Tortall by Chapter // In the Hand of the Goddess – Chapter 7: Winter Lessons

This is, as I remembered, one of the best chapters not only in this book but in this whole series. I’ve been looking forward to this chapter since I started this series, I won’t lie. But… it’s interesting to look back with the perspective of an adult. There’s one line that I think I tried to deny when I was younger, but can’t now. This is the chapter where the shipping war between Jon and George should’ve been decided. This is not going to go the way you think.

First we see Alanna, now home after the war – and apparently some time has passed, since it’s now winter – and she’s going to visit Mistress Cooper, George’s mother. Notably, Alanna is not with George; she’s going alone. They catch up over tea – and I just want to point out here how exceedingly glad I am that Alanna has another woman in her life to talk to – including talking about Alanna’s plans for the future. As of this point, those plans still include Alanna leaving after she wins her shield; she assumes that her friends won’t still love her after they learn the truth. She is… wrong. To say the least.

They talk about Jon – he’s been “blowing hot and cold” in Alanna’s words. Alanna explains to Mistress Cooper how he kissed her this summer but hasn’t since but clearly wants to and won’t. She also explains how he’s been a colossal asshole. I mean, come on, Jon. Don’t be a dick. He’s getting jealous when she talks to her male friends, but when she talks to ladies he accuses her of leading them on. So who can she talk to, then, Jon? You? Myles? Is that it? God, this pisses me off. Jon is so hot and so terrible.

But finally Alanna gets to the point of why she’s come to visit Mistress Cooper – she wants to learn to dress and act like a lady. She figures, she sees the ladies at court wearing pretty things, and she likes pretty things, and she doesn’t really want to pretend to be a boy forever. This whole bit is some Good Shit; it’s a big adjustment for Alanna, who feels like she’s just seeing Squire Alan in a dress. They experiment with makeup and wigs and M. Cooper starts to teach her the basics of women’s etiquette (surprise! Learning two types of courtly manners is twice as hard as learning one).

Of course… at the worst moment… George decides to bring Prince Jonathan around to meet his mother… not knowing that Alanna is there and that she’s wearing a gorgeous purple silk gown. Both George and Jon have their own “oh no she’s hot” moments (for clarity: they both knew she was hot before. This is a new, different kind of hot, though). Jon gets all nosy about it while George basically says “you do you” and this once again highlights the differences between them. And also highlights that George is better than Jon. Just saying.

The next section of this chapter is about this especially bad winter in the city, and a series of wolf attacks on villages in the Royal Forest. The king takes out a hunting party to kill the dangerous Demon Grey, a killer wolf who has been noted as being larger, fiercer, and harder to kill than all the others. Alanna has some fun catching up with Gary and Raoul, but the hunt spreads out and she finds herself alone (without even Faithful, who’s been left at the palace).

Duke Roger kills a wolf that was about to attack her, presumed to be Demon Grey… until the actual Demon Grey attacks to avenge his mate. Alanna manages to kill the wolf and not get killed herself… but she sees a magical orange aura – the color of Duke Roger’s magic – fading around her. Alanna later performs some experiments to confirm that she was really seeing what she thought she was seeing, and she begins to feel that she might be starting to enjoy magic, which is one of my favorite pieces of character development for her – from fearing an innate part of herself to starting to embrace it here (and learning how to really develop it in later books).

Then we skip ahead a few months to Alanna’s 17th birthday, which I’m pretty sure is in May? She has a pleasant enough day with her friends, though she does become briefly preoccupied with the Chamber of the Ordeal, something she’ll need to face only a year and a half from now. Things take an interesting turn when Jonathan ends up dancing with Delia of Eldorne that night, and Alanna assumes he’ll be spending the night with her. She ends up going to her secret locked chest of women’s clothes, as she decides “there was no law that said she had to be a boy on her seventeenth birthday.”

She takes a stroll through the palace gardens, feeling “bold and wonderful” in her disguise. “She was free and independent, and that was the important thing!” The power of a great new outfit, am I right? This is pretty much exactly what putting on your favorite dress should feel like and I love it. She sees someone watching her from afar and she considers going back inside and forgetting this ever happened… until she realized that it’s Jon. They talk for a bit, and he comments on the charm that he’s never seen her wear before, now exposed by her dress – her magical contraception charm, which I still love. I love the idea of contraception you can wear as pretty jewelry. Love it. And Jon, totally smooth and not at all an idiot nerd, asks “Have you ever tried it out?” Oh, Jon. Oh dear.

So, they kiss and he actually starts undressing her at which point Alanna freaks out and backs away, deciding she doesn’t want this right now. Sure, she’s been having sexy thoughts, but “I promised myself once that I’d never love a man! Maybe I almost broke that promise just now because of moonlight and silliness.” Jon tries again to persuade her and like, up until now, I’ve been enjoying this. This is a nice character chapter. Until Jon ruins EVERYTHING with one line. After she turns him down once more, he says, “Go away, before I change my mind?”

Uhhh. What the fuck. Whatcha trying to say there, buddy? Old buddy Jon? What are you trying to get at? That if she sticks around you’re going to keep trying to persuade or coerce her into sex? That you’ll just… keep going, regardless of if she says no? Don’t, uh, don’t do that. How about… not sexually assaulting your best friend and first love. Like, how about that, huh? I… I feel reasonably confident that that’s not what he’s saying and that’s not how Pierce is writing him, but it is very much how this comes across to me now. It changes the whooooole vibe of the rest of this chapter.

So, Alanna runs back to her rooms and immediately gets back into her men’s clothing, thinking that “men got ideas when a person wore skirts!” And damn, I really wish I could say that that wasn’t true… but all evidence to the contrary; yeah, they totally do. She assumes that Jon is not going to come back to his rooms tonight, that he’ll go to Delia, that he just wanted a girl to have fun with. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. But, he doesn’t. He comes back to his rooms, quietly, clearly trying not to disturb her (important note: a knight’s and squire’s rooms are adjoining, hence The Drama here).

Well… Alanna knocks on his door and she says, “Jon? I’m scared. Help me, please.” And he responds, “I’m scared, too. At least we can be scared together.” Fade to black.

This scene is altered by the previous, and vice versa. The narration describes Jon as being tearful, really, his voice rough, he’s clearly being sincere in what he says. This is what makes me think that the previous scene was just… misconstrued? Aged poorly? I don’t know. It’s iffy and it’s messy and it’s creepy.

And YET. As best as I can remember, this is the first book I read where the protagonist has sex. Has sex outside of marriage, on her own terms, using contraception by her own choosing, with the partner of her choice. That’s kind of huge, you know? There’s no “peer pressure” to “lose it” by a certain age, there’s no shitty leering guy who clearly just wants to fuck and leave, Alanna’s reasons for going through with it or not are entirely her own. This is another of the ways in which this series was enormously influential on me when I was growing up. It was another brick in a foundational idea for me that sex should be based on love and respect and trust and not necessarily marriage.


Chapter Highlights:

  • After Alanna rejects Jon, her hands are shaking so bad she can’t re-lace her bodice… so he does it for her
  • All of the outfit descriptions – green velvet and brown furs and violet silk, so luxe
  • Jon’s second “omg lol boobies wut” moment in two books

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