…and decides George and Jonathan need to cut the crap.
Seriously, they’re the worst.
In addition to spoilers for Book 1 and Book 2, we’ll be discussing issues related to dubcon (dubious consent), misogyny, and mansplaining, both in terms of the plot (characters doing and saying awful things) and the narrative (the author’s decisions about how said characters’ actions are contextualized or treated in the narrative by the author).
What’s the Non-Binary Book Club?
Our focus is on books (and media) about characters with non-binary sexualities, gender identities, or gender expressions. That is, characters who are bi/pansexual/queer-identified, or whose gender expression or identity is not strongly fixed to the gender binary (may include agender, transgender, gender-nonconforming, gendervariant, genderfluid, intersex [as identity], non-binary, genderqueer, et al.). We tend to read speculative fiction novels (as opposed to non-fiction, including autobiographies), but other genre fiction, graphic novels, comics, and short stories may be on our list.
Alanna, disguised as a boy, becomes a squire to none other than the heir to the throne. Prince Jonathan is not only Alanna’s liege lord, he is also her best friend—and one of the few who knows the secret of her true identity. But when a vicious sorcerer threatens the prince’s life, it will take all of Alanna’s skill, strength, and magical power to protect him, even at the risk of surrendering her dreams…
I Just Want to Be a Warrior Maiden
LM: The quote on the back cover:
“I just want to be a warrior maiden and go on adventures. I don’t want to fall in love.”
Pierce, Tamora (2009-12-01). In the Hand of the Goddess (Song Of The Lioness Quartet Book 2) (Kindle Locations 129-130). Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition.
The full quote:
“I don’t want a man’s touch!” Alanna shouted. Horrified, she put out her hands in a gesture of apology. “I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. I just want to be a warrior maiden and go on adventures. I don’t want to fall in love, especially not with George or Jon. They’ll ask me to give them parts of me. I want to keep me for myself. I don’t want to give me away.”
(Kindle Locations 128-131).
That’s legit. I mean, Alanna’s 14 at this point and has plenty of good reasons to react like this: Jon and George are her friends and friendship is important. The fact that she has to cross-dress for disguise (at this point) because girls aren’t allow to train as knights doesn’t make me very confident that any man with whom she might have romantic or platonic or sexual feelings for isn’t a huge misogynist or a crappy ally (LOOKING AT YOU, JON). Alanna cites her father’s never getting over the death of her mother as her reason for not wanting to give up a part of herself, but when hooking up with a man means potentially losing your legal standing or being socially subsumed into his world because you don’t matter as a person to him or to the law, I could see why getting involved with a man would not be appealing. Plus, Alanna’s never expressed subjective romantic/sexual interest in anyone at the start of book 2, so we’re not sure where she falls on the sexuality scale, including being asexual. She could be coming out here to the Goddess (but she isn’t and I’m sad).
Also, I hate, hate, HATE the way Pierce (or her editor) decided to use love as a euphemism for both the act of sexual intercourse/ongoing sexual relationship and for love. Look, I get YA censorship and the need to skirt around explicit language and that this was written in the 1980s, but love and sex are not the same thing at all! Alanna and Jon seem to feel real affection and camaraderie for each other and they also seem to enjoy sex with each other–and a good friends-with-benefits set-up is hard to find! But “learning to love” doesn’t have to be about sex. I don’t mean this in a misogynistic “true love waits” way, but I took it more that Alanna needs to develop close friendships with her peers and feel comfortable and loved and wanted for who she is. Friendship-love is magic! This goes back to the comments on the bisexuals and friendship piece about how our culture prioritizes (monogamous heteronormative monosexual) romantic attachments over platonic ones (getting married > having great friends). Of course, the Goddess is asking for a lot–Alanna feels like she can’t make close friends without telling them her gender identity but outting herself could mean losing her career or even her life. Not great motivation there, Goddess.
KH: Sam Maggs, one of the editors over at The Mary Sue and author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, has an essay in a collection called Chicks Dig Gaming titled “Go For the Eyes, Gamer Girls, Go for the Eyes!” The first line reads as follows: “I blame YA fantasy author Tamora Pierce for making me into a gamer” (193). The series especially responsible is – you guessed it – Song of the Lioness. Towards the end of the essay, Maggs illustrates the connection a bit more fully, explaining how the series gave her a taste for bold female protagonists in fantasy settings:
Every year, I go back and re-read my Pierce books, because they get more and more relevant the older I get. There’s no shortage of YA literature with leading ladies these days, but so often their stories tend to focus on a love triangle, and Pierce’s books will never be about that. (197-98)
I mean, I know that In the Hand of the Goddess doesn’t *focus* on a love triangle, but, but, but…but the love triangle between Alanna and Jonathan and George struck me as unnecessary and even somewhat distasteful for two main reasons.
