For a New Years gift to you, I wanted to let you know about the best children's novels that I have ever read. These books, by the inimitable Tamora Pierce, inspired me to become a reader. I was eight years old at the time, frustrated with the bland age-appropriate books being given me and ready to walk away from the library. But a discerning librarian led me to this series, and opened my eyes to all that books can be - exciting, forming and potentially world changing. The four books in this quartet: Alanna: The First Adventure, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, and Lioness Rampant, made me LOVE books and influenced my decision to become a writer.
I am extremely gratified that more than 30 years later the world continues to grow. There have been several series written based in the original world of Tortall, and a new book was just released last year, Tempests and Slaughter. I hear that there is now Tortallan merchandise which is being released and makes me so happy that new generations will fall in love with these books as well.
These are adventure novels for children, or young adults, depending what era you are in (I read these when I was eight, and I am willing to bet that nowadays they are considered more for older readers due to the more mature content! Back in the day there wasn't a YA section). And they are delightfully fun, and thrilling, and courageous, and everything a good adventure book needs to be. Alanna is brave, strong, loyal and kind, and an excellent role model for any young person growing up in the world. But there is so much to unpack in here as well, as Alanna is a cross-dressing badass who will not be tamed by societal expectations. She disguises herself as her twin brother and takes his place among the young noble men of the land as they train for knighthood.
“Why couldn’t Alanna have been a boy? She was a fighter.”
As a young girl, these amazing books opened my eyes to several things in the world. The most obvious, and the most important of these is to do with gender roles.When I first read Alanna: the First Adventure the idea of behaving outside of societal standards was both new and shocking to me. She fought back against what was expected of her at every stage of her life, and had to deal with some nasty sexism along the way, even from young men she herself was training. She always had to prove herself, again and again and again, something that women in this world are very familiar with.
“Why should you fool with looms and women’s things when you can fight and do magic?” Alanna didn’t miss the scorn in Ishak’s voice. He needs a lesson, she thought, picking up a thread. This time I’m going to give him one. “So you think weaving is stupid?” “Women’s work.” Ishak yawned.
There are such excellent examples of the dichotomy that shapes Alanna's life. She is both a knight and a lady. While she is the most badass warrior her land has ever seen in centuries, she also enjoys dressing in fine ladies' clothes and being made to feel beautiful. The really important message here is that you don’t have to be just one or the other – something that I think society has not been able to wrap its collective head around to this day. A woman can be strong AND beautiful. They are not mutually exclusive. And yet this leads people scratching their heads - surely if she wants to fight like a knight, she couldn't possibly also want to look like a woman. Even one of her partners is incapable of comprehending this.
“You scare him … Just when he thinks he understands you, you do something new. He can’t put you in a neat little box the way he does the rest of us.”
Alanna is scared of her magical powers, and at first only wants to focus on her physical strength and fighting abilities. But in a way her magic is a symbol for her femininity, and by embracing this aspect of her she becomes more whole and complete as a person. She needs both her masculine and feminine attributes in order to become as powerful as possible.
And Alanna’s lovers are a whole other amazing concept to a young girl of eight. Having lovers, and before marriage no less (how scandalous!) was heady stuff.
“The moon was full, and she relaxed in its soft silver glow, turning her face up to it. A night for lovers, she thought.”
And the men that Alanna chose were her equals and treated her as such. They were always leaders among men: the future king of the realm, the absolute best warrior in an organization of the best warriors in the land, and the King of Thieves.
Ah, and that brings me to the King of Thieves, George Cooper, Alanna’s OTL and the only man who could ever really keep up with her. I didn’t think much of him when I first read the books, but as my understanding grew and I got older, I see that he was the only one of these fine men who would be able to keep up with Alanna. He appreciated her capacity to bend the rules when necessary, and was the only one who truly accepted her as the person that she was, in entirety. She knew that as well, even as a young girl, as he was the one person she trusted with her secret. I’ve noticed that, as an author, every one of my leading men seems to be in some way or another influenced by George Cooper. Maybe he was my literary OTL too.
There are other issues that came up in the novels that ended up being my first introduction into politics and world affairs. When Alanna first goes into battle, she deals with diplomacy, political strategy, as well as the human cost that comes with war. And she also travels through a land broken by civil war and racism.
“The difference between the nations was soon clear: Healthy Marenite farms gave way to burned-out homesteads. Often they found the leavings of refugees who’d camped on the Great Road before crossing into Maren … ‘A world of difference between a good king and a bad one.’”
It took me a good long time to really understand what was going on, but as an older person I see how, with a few chapters, Pierce captured the horror of total war, where a land ripped itself apart and all were left without a home. We see this again and again on the news, and Tortall's fictional Sarain could easily be Syria of today.
To wrap up, these are the best books ever. I reread them frequently and always find something new and interesting in here. Tamora Pierce is basically my hero (as was the lovely librarian who initially introduced me to Alanna). I recommend these books for any young person looking for the next series to fall in love with. I knew a young girl who had just finished Harry Potter and was very picky about what she wanted to read next - but apparently she gobbled these books up and went on to be an even more avid reader than before. These could not be more highly recommended!