Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! In celebration (that’s totally a lie, I was posting this morning anyway and this is just a happy accident), I have our first guest post. Jennifer Cary Diers (check out the new and shiny Contributors page!) was nice enough to cover both of the Tamora Pierce novels on the list, and give a thoughtful evaluation of same.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t read ALANNA since 2006 and I haven’t read TRICKSTER’S CHOICE at all, but just reading this essay made me want to read them both. On the one hand, this kind of goes against my goal of not having to read all 100- but really, isn’t this the best kind of failure?
I should point out, right from the start, that I am a Tamora Pierce fanatic. Not fan—fanatic. I have read everything, many times, and I can quote from her novels at length. The idea of pulling apart her work for the purposes of this book review is daunting. But just as Amy pointed out when reviewing L’Engle, the love of a book or of a character cannot (or, perhaps, should not) erase the issues. And so, here are some issues for your consideration…
Title: ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE and TRICKSTER’S CHOICE by Tamora Pierce
Brief summary: Both of these books take place in world of Tortall, the realm most famously created by Pierce. They also follow the same family—the title character in Alanna is the mother of the main character in Trickster’s Choice,Alianne.
In Alanna, the first book in the Song of the Lioness quartet, a young girl switches places with her twin brother so that she can become a knight (and he a sorcerer). She disguises herself as a boy and enters training, where she excels in all areas of warcraft—most especially with a sword. She befriends many of her comrades, including both the Crown Prince and the capitol city’s King of Thieves. Alanna struggles constantly with her gender identity and her sense of morality. This book chronicles her years as a page, and ends with her transition into life as a squire.
In Trickster’s Choice, the first of two Trickster books, Alanna’s daughter is presented as a quick-witted, rowdy sort of teenager… as different from her mother as one could imagine, but very similar to her formerly-thieving father. Alianne, called Aly, attempts to escape her mother’s interference by running away, and ends up captured by pirates and sold into slavery on the Copper Isles. The true nature of her imprisonment quickly becomes clear—she has been forcibly recruited by the islands’ Trickster God. He challenges her to protect the family she serves, and in exchange offers her the sort of work she both needs and desires. A dangerous bargain is made.
Triggers: Plenty, actually. Alanna is forced to hide her gender in order to serve her country as a Knight. She is actually encouraged to hide it by those she reveals herself to, at least until she has earned her shield. Her mother has died and her father is absent, making her a virtual orphan. Her role models are all men, they are almost all noblemen, and (up until the third book in the series) they are all white. As with all of the Tortall books, there’s plenty of magic at work… I suppose the Texas Librarians’ Association might call that a trigger.
Aly is somewhat more modern but she has a great many advantages due not only to her rank and wealth, but to her beauty. Aly is a beauty (even after she’s broken her nose) which is a strange choice by Pierce, since Aly’s mother and father are both known to be plain. Race is a major factor in this duet, as the war brewing in the Copper Isles is grounded in volatile racial conflict. Slavery is also a pretty hefty trigger, and as per usual with Ms. Pierce’s novels, this book pulls no punches in that arena.
Both women struggle to have normal romantic relationships, and both are driven not just by their desire to be successful but by divine intervention. There’s plenty of polytheistic religion in the Tortall books. Oh, and both Alanna and Aly kill people. A lot.
Why I Think It’s On the List: Alanna is a touchstone of young adult literature, and Alanna herself is iconic. Pierce introduced the medieval woman in a new, unusual way… she presented a young girl with twice as much grit and gumption as any boy. As the series progresses, we watch Alanna come in contact with a broad variety of people—both ethnically and socio-economically—although the majority of them are men. She also struggles with gender identity and the perils of love in a world which falsely believes her to be a man.
As I mentioned before, Trickster’s Choice is quite a bit more modern in sensibility, introducing even more non-white characters and many more women. The setting is important, too; Aly is imprisoned in a country which has a history of female leadership, and has been taken over by non-native white men. The deposed Queens of the Isles were known for both wisdom and battle-readiness… a common theme in Pierce’s novels. There are a number of positive, strong, influential women in this story—many from non-white backgrounds. It’s a much more even playing field that in the Alanna books.
There are some sticking points here. Firstly, I’m not sure Alanna: The First Adventure strictly qualifies as Young Adult lit. As the series progresses we definitely get into the YA realm, but the second, third, or fourth books would have been a better choice. Alanna barely qualifies as a teenager when the first book ends and none of her life experiences up until that point would be considered “young adult.” This first book is pretty Middle Grade, and that makes sense since it comes from a time before anyone really knew what YA literature was. Perhaps Bitch Magazine didn’t want to choose a book which was mid-series, but the logical choice (from a feminist standpoint) was The Woman Who Rides Like a Man—book three in the series.