First, can we talk how creepy George is? [LM: YES, MITHROS, SING IT. I AM SO GROSSED OUT BY HIM AND JON]
He hadn’t kissed her since Jon’s birthday almost a year ago; but he let her know – with little touches, with softness in his eyes when he looked at her – that he was stalking her. (70)
This is not just a figure of speech, mind you. An older man is literally having her followed and observed, and that’s when he’s not keeping tabs on her in person. She rejects him, and he rejects her rejection, and then right before her Knight’s Trial he drugs her. No, for real:
Alanna yawned. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, George.” She yawned again, and again. “So sleepy…” She looked at her friend through rapidly closing eyes. “You – you drugged it!” she accused. George caught her as she sagged, her eyelids fluttering shut. “Did you really think I’d let you fret yourself sick, with such an important night ahead of you?” he asked softly. (202)
THAT IS NOT OKAY, GEORGE. The crazy thing is that Alanna seems to regard his attention as harmless and even sweet. “Was there anything that George didn’t understand about her?” she asks herself fondly at one point (182). I want to be like, No, he knows everything about you BECAUSE HE’S ALWAYS WATCHING YOU. I was so relieved when he got hit with a poison arrow, but then he lived, alas.
Second, it bothers me how Alanna falls into bed with Jonathan. It was clearly going to happen, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. The pairing has the Forest Goddess Stamp of OTP Approval, but that makes it even more troubling. Love is awesome, and I can get behind that, but why is it necessary that Alanna “learn to love” by swapping fluids with the person she calls, not entirely ironically, “Overlord”? He is not just her friend, he is her boss; and he is not just her boss, he is her liege. If, for whatever reason, the two of them have a falling out, he could have her executed for treason. Moreover, in a feudal society, succession is a big deal, and the king could have Alanna imprisoned or killed just for getting pregnant. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that her magical birth control pendant does what it’s supposed to do.
I wonder what everyone else thinks about the love triangle. Should we be reading it as a love triangle, or is it representative of something larger, like a balance of power between the monarchy, the feudal lords, and the common people?
CR: I want to be able to look past the love triangle with George and Jon, but the tone is set pretty firmly in that very first scene in the woods, when The Goddess lists Alanna’s three fears: The Ordeal, Duke Roger and Love. Alanna is having none of this (“just want to be a warrior maiden and go on adventures” – bless you, Alanna), but The Goddess eventually advises her:
But you, my daughter – learn to love. You have been given a hard road to walk. Love will ease it. (18)
Although those first two fears seem to have been indisputably conquered by the end of the book, what about the third? If we’re going with a wide-reaching definition of love, one that includes her knight bros and Myles, then sure, their relationships did seem to deepen in the course of the book. Honestly, though, she never seemed to me to have that much trouble with those kinds of relationships. Where she clearly struggles is with romance.
AND WITH GUYS LIKE THIS, UGH. GET OUT, BOTH OF YOU.LM: I’m looking at my notes from the Kindle edition, and they’re just a series of “FUCK YOU JON. GROSS. FUCK OFF. EW GEORGE NO. DAMMIT GEORGE.” That’s it. That’s the show.
I was pleased that pre-marital sex in Tortall seems like no big deal. Jonathan has to marry the right kind of person because he’ll be king someday but nobles seem to have free reign to do whatever before they’re married, which is refreshing. Also, I did like that there were no accidental pregnancies in this series because you can totally have your magic IUD actually work, thanks. It says something about the environment in which I was raised that I have trouble believing teens having sex in media won’t lead to pregnancy and death.
KH: Another thing that bothered me about this book is that everything Alanna does is pure and good and turns out all right in the end. For example, concerning her anxiety over her perpetual misdirection regarding her “true” gender with everyone she knows:
“Why are you so confused?” Jonathan asked her late that night. “Can’t you see we all love you and want you to succeed – even if you insist on leaving us?” (192)
In a perfect world, no one would be angry at anyone for any type of gender performance, but this happens to be a world in which gender roles are fairly clearly outlines. As the book itself states at the beginning,
The last warrior maiden had died a hundred years ago. Nobly born girls went to convent schools and became ladies. Boys became warriors […]. (4)
And yet there are zero consequences resulting from Alanna’s confession that she has deceived everyone in her defiance of these gender roles, which makes her assumption of a male-gendered identity seem almost superficial, as if it were nothing more than stage dressing. Will Alanna ever do something for which her friends and mentors don’t immediately forgive her? To put it bluntly, when is this girl going to be allowed to fuck up?
