Commenter Kaitlin reminded me last week that I had read Alanna: The First Adventure one enjoyable summer afternoon earlier this year, and it was sitting on a shelf in the “waiting to be reviewed” category. I had discovered Tamora Pierce through another Amazon recommendation this year while I was looking for birthday treats; apparently, though, she has been publishing fantasy for almost as long as I’ve been reading it. Alanna first came out in 1983 after having gone through the prototypical revision process that took it from a very long adult book to a quartet of young adult books.
The Amazon review that convinced me to pull the trigger reads thusly:
Call it fate, call it intuition, or just call it common sense, but somehow young Alanna knows she isn’t meant to become some proper lady cloistered in a convent. Instead, she wants to be a great warrior maiden–a female knight. But in the land of Tortall, women aren’t allowed to train as warriors. So Alanna finds a way to switch places with her twin, Thom, and take his place as a knight in training at the palace of King Roald. Disguising herself as a boy, Alanna begins her training as a page in the royal court. Soon, she is garnering the admiration of all around her, including the crown prince, with her strong work ethic and her thirst for knowledge. But all the while, she is haunted by the recurring vision of a black stone city that emanates evil… somehow she knows it is her fate to purge that place of its wickedness. But how will she find it? And can she fulfill her destiny while keeping her gender a secret?
While this book says a great deal about what it means to grow up a girl in a world where women are supposed to just be pretty, and there are plenty of adventures tied to the fact that our protagonist is hiding her sex–to say nothing of her training to be a knight–the character development is so personal and true-to-life you really do feel like you’re facing those hard growing-up lessons yourself again in reading the story.
As a short example: Alanna teaches herself how to face down a bully in her group. When she does, and feels the emotional consequences of having done so, she hides in some shame until her mentor comes to visit and they have the following conversation:
“The other boys want to celebrate–they think you’re a hero. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
She splashed cold water on her face. “Is it? I don’t know.” She rubbed her face dry and looked at him. “I threw up after,” she confessed. “I hate myself. I just knew more than Ralon did. And he always loses his temper when he fights–I took advantage of that. I’m as bad as he was.”
“I doubt Ralon ever threw up after he beat someone smaller and younger than he was.”
Alanna frowned. “You think so?”
“I’m sure of it.” Myles nodded. “Alan, there will come a time when you, a knight, will have to fight someone less well trained than you. It can’t be helped, and it doesn’t make you a bully. It just means you learn to use your skills wisely.”
Learning new skills and growing up trying to be one thing while dealing with the intricacies of female issues creates its own engaging tale. The added layer of mystery surrounding the old ones and the gods adds a hook to catch everyone else.
This is a short novel, quickly read, but not so quickly digested. There are a lot of lessons about learning to be true to yourself that stick with the reader long after the book is back on the shelf. So I can happily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good coming-of-age tale for a young woman, or anyone else who is looking for an adventure grounded in all the hard work it takes to become skilled in a chosen set of abilities.