“From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.”
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins — one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.
As I’ve stated before, book 1 mainly falls into “cross-dressing as disguise” vs. an actually non-binary gender expression, the majority of which occurs in books 3-4. But every non-binary type has to start somewhere!
LM: Something CR and I discussed in person was the repetition of the sentiment “BUT SHE WAS A GIIIIRRRRLLLLL ” (Kindle loc. 271, 675, 854). When I read the book last year, the constant commentary from both Alanna in dialogue and the narration struck me as sort of like Pierce was writing for 10-14 year olds, very simplistically in places; the writing style and content ages up as Alanna does, sort of like in Harry Potter.
On re-reading book 1, though, I read it as more like Alanna is really terrified she’s going to blow her cover and not only blow her chance at being a knight, but–and I might be projecting–facing a real threat of violence. It’s not just that she might get kicked out of school but she’s already being beat up and bullied by Ralon, and if her friends found out she was a girl, she’s afraid they’d turn on her. I think some of it is that she doesn’t like to lie, either (1871). Her situation is like having to “pass” but wanting to tell people the truth because you want to live honestly.KH: The cover model of my paperback edition is way too skinny and could never lift a sword. Don’t mean to body shame, but holy penis of Jesus is the Photoshop on this one not used for justice.
So Alanna has red hair, purple eyes, is highborn, has attack magic, has healing magic, is clever, is loved and respected by just about all of her peers, can fight, and can read. (Am I missing anything?) She makes Mary Sues look good, of course, but I hope she develops a bit more depth later. Like, her weakness right now is that she’s female and thus(??) physically smaller than boys. Honestly though I think this is “still as pretty as a princess” wish fulfillment, because girls tend to go through their growth spurts earlier than boys, and even ten-year-olds can get muscle tone if they work out, all afternoon every afternoon.
LM: Do you have that horrible Twilight cover? [For a history of the covers, see here.] I actually didn’t mind Alanna’s weakness being her being small, but that’s coming from personal experience. In my head, I feel like I’m pretty solid, and I know I could kick an ass or two, but when I go shopping for “men’s clothes,” I’m really surprised at how small I am in comparison to what “slim men’s XS” is and how much trouble I have finding clothes that are small enough for me. It makes me feel vulnerable– it’s like the clothes are mocking me. So I wonder if that’s what it’s like for her. (Plus, I feel Alanna’s adult pain of not looking as strong as I am, and I get a lot of men treating me like I’m a delicate flower that can’t lift a water cooler jug.)
KH: Yes, it’s the Twilight paperback with the ads for the YA romance in the back. I’m still trying to get my thoughts together on her eyeliner and noodle arms in a way that does not hate on her for being small or female. I mean, she’s eleven, but swords are heavy, yo. And probably she would not go out looking like this.
I love how Alanna learns uses her size to her advantage before reaching the point in her training and skill level when it doesn’t matter as much. Damn, that girl works hard. I love it how she has trouble in some of her classes but still stays up all night to train. She is like a tiny little Shia Labeouf showing the reader how it’s done: Some people dream of success, while you’re going to wake up and work hard at it. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE.
LM: IS SHE DOING DUCK FACE. JUST STOP, ILLUSTRATOR, YOU’RE OUT OF CONTROL.
On Internalized Misogyny and Mary Sues
AMR: I loved these books and love the author’s afterword in all of them, and I usually hate the acknowledgements, afterwords, everything else that the author puts in to explain or discuss the book. Tamora Pierce was on my “read her stuff and have it in the library for kids if/when they happen” but I hadn’t read of her stuff yet and I am SO GLAD this was this month’s choice!
As a female engineer academic (adjective, adjective…) I empathize a lot with her. She displays some pretty hard impostor syndrome, even on top of the fact that she is an impostor and can be found out as being not who she seems. She’s not perfect, and I see her contempt of the court ladies [more on this in the next books] to be much like I felt towards girls who dressed up in early engineering undergrad – distance yourself from the “girly” type because you are an engineer, one of the guys, obviously they can’t hack it and by showing your disdain, you are showing that you do fit in because they don’t. Definitely not a good thing, but a real thing, a real thing I participated in. This is why we need to smash stereotypes (and the PATRIARCHY) in engineering, and lots of other places. You want to be a girl who fits in for a boy-type thing? Be more like the boys and make fun of the girls. After all, who wants to be like them? They’re girls! Eeewww!
