Alanna: The First Adventure
January 15, 2018 8:38 PM - by Tamora Pierce - Subscribe

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 make her a legend in the land.

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posted by Eyebrows McGee (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This has so much great world-building and so many interesting ideas, but the writing is sloppy. It feels more like a screen play than a novel, full of telling instead of showing. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the writing improves dramatically over the next book or two.

This book had a lot to say about being female and you really couldn't ask for a better example of imposter syndrome than someone who is an imposter, "sometimes she doubted that she would ever believe herself to be as good as the stupidest, clumsiest male". For all of Coram's arguing at the beginning, even he says, "Ye can be a woman and still be a warrior." It's interesting that he believes that but there isn't a path for a woman who wants to do that. There isn't a lot of disparaging talk about girls, but they do get called "girls" when the guard captain wants to put them down. Even Jon, who's largely supportive (once he gets over his surprise) comments that it was risky and she could have been caught out as a girl, "You could've been a weakling." As though that somehow correlated. He doesn't mention any of the more obvious ways she could have been found out, like menstrual blood leaking, her breast binding loosening or slipping, or the lack of penis and balls, which it seems might have been noticable in wrestling especially.

One thing I really like about Alanna is that she's as socially awkward as I am, "Alanna didn't understand people. Myles did, and she turned to him for instruction." She doesn't really get better at talking to people, but she does manage to keep her mouth shut when it's important.

There's some pretty casual racism thrown into this book too, George buying Alanna's first horse from "a filthy old Bazhir" in his words and calling the other horses the same dealer was selling garbage. The narrator others them, "The desert people were hard riders and relentless fighters. They hid their women in goatskin tents." It makes them sounds dangerous, exotic, and strange. (Also, the second sentence changes the first so that it's only describing the men instead of the whole people it purports to be about.) It's disappointing to have these low points of fantasy.

I like Alanna as a character, but I think there's a reason I usually start my rereads from the third book in her series (or a later series).
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:34 PM on January 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Bazhir are totally Othered by characters and the author. Later in the book, they are instead an Idealized Other - and in the 3rd book, they become more substantial. But I look at where Pierce's depiction fits in the history of pseudo-Arabs in Eurocentric fantasy - and I like that she does develop the culture, shows the people with more depth, and also takes issue with colonialism and discrimination (in both the first and third books). Not perfect, but a lot better than anything else I've read from the genre (even well after the 1980s).

I actually think that the 3rd book is the weakest of the Alanna quartet, but that's for plotting reasons (since the 1st and 4th books have such strong year-shapes to the plots).
posted by jb at 2:05 PM on January 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just started my reread, and realized how lightly some of the little touches are in the book that really say a lot about character. We know Alanna's father doesn't truly care about them, but the twins seem to not care too much about it, and Alanna is actually grateful for that, but you get one line at the end of a chapter that shows that no, really, this does affect her. It's just something that is there for you to think about as part of who Alanna is and how she may have gotten that way, growing up with that particular kind of family. I think it makes Thom a little more understandable too.
posted by PussKillian at 6:43 PM on January 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read all of The First Adventure this weekend and dove into In the Hand of the Goddess too....whoops, getting ahead of myself! I've read these so many times and it's such a comfort fast read.

So, some thoughts - I agree this first book is one of the weaker ones - it kind of jumps between Major Plot Points, with less of the ebbs and flows that I think make her later books stronger. I don't recall being bothered by that as a kid, though; I'm definitely more interested in the smaller, low-key details as an adult. Pierce is definitely an author that has improved hugely - one thing I love about her is that her books get better and better (writing, depth of plot, character development, handling of racism, etc), as opposed to some authors, who get sloppier and lazier as time goes on! I agree the first few references to the Bazhir are pretty bad, especially by today's standards (the White Savior part!) - but having read all of her books I can respect that she's improved at this over time, even by the third book. The other thing, though, is that I think as Pierce changes (and Alanna, really), the culture of Tortall changes. Tortall opens up, becomes more diverse, women have a lot more opportunities, and Alanna is a major part of changing that, as is Jon's later experience with the Bazhir (trying not to spoil). I agree George's early casual racism is off-putting, but I think it's reflective of the time and culture of Tortall in that moment - the narrator's racism is more gross. George clearly gets to know the Bazhir and becomes less racist later on.

This is the first time I've read these since becoming a mother, I think, unless I read them when my daughter was a newborn, and one thing that jumped out at me in a new way was how Alanna and Thom are affected by being basically orphans. Alanna can't trust people because she's got this big secret, but she's also got this gaping developmental hole due to lack of early attachment - it is bad enough that even her friends, teen boys, notice it. The impression I get is that Maude and Coram did what they could but weren't really full parent figures in the way that babies and young children need. I don't want to spoil a lot of the later books but this definitely becomes an issue later. Obviously it's crucial for the plot that Alanna be able to hide like this, which she couldn't do with loving, involved parents, but as a mother it really hits me.
posted by john_snow at 11:24 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also agreeing with "man, the writing feels sloppy" on this one in a way it doesn't in later books. I'm also kind of startled with myself inasmuch as--well----

I don't like this tiny Alanna! And I'm surprised by that, because I never had an issue with her at all when I was reading as a teenager and then again in my early twenties, but I keep getting this urge to take her by the shoulders and whisper "Think harder about your life!"

