Book Review: Alanna The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Title: Alanna The First Adventure

Author: Tamora Pierce

First Sentence: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk.

Rating: 5 out of 5 crazy ass magic swords

Okay, okay, yes I am super duper tardy to the party. This book was published in 1983 and I’ve known about them for like a decade and always meant to read them but then two nights ago I was twittering with some fellow library people and I admitted that I had never read it, or anything by Tamora Pierce actually (who was awarded the 2013 Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring her Complete and Utter Badassery “significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens for Song of the Lioness quartet and The Protector of the Small quartet”). I was promptly peer pressured by said twitter library people into reading Alanna’s first adventure immediately if not sooner. Seriously- there were pinky swears and spy cats involved.

I had been aware that Alanna makes all the “strong female lead” lists that include books written more than 5 minutes ago and that SOTL is named by many a queer girl as an inspiration. No Alanna isn’t… like… technically queer but she pretends to be a boy to do what she wants and that kind of gender bending is all that many of us had to keep us going through the slumber party discussions of Devon Sawa vs JTT. (I just totally dated myself, didn’t I?) I even had this little (literally tiny) girl when I was working in a middle school library who had read every single Tamora Pierce book we owned twice (she had read most of the library by the end of her first year there) who begged me to read them. So I knew about them. And I knew everyone loved them. But I guess sometimes it takes librarians you respect on Twitter to get you to finally sit down and read the thing.

And HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS!! YOU WERE RIGHT! YOU WERE ALL RIGHT! WHY DID I PUT IT OFF FOR SO LONG?!!

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FOR THE LIFE OF ME I could not figure out how I managed to get through middle school without reading it. I read literally everything in middle school. I was bullied and miserable and so I used to check out like 14 books at a time and bring them back within 2 days. (I’m soooo not even exaggerating a tiny bit.) And she has red hair like me and I was totally obsessed with red-headed characters (I still may be a tiny bit) when I was young. So I literally just tracked down my middle school’s library website to find out if they have the Song of the Lioness series and it turns out they don’t. Thus solves the mystery. BUT STILL!

Couple of things stood out to me.

I was reminded how rare it is to read any book (even written by a woman) where menstruation was posed as a natural, positive thing. Alanna is all WTF IS THIS?? and the woman healer she goes to not only explains it calmly and without any embarrassment, but also talks about sex in a totally casual NBD way and mentions that WOMEN ENJOY SEX TOO! So fucking rad. And so rare that I really notice it when such a scene is written.

I really enjoyed how Alanna is both brave and insecure. She always rises to the challenge, she is determined to prove herself worthy of being a knight, but she also has moments of “I’m a fraud, I’m just a girl and they’ll all find out my secret and hate me.” And I know that 13 yr old me would have been all “FUCKING PREACH IT GIRL!!!”

And, honestly, 30 yr old me is still all “FUCKING PREACH IT GIRL!!!” Because half of my life (okay maybe not half) I feel like a fraud. I walk into the library to open the department, or stand in front of a group of kids and parents and sometimes just for a moment I think, “who gave me permission to do this? Doesn’t everyone know I’m just still a kid who doesn’t know what the hell she is doing?” and then I remember I’m all grown up and shit. We’re all just pretending to a certain degree.

Beyond just the “we’re all pretending,” though, I see some deeply internalized misogyny.

“The truth was, she didn’t feel worthy of being someone’s squire. She was a girl, and she was a liar. At any moment, the truth could surface. In the meantime, the fact that she could always be beaten at wrestling and that she was only an average swordsman would do. Jonathan would pick Geoffrey or Douglass [to be his squire], and that would be the end of it.”

Like, holy shit girl that is some deeply rooted self loathing! It’s the voice inside so many girls’ heads, inside my head when I was younger. The voice telling you you can’t do math, or study advanced science, or be President. That you aren’t worthy of equal respect to a man. It’s bullshit, and we sort of know its bullshit, but the world around us keeps reinforcing that voice. So to have Alanna speak the words of that voice out loud and then overcome that, to tell the prince at the end of the book, “you should pick me as your squire” that is a powerful message.

In addition to being an incredibly powerful message to girls that they CAN DO WHATEVER THE FUCK THEY WANT and to boys that GIRLS CAN DO EVERYTHING BOYS CAN DO, it’s a really really well written story. By the end I was racing through the pages because I had to know what happened. It’s solid world building, great character development of all the characters and left me ruhl pissed that book 2 was lost and so I have to wait for my ILL to come through before I find out what happens next. Seriously– rude.

Alanna lived up to all my expectations and more and I’m officially a die hard Tamora Pierce fan.  Knowing going in that this was the first of a quartet I think is key because there is a lot of set up in it. It’s like the pilot of a tv show you can tell is gonna be really good, and the first one is awesome but you know a lot of time has been spent laying the foundation and shits really gonna get real in the next couple of books.

So I eagerly await my copy of book 2. And in the meantime I might just go back and reread the whole thing because Alanna is my new BFF.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Alanna The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

  1. I also have managed to avoid reading these, despite all the things you mentioned, too. I think it’s mostly because of an aversion to stock-fantasy covers. I know, I know. But now, with that glowing recommendation – after I finish the 2014 Hub Reading Challenge (reading “Freakboy” now) – I will give it a go.

  2. Loved her books. Read them all when I was teaching 7th grade, then re-read them for last year’s Hub Challenge. We have a few of them in my library, but the Lame-o covers are a real turn off for many of my middle schoolers.

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