Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Apr 9, 2016
Now here’s a review that might date people.

The history of female characters in fantasy is a complex and murky one, one that I suspect consists of a lot of things that happened and that were forgot and were then repeated. As such, I am not a hundred per cent on where Alanna: The First Adventure falls in the genre’s history, but I am fairly sure it features in a lot of people’s personal histories. It was released in 1983; when I first encountered it somewhere around 2000 in Freshwater Library, it was something unusual. Not unique, mind. It was around this period, before or after, that I met Jill from Deverry, the heralds from Valdemar, and Virae of Dros Delnoch, to name a few. But unusual. And, though I thought little of it at the time due to the commonality of it, they shared their stories.

This one belongs to its eponymous heroine.

It starts with Alanna, a noble’s daughter from Trebond in the kingdom of Tortall, working out a solution to the problem facing her and her brother Thom. They are about to be sent away to their gender appropriate schools; Thom to the knight’s school, Alanna to the religious school. Both would much rather go to the opposite. So why don’t they? A couple of forged letters, a little persuasion, and Thom can go to the temple to learn to be a sorcerer.

And Alan of Trebond – a small but fearless boy for all the world knows – can learn to become a knight.

I chewed through the series at the time. Twenty years down the line, how does it hold up?

That is something I am still chewing on now.

Alanna feels somewhat of its time as a member of that wave of commercial friendly fantasy from the 80s. Nobles are noble, so are commoners, villains are obvious but thieves friendly, the gods active and virtuous, and the day will be saved. The reason I say somewhat rather than very much as I can’t easily think of many books that actually leans into this paradigm quite so much. Tortall makes Valdemar feel like Hell’s Ditch. I like optimistic worldviews, but this is a step too far for me.

I also like Chosen Ones, but again the Gods’ announcements on what Alanna’s life should be like and the ease with which that happens feels too straight-forwards to me. Maybe Pierce thought there was no need to add further rebelling against destiny into Alanna’s story. Maybe that was just how she viewed the world.

It’s also possible that when re-writing the books to be aimed at teenagers, she decided to simplify a few things. Who knows? But this book is aimed at teenagers, and it does feel very straight-forwards by the standard of many of the then big hitters in the genre. As a kid, it worked. Now, not so much. The narrative feels too straight-forwards to drag me in. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth.

Nevertheless, it retains charm. It retains a sense of adventure and wonder. Alanna is the one character with depth, but she’s the only one who truly needs it is, and she has it. This is her story, a character-led tell of fears and growth through a series of at times barely connected events. She is tremendously and endearingly brave, but not completely so; her conflict between who she wants to be and who she can be is immersive.

Which is maybe where her place in the genre’s canon lies. Women warriors were nothing new to fantasy in the 80s. But books that concentrate so much on the perceived lines between woman and warrior? Maybe that was. And maybe that was why I could find the books near twenty years later, and still hear people talking about them today.

Alanna: The First Adventure has flaws as a read, but it’s still very much enjoyable.

(This review first posted at Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce)