I think I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when I first read this book but I sadly never continued the series. There aren’t many things about it I still remembered but one was that it was the first fantasy book I read that mentions menstruation and the second was that I really liked it. No matter how long it’s been, I still want to finish the Song of the Lioness series and in order to refresh my memory, I thought I’d simply re-read the first book. Well done, me!
ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE
by Tamora Pierce
Published: Simon Pulse, 1983
Paperback: 274 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #1
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book.
From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; 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 the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.
There’s something very comforting about picking up a childhood favorite, a book so clearly written for kids that it just lets you relax while you read it. I mean, in the first few pages, Alanna and her twin brother Thom are introduced, decide they are going to switch places because Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to be a sorcerer (their father had different plans) and they see a vision in the fire of the local sorceress promising adventures to come. A lot happens very fast and there is little description but tons of dialogue.
So Alanna cuts her hair, blackmails/convinces Coram, her blacksmith/swordsmaster, to keep her secret and help her out once they’re in the capital, and the adventure begins. Something that fascinated me was how the writing matures over the course of the book, though. Where things happen very, very quickly at first – Alanna arrives at the castle, meets her fellow students, immediately makes an enemy and some friends – things take a bit longer later on. Time moves quickly at first, almost like a montage of Alanna’s everyday life as a page, but then, gradually, more and more scenes come up that the readers can fall into a bit more. These moments let us get to know the characters better and experience Alanna’s emotions more fully. It’s almost like the book starts extremely fast-paced to keep the (young) reader interested and then, once we’re hooked, slowly begins to take its time exploring the world and characters and plot. To me this meant that I enjoyed reading more and more the further along I got and that’s definitely something I can get behind.
I also noticed that the lack of flowery description meant my own brain had to work harder and I had to use my imagination if I wanted to “see” what someone’s clothes looked like or how a room was furnished. Turns out, I really missed that! Fantasy books these days are so well thought out, with perfect world building and clear rules that they often leave little for the readers’ imaginations to fill in. Tamora Pierce’s book is the opposite. You get a character’s hair and eye color, their general body shape (tall, short, muscular, skinny, etc.) but other than that, it’s all up to you what people and places look like.
The one thing I had remembered from my first read and which struck me again this time was that this children’s fantasy book mentions menstruation and just… deals with it. Alanna is pretending to be a boy, which is hard enough when the boys go swimming, but it gets even harder when her monthy cycle begins. What with the twins’ disinterested father and dead mother, nobody told Alanna that her body would change this way, so her first reaction is panic and shame. A trusted woman then explains to her in very simple an straightforward terms what’s up and how Alanna can deal with it. Alanna may be outraged at the annoyance her period poses but she takes it in stride, just like she does all the challenges her life as a page poses.
This book doesn’t really have a big overarching plot but rather sets up everything for the rest of the series. Alanna goes through the rigorous training to become a page, then a squire, then a knight. She makes some friends – among them the charming King of Thieves George, the Prince Jonathan, and her fellow students. She also has to use her magic, altough she doesn’t like it. Which adds another fantasy element to this secondary world novel. Although the magic isn’t explained super well, I love that it’s immediately clear that it has a cost. When a terrible sickness sweeps over the capital, the healers are soon exhausted and get sick themselves because using their magic for healing takes a toll on their own bodies.
One aspect that I definitely didn’t notice or think about when I read this as a teenager was how the whole “girl pretending to be a boy” thing would feel if a trans person read it. This is a well-known and beloved trope that creates tension and sometimes funny moments, but Alanna is often annoyed at her changing body, her breasts growing, her period starting, and expresses that she’d rather not be a girl because it complicates everything. She is then told in no uncertain terms that she has to accept her body as it is and just learn to live with it. Tamora Pierce probably didn’t have any big thoughts about trans kids reading this because, well, I don’t believe that this was talked about a lot in the early 1980s, but it did make me, reading this in 2021, think about it. I’m not sure hwat kind of a message this book sends to trans children so I would probably think twice about gifting it to one.
At the end of the book, a sort of mini-adventure/side quest happens that is over as quickly as it begins but serves to set up the villain for the next book(s). In general, most chapters are almost self-contained and tell their own little story. Despite the episodic nature and super fast pace, I had so much fun reading this. As I said, the fact that the language does evolve a bit helped. I also liked that we follow Alanna through several years of her life and watch her grow up, all within the matter of 270 pages. As I write this, I’m already halfway through the second book which I can tell you reads much more grown-up, offers new POVs and takes more time telling the story. It may not be a groundbreaking middle grade series for our age, but boy, is it great to help me out of a reading slump and race through books like I did when I was a child myself.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good
The Song of the Lioness:
- Alanna: The First Adventure
- In the Hand of The Goddess
- The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
- Lioness Rampant
7 thoughts on “So Begins the Song of the Lioness: Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure”
Ooh, I’ll be interested to hear what you make of the other books in the series! My older sister recently reread this whole series (we all devoured these books as kids), and she said the third one is pretty ideologically Troubling.
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Okay, now I’m even more excited to read it. I just started something else but I’m sure I can finish the series this month.
I’m non-binary and I read these books far too many times as a kid and teenager. Very few other books actually discuss things like binding or trying to pass as a boy, even today. Tamora Pierce has since come out and if it weren’t written in the 80s, Alanna would’ve probably been non-binary or some other form of gender-nonconforming (which you get more of in the later books).
I’ve also seen the series come up in numerous discussions where these books come up as good AFAB representation. I think most people, including kids/teens, do understand the context of this story (ie medieval setting) and seeing as Alanna breaks down every other gender rule/role, it’s not that hard to turn that needing to except the body you have thing into just another stupid rule that doesn’t necessarily need to be adhered to (though obviously only to an extent, ie there’s some people who will never grow beard no matter how much T they’re on because genetics, etc and those are things one needs to learn to except). Obviously, big disclaimer on not being a representative for all trans people. Just responding to the disclaimer about thinking twice, that considering how little AFAB trans representation there is still at all in literature and other media, this series from the 80s continues to be pretty good and could help kids articulate feelings/experiences they may be struggling with. Or at least give them someone to relate to. Just you know, context is key and make sure to talk them through anything that brings up something difficult.
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Thank you so much for this comment. I find it really great to hear your perspective on this and you are right, there is still very little representation in literature although I feel its getting better.
I haven’t read books 3 and 4 yet but I suspect that Alanna will turn out to be cis and hetero, she just hates the rules society puts on her as a girl. But I’ll be keeping your comment in mind when I continue reading. It definitely makes me look at the story from a different angle.