This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce. In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.
I actually saw Tamora Pierce once. Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared. Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned. I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason). I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore). And of course I loved it. At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.
Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them! Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series. I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.
Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall. However, Alanna has other plans. She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk. Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks. The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues. The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.
When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series. Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with? (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy) Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend. I’m never quite sure what age it is written for. As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot. However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course). Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses. I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one. In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail. But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…
There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books. They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read. However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna. The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these. The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.
Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword. Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today. They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.