The Alanna of book one lives her life as Alan, a short, stocky boy… she’s a pretty tremendous liar. The necessity of the lie is explained, of course, by the laws and strictures of medieval society; still, Pierce mentions many times in the books that Tortall has had openly female Knights in the past. While the lie is understandable from the perspective of a ten year child, it seems odd that it is perpetuated by a number of adults over the course of the first two books of the series. There is a sense of divine intervention throughout the books, but it can’t erase the moral ambiguity of Alanna’s decision. And it seems odd that the Mother Goddess, Alanna’s patron, appears to endorse this gender-bending lie. The Great Goddess allows Alanna to fake boyhood in order to earn her shield instead of encouraging her to be herself. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
Trickster’s Choice, on the other hand, is firmly YA. Alianne is a girl rapidly approaching womanhood, and she has some very big decisions to make. Having a mother like Alanna appears to have never been easy—her Knight-mom was often absent, physically and emotionally, and Alanna has very little understanding of the life of an “average” teenage girl. Perhaps because Alanna herself didn’t have much of an adolescence, she is already pressuring 16-year-old Aly to decide what (and whom) she is going to be. The entire family disregards Aly’s wants and needs as she matures and that seems counterintuitive, since these certainly aren’t stuffy traditionalists.
There are some larger familial issues here as well… There is a strong insinuation that working women make subpar mothers. I’m sure Tamora Pierce would be flabbergasted to hear me say that, since it certainly isn’t how she personally feels, but the message does read pretty clearly—especially when we get into the story and meet Duchess Winnamine. The Duchess is Aly’s slave-mistress and the (step-)mother of the family Aly has sworn to protect. She is in stark contrast to Aly’s own mother, whom we’ve come to view as a conspicuously absent mom. Winnamine is home with her children and stepchildren 24/7. She is an excellent mother and a kind mistress; she certainly wouldn’t leave her children for years at a time to beat back enemy armies. The problem is that there’s no good example of a “working mother,” one who works outside the home, to illustrate that healthy balance between career and family. And that’s unfortunate.
There’s also the question of Queenhood, and what that means for this island nation. When we discover the Trickster God Kyprioth’s true aims, we have to start questioning the validity of putting a very young woman on the throne merely because she’s got the right combination of DNA. The rebellion’s first choice, Sarai, is beautiful but impulsive, inspiring but far from diplomatic. Her younger sister (and eventual Queen), Dovasary, is far more practical but far less charming… she’s also only thirteen when she takes the throne. No matter how quick-witted she is, she’ll always run the risk of becoming a pawn to her royal advisors. Also, Dove is known for listening into private conversations and spying at keyholes… not exemplary behavior from a future Queen, even if it does get her what she wants in the end. And, of course, Aly finds Dove’s sneaking and spying endearing—because she’s a spy herself. Perhaps not a glowing recommendation. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if the answer to the problem of racial division and socio-economic discord is to install a new Queen with little to no preparation for the role. Oh and wait… what about all that slavery?
And then there are the men—oh the glorious men! Even though Tamora Pierce focuses on female heroines, I’ve always thought she must have the most fun writing men. George Cooper (the King of Thieves turned Kingdom’s Spy Master) is just about as sexy as a big-nosed, slow-drawling, slightly-disreputable street rat can get… which is pretty sexy. Sweet, sunny Nawat Crow is romantic enough to unhinge even the most broody vampire-obsessed teenager. And that’s all great… trust me, I really appreciated it in my teen years. But it would be nice, on occasion, to see these fellows do the wrong thing. It is relatively easy to tell who Pierce’s heroines will end up with because it’s always the man who can—literally—do no wrong. I know the Song of the Lioness books backwards and forwards, and I can’t think of a single George Cooper romantic misstep. Nawat Crow is so perfectly attuned to Aly’s every want and need that he seems almost, but not quite, ridiculous. They are dangerous, but never scary; busy, but never absent. This idealization of men can be a slippery slope, especially since Pierce does such a good job of giving her female characters realistic faults and foibles. I should note that not every man in Pierce’s novels is so idealized… just the ones the heroines end up married to.
Man, I really love these books. Like a lot. And although these aren’t perfect examples of the “feminist manifesto” (as it were) I do think that they are good choices overall. If the goal of this list is to suggest girl-oriented, powerful, intelligent literature that has something to say about who and what teenage girls can become, then I’m always going to vote pro-Pierce. I can’t say I’ve grown disappointed in any particular aspect of the Tortall books as I reread them, but I do see dicey areas that I wasn’t aware of as a teen. And maybe that’s good. Rereading these books as an adult should give us some pause; they should evolve, morally and philosophically, as we do. Because that’s what great YA literature is all about.