So, I’ve been wanting to do this forever, where I reread a series of books I know really well and post chapter-by-chapter reviews of them, going in-depth where I normally have to skim for length. There’s a lot of series I’d like to do this with, but I decided to start with my original book crush: the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce. Specifically the Song of the Lioness series, following the heroine Alanna on her quest to become a lady knight. These books have always been really meaningful to me, and I’m excited to give them the time they deserve.
This book, Alanna: The First Adventure, is what started everything. A multi-series world, a phenomenon that’s resonated with countless teens and young women, and in retrospect, it’s hard to believe it started so… humbly. Chapter 1: Twins introduces us to the titular Alanna and her twin brother Thom. They are nobles of an age where she is being sent off to a convent to learn ladylike skills, and he is being sent off to the capital and the palace to learn to be a knight. Of course, neither of them want this at all. So, they switch places. Thom will go off to learn to be a great sorceror while Alanna will disguise herself as a boy to go through knighthood training. It’s a tale as old as time.
I think a lot of what appealed to me here when I first read this book was Alanna’s rejection of girly things. I was also at that phase where I didn’t want anything to do with dresses or skirts, the color pink, “girly” toys I’d once loved, etc. I think a pretty high percentage of women in the West go through such a phase, this absolute rejection that comes from having recognized society’s pre-determined role for you. While nothing presented in this book is especially groundbreaking from the perspective of the modern reader, it was a wonderfully feminist work when it was published in 1983. The goalposts, I’d say, have moved a bit since then.
I especially like Alanna’s early characterization here, knowing with the benefit of hindsight how her character develops throughout the four books of this series. When she says to her brother, “I’ll handle the rest when it happens” or when the narration reads “Alanna gritted her teeth and thrust her chin forward stubbornly. She would see this through.” These are such consistent elements of her character, established early and maintained every time we see her. But we also see where she changes: her early fear of magic (particularly of using her own magical abilities) is a major plot point, and she does learn to overcome her rejection of all things feminine, learning over time the value of these things.
Another significant theme in this book is introduced very early here as well. While preparing Alanna for her journey, old maid Maude (who essentially raised the twins, their mother having died in childbirth) tells her, “Think before you fight. Think on who you’re fighting […] and if you want to pay for those lives you do take, use your healing magic. Use it all you can, or you won’t cleanse your soul of death for centuries. It’s harder to heal than it is to kill.” This is a common theme throughout Alanna’s series, as she comes into her full powers both as a warrior and a healer.
By the time I read these books, I’d read dozens of books about gallant, heroic knights, very few of which ever did any kind of examination on the deaths, the pain, the heartbreak caused by these kinds of characters. To see it here was jarring for me, and it’s refreshing even now, with several hundred more fantasy novels under my belt. Creating that balance – doing good by killing what needs to be killed and healing what needs to be healed – is a struggle over time. I still think a lot of heroic fantasy characters could benefit from that kind of examination.
Few other characters are introduced in this chapter – the focus is given to Alanna and Thom. The secondary characters are really Maude and Coram, the family’s former-guard manservant who goes with Alanna to serve her in the capital. Part of the conflict and tension of this chapter is Alanna trying to persuade Coram to go along with her plan, despite his reluctance and second thoughts. In some ways, he very much reminds me of a proto-Hagrid – a well-meaning but kind of bumbling father figure who is gruff but ultimately indulgent and affectionate. Coram is the type of character who could be completely static, who could see very little growth over the series. But he actually plays a major role at times and goes through his own kind of character arc.
Lord Alan, Thom and Alanna’s father, is mentioned here but not seen on page. We’ll have to get further into the reread for me to confirm this suspicion, but I don’t think we ever actually “meet” Lord Alan – we only hear about him from others. I imagine this is to enforce the emotional distance between him and his children. He’s a distant father, still grieving his deceased wife, leaving the childrearing to servants and absorbing himself in his studies. While his presence is an influence on Alanna’s life, certainly, she has several other father figures who come in throughout the series (most notably, one who actually adopts her after her father passes away).
Briefly mentioned in this chapter is a character who the first-time reader doesn’t know yet, but the rereader will recognize as one of the most significant characters in the series: George Cooper, King of the Rogues. One of my first book crushes, the charming, not-too-handsome, noble thief, who’s as quick to steal your heart as he is your belt purse. I love George Cooper. George Cooper is in some ways still the standard to which I hold real men. I cannot wait to see more of him, but here, he isn’t even mentioned by name.
We “meet” George when Alanna and Coram reach the capital city of Corus after the long ride south from Alanna’s northern fief of Trebond. To this day, the initial descriptions of the city of Corus, its marketplaces, its palace, are some of my favorite city descriptions ever. In a lot of ways, it’s a bog-standard medieval-fantasy city. But it’s described so lushly here, it’s so vivid and real. I still remember the first time I read it and I could picture the city so clearly in my mind, I could hear it, I could smell it. I also love the early glimpse at the faith of the Mother Goddess, which employs priestesses with “great double-headed axes” to stop men from ever setting foot on ground sacred to the Goddess. Life goals, honestly.
The chapter concludes with Alanna reaching the palace and being about to meet Duke Gareth of Naxen, another of the aforementioned father figures. She panics briefly, wondering if he’ll guess her secret, after being told that “A wizard with a sword, he is, and a better leader ye’ll never meet.”
- Alanna’s pony is named Chubby
- Coram getting nearly blackout drunk and only agreeing to take Alanna onwards because he has a hangover and wants to be left alone
- The twins making the cook hallucinate lions after trying to rat them out for stealing cherry tarts