What does everyone think of Alanna’s “coming out” process? Did everyone read it as being as painless as it seemed to me? Or is Alanna’s fight with Roger supposed to be symbolic? Namely, Roger does everything secretly and will not risk forcing his hand, so is it significant that he is revealed as a liar at the same time Alanna’s secret is exposed?
LM: Jon is like your rich cishet white friend who has never had to do any sort of coming out in their whole life.
CR: He also happens to be the prince, so…
LM: Point taken. My question is, and CR and I have chatted about this a lot, where are all the other women and the queer folks? Alanna is The Special One, Queen Lianne is fragile and weak (albeit from magic, but still), and Delia is evil and uses men to get what she wants. What I really wanted was for Alanna to go dance with some ladies and realize, “damn, women are amazing and oh no she’s cute,” and then have an epic romance with a court lady [or maybe a cute AMAB feminine person] who is a badass archer and they have many nonbinary adventures together.
KH: Yeah I totally wanted some Rose of Versailles style lady crushes during the ball scene, not gonna lie.
CR: In the notes from the last book, AMR mentioned Alanna’s contempt for the court ladies, and while this certainly continues into the second volume, I am glad that she always stops short of being critical of all women, or of idealizing masculine roles.
Her fellow squires at the palace would laugh if they knew she feared spiders. They’d say she was behaving like a girl, not knowing she was a girl.
“‘What do they know about girls anyway?” she asked Moonlight as they moved on. “Maids at the palace handle snakes and kills spiders without acting silly. Why do boys say someone acts like a girl as if it were an insult?” (3)
Alanna maintains her ruse only as long as she needs to, and closes out the book by riding off into the sunset to forge a new path (and a whole new standard of gender expression) that is uniquely hers.
I am kind of disappointed that Alanna ultimately didn’t get to come out to everyone on her own terms – the “oh god, they saw her naked” thing is such an old trope (plus Alanna’s gender identity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with her anatomy?) Mostly, though, I wanted to see her really own it in front of the court. And I think she would have, if the drama with her shirt being split open hadn’t happened.
LM: And George and Jon weren’t even good choices for her! (More on this in books 3 and 4.) With George, the minute he shifted from “Hey, buddy” to “Hey, I like you in a romantic way” and SHE SAID SHE WASN’T INTERESTED IN HIM OR OTHER GUYS BUT THANKS FOR ASKING CREEP, that was when I got mad. Having a crush on a friend is fine, and I like the George had, as she pointed out, liked her before he ever saw her in a dress. But that doesn’t make up for kissing her without permission or continuing to say that he wants to marry her when she’s said no.
CR: A lot of the especially bad moments have been pointed out already, but for me on this read-through, Jon pushing Alanna on women in social situations, even though he knows it makes her uncomfortable, and then getting jealous and sulky, stands out to me especially. Essentially it goes like this:
Jon: You should be friendly with the ladies. I like to make you act flustered, and I kind of think it’s hot watching you dancing with women.
Jon: But woah, not too friendly.
Jon: Oh, and men are right out.
Jon: (nurses his injured masculinity)
Alanna: WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING.
LM: In which Jon was everyone’s biphobic trash ex-boyfriend.
CR: I find Alanna’s constant vacillation between, “No, romance is silly,” and, “But I actually kind of like this,” a little frustrating, but I suspect this is because it bears more than passing resemblance to my own middle/high school journal entries. To make matters worse, both of her love interests are controlling creeps who won’t take no for an answer, and almost every single kiss is non-consensual. That being said. Even though I hate who she hooks up with, I like that Alanna gets the chance to explore her sexuality, and that both the tone of the book and the characters in the book completely refrain from being judgemental about this. Alanna, in turn, gets to move on from the point of dismissing her feelings as “silly,” to owning her sexuality, which is cool.
Jonathan’s weird behavior around Alanna after he realizes(?) he has non-platonic feelings for her makes me furious. When he’s telling her to dance with the ladies and teasing her about being awkward, then acting like he’s mad that she’s getting attention, it’s infuriating. I don’t believe that someone who is basically male privilege incarnate wouldn’t do it, but I’m mad that it seems like foreplay for him because he can’t sort out his feeeeeelings for her, so he treats her badly. That’s not how you flirt! Plus, there’s a huge power differential–if he dumps her, that would be awkward to have her as a squire, but if she left or he got vindictive, he could out her, ruin her career–and that’s scary! I’m not criticizing her choices but rather the narrative choices.
In short, I really like this idea of pregnancy charms and casual sex being no big deal in this book (there’s some attempts at slut-shaming of Alanna by other women in other books and she’s just like “fuck you I do what I want”), but I hate how Jon and George 1. are used as a crappy love triangle, 2. are older men who say and do awful things to Alanna that make her uncomfortable, 3. don’t listen to her when she says no.
KH: Also her room is right next to Jon’s, how awkward is that. I know privacy wasn’t supposed to be that big of a deal in medieval settings, but still. I think it’s every teenager’s dream to live right next to your love interest, but I imagine this works better in fantasy than it does in the real world. Alanna has apparently had to listen to Jon fooling around with other girls in the past, which is… not weird? …but works to establish Jon’s dominance over her in terms of sexual experience. I still agree with what you say below about the good aspects of this whole hot mess, though.
Clothes Make the Knight
Alanna tried [to sit in a skirt without rumpling it]. It took several attempts before she got it right. “It’s going to be as hard to learn to be a girl as it was to learn to be a boy.” “Harder,” the woman said, putting the tea on. “Most girls don’t have to unlearn being a boy. And now you have two sets of Court manners to master.” (Kindle Locations 1338-1341).
LM: I did appreciate the line about how Alanna has learned how to do masculinity posturing but also chooses to learn femininities as well–because they are learned, not innate. Alanna had to learn to fence and ride and wear a page’s and a squire’s clothing; she also decides to learn how to wear a dress and put up her hair and dance. None of it is easy for her, but I like that she’s exploring all her gender options, because that’s what teens (and anyone else who wants) should do–you try a lot of different things and figure out which ones make you feel like you.
KH: This is such a good point! I once sat in a lecture in which the professor was explaining the concept behind Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which is essentially what you’ve summarized so beautifully: gendered behaviors are learned and not innate. The way the professor explained this was something along the lines of “Butler is not saying that you can just put on pants and be a boy one day and put on a dress and be a girl the next.” She was responding to misguided criticisms of the text, but I remember sitting there and thinking WELL WHY CAN’T YOU. One thing I appreciate about the fantasy represented by Alanna is that she can, for better or worse, be a boy one day and a girl the next. She gets to have her cake and eat it too… er, have her sword and tunic and a treasure chest full of fancy dresses too. Also she gets to live in a post apocalyptic world where magic exists, so pretty much she wins the game.
LM: At this point, she pretty much does whatever she feels like, but she has to make sure that no one knows that Squire Alan sometimes wears a dress because Squire Alan does whatever they want! Jon and George are blown away by the sight of Alanna in a dress, but I feel like it gets way creepier with Jon than it does with George, at least regarding the clothes. It reminds me a little of that scene in Berubara when Andre sees Oscar in a dress, but it just makes him love her more and she never wears a dress again because she doesn’t want to do that. Alanna doesn’t stop wearing dresses when it suits her, and that’s great!
And she didn’t let Jon hold her back in the end. RUN, ALANNA! RUN!
KH: I am less annoyed by the Jon/George thing than everyone else it seems – both relationships are problematic for all the reasons listed (No means No, and apparently the original version had same-sex relationships, so I kind of wonder if some of Jon’s angst is left in from that? Alanna actually competing for some of the same women? Probably not, and he’s totally a jerk and jerking her around). She is the awesomest, as mentioned above, and so the guys in charge of both the lawful kingdom and unlawful parts want her, but instead she goes off to adventure. Good role models? No. Human-like portrayals of guys in a patriarchal society? Yeah. It’s almost more impressive that she and George are still friends and friendly since George is carrying a torch for her and she is uninterested. I think the worst part is that they’re her two best male friends and the love triangle happens. Men and women can just be friends, you know. She has other male friends, but none of them as close as these two. I think that’s the part that bothers me the most.
LM: Riddle me this: why does the Goddess have her nails painted red? Is this some sort of deity-level nail polish I can get that won’t come off in the pool or from aggressively doing my dishes?
CR: Speaking of how much I hate Jon (but kind of adore Coram):
“Take care of her, Coram Smythesson!”
Alanna’s old friend looked surprised. “And here I thought the best part of riding with a knight was that she would be lookin’ after me!” (264)
In other words, shut your face.
KH: Anyway, best Alanna quote from In the Hand of the Goddess: “If I killed everyone who was stupid, I wouldn’t have time to sleep” (39). I hear you, sister.
Next time: we ride off into the desert with Alanna to seek adventure in The Woman Who Rides Like a Man! Join us here on Sept. 2.