She pretty much has it all – impressive magic, enough talent and chutzpah for the knightly things and she’s on top of the hiding-the-girl-bits part. She also has amazing friends, gets a father figure, and manages to befriend the king of thieves, which if anything, that’s the one that goes a bit far. Friends with the king and the king of the seedy underbelly of the kingdom? Yes, she’s a Mary Sue, but I didn’t feel that she was in-your-face awesome, mostly because she had some natural talents but had a few things she was bad at and worked to get good at those things. While reading, it didn’t seem like the author was putting in some flaws to make sure the character wasn’t completely perfect, but those flaws were part of her character and she was just born with tons of magic. There also weren’t the crazy coincidences you tend to see with perfect characters like her and stories like this, the “how the hell did you end up there/with them/at that exact time?!” stuff that often abounds – I felt like it flowed pretty well and in a believable way.
LM: Going back to the conversation about size and “passing,” Alanna spends a lot of time in Book 1 concerned that any outward showing of femininity (developing breasts, 1149), etc. will make people think she’s just another “silly girl.” (Alanna later proves that her gender and gender expression aren’t a barrier to her work, but she has some internalized misogyny toward other women at the court.) However, Coram and George are her biggest cheerleaders, which I’m really happy about.
“I didn’t ask to be born a girl. It’s not fair.” George waved an impatient hand. “Hush your nonsense,” he ordered. “Bein’ a girl hasn’t slowed you down yet. And surely you don’t plan to stay a pretty young man all your life?” “No, of course not. I’ll tell them the truth when I’m eighteen and I have my shield.” She sighed. “If they hate me— well— I’ll have proved I can be a knight, won’t I? I’ll go into the world and have adventures. They needn’t ever see me again.” George raised his eyebrows. “I haven’t heard such foolishness in all my life. Are you tellin’ us Jon will hate you? Gary? Raoul? Or your friend, Sir Myles? My ears are deceivin’ me!” “But I’m a girl,” she cried. “I’m lying to them. I’m doing men’s things—” “And you do them better than most young men,” George replied firmly. “Hush yourself. Think of them hatin’ you if it comes to be.” (Kindle Locations 1513-1521).
Eventually, she has to be her own cheerleader, too, like when she fights the Old Ones. She’s proven herself to herself! That’s one of the hardest things to do, and I like how she grows into herself over the course of the books.
–LM: Magical birth control in the 1980s (loc 1507). GIVE IT TO ME. I like how Mrs. Cooper is like, “Here, small teen with her first period, have the magical equivalent of an IUD and have fun!” YES.
–LM: There are so many good Bazhir characters, but how come two white kids from the colonizers show up and conquer the evil? Roger is a racist jerk, but sometimes you need a character actually say “you’re a racist jerk” for people to get that, like Ann Leckie does with Breq’s narration in Ancillary Justice.
–KH: I blame every adult I have ever known for trying to get me to read Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden instead of this marvelous book. I haven’t even finished it, and I have already given copies to two young girls. I am so happy that books like this exist now (and by “now” I mean “the 1980s”). Still feels fresh. Antidote to Harry Potter?
-AMR: Overall, loved the story, the characters, the way people react when they do find out she’s a girl, the considerations the author made for her growing up without female mentors, and who doesn’t want a gorgeous horse and magical kitten?!?! I also appreciate the girl who plays as a man to get what she wants out of the sexist society but isn’t also strongly masculine on the gender scale. She still checks guys out and feels awkward around palace ladies, not because she’s awkward and doesn’t know how to respond, she just isn’t in to girls. Yet another reason why we need more female heroes in the genre – if there’s options, they can be themselves without representing all women who want to be fighters.
Next time: Book 2, In the Hand of the Goddess! Reconvene on Aug. 1!