For example, here's a passage:

Alanna stood at attention, listening. She loved the way the Duke talked. She knew he was pleased that she had beaten Ralon, not angry. She also knew he could never tell her so, because she had broken the rules, and that she had to take her punishment without complaint, because she had known the rules when she broke them. Alanna’s world was governed by rules, with a rule to cover every situation. Fighting a fellow noble in the palace was breaking the rules, and Gareth had to teach her that. Yet the rules governing what a noble could take in the way of insults said that Alanna had to fight Ralon, and Duke Gareth was proud of her because she had protected her honor as a noble. Once you know the rules, she thought as she listened to the Duke with one ear, life is pretty simple. I don’t get mad at Duke Gareth because I know he has to obey the rules just as I do, and I know he isn’t truly angry with me anyway. Maybe our Code of Chivalry isn’t such a bad thing.

This is insane! Like, I get what she's thinking and why, and babySci was much more willing to go "ah, yes, understanding the unwritten rules of the place you're working in is a step up" than adultSci seems to be. AdultSci can't keep from muttering that this system is unfair in the extreme, and they're overworking those kids and teaching them some really stupid lessons about not asking for help, and and and and--

and Alanna just kind of rolls with it in a way I'm less cheery about now, as an adult. Which is, to be fair, not really her fault; after all, I think she's about twelve here. But it keeps making me, adult me, eye early Tortall with a jaundiced eye and start thinking about hellraising.

Which of course later characters also do, for sure.
posted by sciatrix at 8:41 AM on February 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m glad this club started! I just finished listening to the audio book while I toted my kids around. At first they hated it, but by the end of the book they had buy-in. I’m glad to hear Pierce’s writing improves. I tried to read this many years ago and I just could not understand why it was a big deal - sadly I think it speaks to the paucity of active female characters in kids’ books of the time.
posted by bq at 12:22 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm glad I spaced these out so far because my children kept me from getting almost any reading done this month, so I have JUST finished.

One of the things that stands out to me is that magic is very mysterious in Alanna, and there's much more a sense of things unknown. In Pierce's later books she has a soul of a bureaucrat (I don't mean that in a mean way, bureaucrats make the world run properly) and everything is very regimented and clear and well-explained. I think some of that may also be a shift in fantasy novels; mysterious, dreamlike, fairytale-like fantasy novels were more common 30 years ago, and today people expect elaborate world-building where all the bits fit together and make sense.

Writing-wise there's some real clunkers in here, but there's also a sense of mystery and secrets that you don't get in her later books.

Things I'm curious about from this book w/r/t the complete canon/later books (so skip the rest of my comment if you don't want to know) --

Do we ever find out what Roger was doing in Carthak? Will that come up in the Numair books?
The Ysandir are immortals, but (IIRC) not like any immortals we see in the Immortals War and elsewhere. Are they mentioned anywhere else? Do we get anything else about the Old Ones anywhere else? I'd love a "legends of Tortall" where we could find out more about the Ysandir and the Old Ones.
Gift/Sight obviously not well-developed yet
Pierce loves callbacks with minor characters in later books, but have Geoffrey of Marin or Satcherell of Wellam come up elsewhere? I want to know what happened to them too! (Also, thinking ahead a bit, I want to know what happens to Roger's coterie to get them to being his coterie!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 AM on February 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Pierce's writing definitely feels unformed compared to more recent works. For me it shows up mostly in the lack of real interaction between Alanna and her friends -- it's hard to care too much about any of them when they never say anything. Like, that one who died and it was very traumatic and all: who was he, anyway?

And yeah, I ended up just reading all four in a row. Alanna's not the one I encountered first, but she's still got good adventures.
posted by asperity at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2018

Nobody died in this book
posted by bq at 1:53 PM on February 19, 2018

Oh, rats. Uh. Well, if it makes the spoiler for the next book better, I could promise it's nobody you'll care about?
posted by asperity at 5:31 PM on February 19, 2018

I think asperity meant Francis of Nond who dies of the sweating sickness in the first book, after showing up only barely as Raoul's "shy blond shadow."

The Nond family reappears as a font of similarly minor characters in Protector of the Small.

See, it's "Nond" short for "Nondescript."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:48 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

That is the one! Good, was worried my memory was slipping, but he's so little present I couldn't be sure I wasn't wrong.
posted by asperity at 8:00 PM on February 19, 2018

Oh right! That guy! Ha!
posted by bq at 10:26 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Poor Francis. He exists only to die to make Alanna feel guilty. (RE the "shy blond shadow" description - I've wondered for years if that was intended to be some hint that Raoul and Francis were lovers. I suppose, given when this book was written, probably not, but hey. Possible spoiler for later cannon: Raoul is single for years! Maybe he's been mourning Francis this whole time! [I love Raoul. He's one of my favorites.])

Eyebrows, I'm pretty sure Satcherell is referred to in the Kel books? In passing? He's doing something? But yeah, the two of them kind of drop off in the future. Also, that is an excellent question about Roger! It never occurred to me that we might see him in the Numair books, but what if we discover he's been in collusion with Ozorne? I mean, he obviously has a lust for power all on his own, but that could be an interesting twist!
posted by john_snow at 7:13 AM on February 20, 2018

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