Alan”, Alanna becomes a Court page, where she learns not only the martial arts, but the scholarly and magical arts as well, which forces Alanna to face her fears about her magical Gift. As Alanna tries to prove herself worthy of the chance to become a knight, she finds herself making friends and enemies. As she does her best to protect Prince Jonathan and her friends, can she keep her secret safe?
I don’t read a lot of children’s books; even as a kid, I picked up American Gods at way too young an age. (I pretty much spent a day in horrified awe after what happens in one of the first chapters.) But I’ve generally had decent luck picking up what I missed as a kid—things are more straightforward and manageable, but still readable and engaging. Alanna: The First Adventure was the first children’s novel I picked up where that was gone. I enjoyed reading it, but something about the simple prose made me actually hard for me to read. This is obviously a me thing—because I try to speak like I write and vice versa, I imagine prose as conversation, which would make this book a pretty jerky one. There’s also a general lack of set-up and telling instead of showing. For instance, Alanna’s only shot at being a knight is to disguise herself, but we later learn that there’s a religious order of women warriors (albeit restricted to sacred ground) and there have been warrior maids in the past. How do they get trained? Why couldn’t she do that and then wander off, as planned? What were her reasons for not joining up with them? And, at one point, Coram, Alanna’s minder at the palace, reminds her not to play any pranks while she’s traveling. “She plays pranks?” I asked the book, dumbfounded. The cat was no help.
So the worldbuilding, a huge part of set-up, feels a little thin here. It’s hard to buy the fear we’re told Alanna has of her own magical Gift when she flippantly conjures fire while exploring ruins. The novel succeeds best when focusing on Alanna’s life at court; her devotion to Jonathan, her determination to overcome her small stature in the fighting arena, and her desire to become a knight. All these ring true without bringing up the little inconsistencies that plague the novel. Alanna herself is determined, quick-tempered, and wounded; while Pierce never dwells on the effect her father’s emotional neglect has had on her, it’s clearly there. Despite myself—I mean, she has red hair and purple eyes, I would have been all about that as a kid—I liked Alanna, even if I kept wishing for more set-up to her character.
Because, despite its inconsistencies and jerky prose style, there’s a reason people love this book. Towards the middle, I began soothing myself about the prose style by thinking of it as a someone telling a bedtime story (it’s got the right cadence for it!). Alanna is brave and works hard—I was delighted to discover that Alanna wasn’t a natural with a sword and that wouldn’t stop her one bit. Despite a Malfoy-esque bully at the beginning, her camaraderie with her friends is warm and real. And it deals with the process of puberty; how it feels like one’s body can betray you, and the knowledge that people think that a silly little thing like your bits ought to keep you from accomplishing your wildest dreams. It’s one of the few children’s books I’ve ever read that deals with menarche in a believable way. Despite Alanna’s efforts to do everything like the boys, there’s an implication here that a lot of the unique stuff she can do, particularly in terms of magic, is because she’s female. It’s no wonder that this would be picked up and beloved by little girls.
Despite its shortcomings, I think I will keep up with The Song of the Lioness; I wonder what else Alanna and company are going to get up to. It can only improve stylistically, right?
Bottom line: Despite its jerky prose and lack of set-up, there’s a reason Alanna: The First Adventure is beloved. Alanna is a brave and hard worker, and it’s a fantasy novel that deals with being a young woman in a man’s world and the troubling process of puberty. It’s quick, so it’s worth a shot.
I rented this book from the public library.