Saturday, 24 September 2011

Review: Alanna - The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Song of the Lioness #1)

First published in: 1983
By: Atheneum

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? 

My review:

Everything I've ever heard about the Alanna series has led me to have high expectations. I expected to love it. I expected Tamora Pierce to become one of my favourite authors. I expected to want to name my first-born daughter Alanna.

Looking at Alanna: The First Adventure, it's such a slim book, you'd think it would collapse under the weight of those expectations. But I can honestly say it didn't. It held up. And I think it deserves to stand beside the greats of children's fantasy.

It makes me smile to think on how fast paced it is. It's less than 200 pages long, with only 7 chapters, so the story just sets off and keeps going, with no drag at all. The first chapter, 'Twins' introduces us to Alanna and Thom. Their father is sending Alanna to a convent, to learn how to become a proper lady and Thom to the King's court, to be trained as a knight. Only Thom hates fighting and would much rather learn spells, while the thought of being a lady makes Alanna shudder - she wants to be a great warrior. So the twins decide to switch destinations and because women aren't allowed to become knights, Alanna will have to pretend to the court that she is a boy. This entire plan is hatched on the first page, it's set into motion within 5 and Alanna is at the palace by the end of the chapter. 

Once there, Alanna does begin to resemble other 'magic school' books, as she learns the ropes at court, struggles to cope with lessons and is preyed upon by the resident bully. But underlying these things at all times, is the fact that Alanna is a girl pretending to be a boy and it just gives everything that happens a different dynamic. When Alanna finally beats her tormentor in a fight, it means so much more than if they were the same gender. The premise could easily have become silly, cross-dressing hijinks but Pierce doesn't shy away from the practicalities. Alanna's breasts start to grow and she starts menstruating and you feel real anxiety for her when this happens.

And sad for her. As a modern reader, I can't help but think: does Alanna have gender dysphoria? She lives in a world with heavy restrictions on women, so the discontent she feels in her own body is a result of that. I hope that in the following books she gets to appreciate and even enjoy being female.

I have 2 tiny complaints about this book and both concern the use of magic. One is that it isn't really explained and I wasn't sure what the rules were. Many characters have the Gift but don't really use it. I suppose I'm used to the Harry Potter characters using magic everyday, so in Alanna I did wonder why it wasn't used more. The second is that I thought Alanna was a little too good at everything. The story does show her working for it; she puts in more extra hours and trains harder than anybody else. However, I thought Alanna becoming a great knight and having an unusually powerful Gift for magic was a little too much. That's probably down to me being old and grudging, though. I'm sure if I'd read this when I was younger (and how I wish I did!), I would be doing nothing but cheering Alanna: Superwoman on. 

Overall, this is a really good story and promises a great series to follow. My expectations were met. And my hypothetical future daughter? I think Alanna will be at least a middle name.

Rating: 4 stars


  1. I grew up reading books by Tamora Pierce and have been in love with her fantasy worlds for as long as I can remember. I think a lot of the reason why there is not much mention of the Gift is because Alanna is a little afraid of it. I think in the third book in this series, the Gift is explained a little more.

  2. Lan - Tamora Pierce seems to strike such strong feelings in everybody who has read her. I wish I'd read her when I was growing up. I'm looking forward to discovering more about the Gift and seeing more of Tortall in the following books.

  3. I saw this series as someone's answer for this past Follow Friday, and I had never heard of it before then - I'm glad I got to see someone else's review of this. I really want to read the series now!


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