Tortall by Chapter // Alanna: The First Adventure – Chapter 6: Womanhood

Well, I bet you can guess from the title of this chapter what it’s about. That’s right: periods. I mean, it’s a thing that happens in this chapter. It’s the longest chapter in the book, and a lot happens in it (like, for real, I probably would have split it into two chapters, were I writing this book myself). But the first section is all about periods and you would not believe how much I appreciated that when I was 12 (spoiler alert: it was a lot).

Here’s the thing: periods aren’t talked about much in fiction. It’s terribly inconvenient for many authors, so they just kind of disregard it (and when they don’t, male authors tend to get it really incorrect? How hard is it just to like, ask someone?). It’s enough to give a 12-year-old girl the idea that menstruation is an aberration. Like it’s abnormal. Like it’s not something roughly 50 percent of the population goes through. But this book talks about it like it’s normal. Alanna (having been raised by her very distant father) doesn’t know what’s happening at first, and she goes to a healer who explains it in very frank and honest terms, and it’s like… actually informative to the young reader. It was legitimately reassuring to me as a kid. Periods do not prevent you from being a protagonist.

So, how does Alanna go about seeing a healer, anyway? She can’t tell anyone in the palace or she’ll be expelled from her training. As much as she trusts Coram, she still doesn’t feel right going to him about this. Who does she turn to? George. She rushes off to the city to find him and ask that he find her a healing woman who can keep a secret. Of course, in the process, she has to tell him that she’s female. And you wanna know what my favorite part of this scene was? George was buck naked when “Alan” came into his room through the window and he was chill and fine with it, but as soon as Alanna reveals herself, his first thought is basically “oh shit I’m naked right now, turn around.”

He takes her to his mother, a healer who used to be a priestess of the Goddess before she married. Mistress Cooper lays down the facts for Alanna (after determining that she’s not legitimately injured – it does tend to happen in knight training). She also gives her a contraceptive charm – Alanna denies that she has any intention to lie down with men, but hey, you never know – and that’s another awesome thing about these books. There’s a lot of good discussion in them about contraception, sex, consent, and more. It’s important to talk about it young, I think.

The next section of the chapter shows Alanna’s growing friendship with Myles, as he invites her to visit his home in Olau, a fief not far from Corus. He has ruins, you see, from the time of the Old Ones, and he’s been writing a paper on them for quite some time. Alanna, having expressed interest in such things, is excited to go and explore them with him. Of course, that’s not everything: it turns out Myles was compelled to bring Alanna to the ruins – he had the same dream for a week, of them exploring there. And you don’t mess with dream omens, not if you’re smart.

While they’re exploring, several Spooky things happen – Alanna is able to open a door that Myles has struggled to open for decades. A dangerous storm appears out of nowhere. A mysterious darkness nearly kills Alanna, and she is saved by a centuries-old sword she names Lightning. I mean, for real. She’s got a horse named Moonlight and a sword named Lightning and she is destined to be a goddamn hero.

Myles has a great line here which I’ve always loved: “I’m an everyday man. I like my books and my brandy and my friends. I like everything in its place, and I like to know today where I’ll be tomorrow. When the gods brush my life – they brush everyone’s life at some point – I get nervous. There’s no accounting for what the gods want.” It may be notable to point out that I typically imagine Sir Myles of Olau as a kind of portly, bearded, Remus Lupin. I think at this point, he plays a similar role in Alanna’s life.

Some time after their return, Alanna receives a letter from her brother Thom – their first real exchange in close to three years. He warns her about Duke Roger, saying that the Duke has been investigating him and he’s been playing dumb about the extent of his abilities; he advises Alanna to do the same. This continues on several hints we got in the last two chapters that Roger is not everything he seems – in fact, many people (especially commoners, and we find out why later) seem to have an explicit distrust of him.

As Jon, Alex, Gary, and Raoul are about to be made knights, competition becomes fierce among the squires and soon-to-be-squires to be selected by them (a change from how it was described previously). And yet, Alanna counts herself out, which I find interesting. She tells everyone, “I’m a weakling, I’m a runt, I’m bad at many things, they won’t pick me, especially not Jon.” But everyone can see that he very obviously will? I mean, duh? But she’s internalized so much “women are weaker and inferior to men” talk that she’s begun to believe it herself, especially about herself.

As the end of the “academic” year draws near, Duke Gareth announces trips for the pages and squires – to his home in Naxen for the pages, and to Persopolis, in Bazhir territory, for the squires. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it previously, but the Bazhir are this world’s obvious Generic Arab Counterpart Culture, and they have quite a bit of enmity with the rest of Tortall. Also this book was written in the 1980s, so I mean, consider that when considering how they’re portrayed here. Lotta great things about this book, and romantic fantasy in general, but some of the counterpart cultures of Arab and Romani groups are not… the best (they are also far from the worst).

In a scene I think is extremely charming, Jon asks Duke Gareth for permission to bring Alanna with them on the squire trip rather than the page trip, as “he” spends significantly more time with the squires, and is very nearly at their level of ability. Everyone says very nice things about her and it’s clear they respect her a lot, and it is Good. When Alanna hears the news, she’s shocked that he would even think to intercede on her behalf. She expects everyone to resent her, and they don’t, because they love her, because of course they love her! Everything is cute and great.

Before they go, Duke Roger gives them a warning about a place near Persopolis – called the Black City. What he describes exactly matches Alanna’s previous visions, even as he describes how dangerous it is, filled with powerful malevolent sorcery, and warns them to stay away.


Chapter Highlights:

  • Duke Gareth wears a red and gold brocade dressing gown and this delights Alanna and also me
  • Myles and Alanna expecting some kind of dramatic reaction when she draws the sword, and feeling silly when there’s nothing
  • “The gods willed you to be female and small and redheaded, and obviously silly as well…” god, same, Alanna

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