Hi, friends! Welcome to another edition of Millennial Misremembers, where I look back at entertainment from my childhood. You know, those luscious content morsels that live in the recesses of our brains. This go-around is a little different, as it’s my first foray into misremembering a book — for this column, that is. For this experiment, I’ve chosen Tamora Pierce‘s Alanna: The First Adventure, which is the first of 28 books and stories set in the world of Tortall.
Now, normally, I tell y’all what I misremember and follow it up with a detailed recap of the show or movie, but, umm, Alanna: The First Adventure is a 60,000ish word book … so, instead, I’ll be doing more of a “review-cap” type thing. Never fear; you’ll still be able to impress your kids, niblings or whomever with your fantastic knowledge of the book. Also, can y’all believe Alanna: The First Adventure is older than me? The first edition was published in September 1983!
What I (mis)remember!
I’m only gonna be rereading Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book of The Song of the Lioness quartet, but honestly, I don’t know what happened in which book, so these misrememberings are probably gonna spoil the whole series (or not, considering my track record isn’t so great here).
The first thing I remember is vehement anger at the fact Alanna and the prince/king (John?) weren’t endgame. That’s pretty funny, considering I can think of only one other time I’ve been angry at a series for its endgame choice: Jane the Virgin. I’m curious why I felt so strongly about Alanna and her lovers.
I know my reasoning regarding JtV was about the show ickily prioritizing blood family over found family, which makes sense. So, I wonder if there was something equally as strong here or just too much Disney fairy tale influence in my earlier life. I also remember disliking who Alanna ended up with, though I cannot remember diddly-squat about him, so I’m excited to reexamine that.
The other things I remember are more fragmented. Alanna had magic? Also, she was a twin or faked having one? My goodness, society loves twins! What is that about?
Also, I feel like Alanna: The First Adventure is the white Mulan, another childhood obsession of mine (Seriously, how did I not know I was nonbinary until my 30s?). I’m sure people find out Alanna’s a girl when she gets wounded and/or bathes.
Plus! This was the first book I ever read that had s-e-x, which is so cool! It’s middle grade, so good on you, Tamora Pierce!
Two other random factoids:
- The only Amazon review I’ve ever written was for The Hand of the Goddess, Book Two of this series. Unfortunately, I could not find it, or I would have linked it. I remember my grandma was super proud of me for having written a review until she learned the title. She was pretty religious in a monotheistic way.
- I introduced my cishetero male cousin to this book series. He loved it so much that he wrote to Tamora Pierce. Now, my cousin’s name is unisex, and from Tamora Pierce’s response, she thought he was a girl. It’s a shame society automatically assumes kick-butt woman heroes only interest women. Sigh.
So we open on eleven-year-old Alanna of Trebond and her twin brother, Thom, arguing with their father about his decision for their schooling. Daddy Trebond is sending Alanna to a convent to learn how to be a “Lady” and Thom to the Duke of Naxen to learn how to be a knight. Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Trebond, Alanna will surely see enough nunneries in the capital.
The thing is, Thom is no fighter, but Alanna is. And Thom can learn sorcery at the convent — both twins have The Gift of magic. While Thom can’t wait to hone his skills, Alanna is terrified of hers. What are these kids gonna do? Well, Alanna has an idea!
What if she becomes “Alan” and the twins switch places? Thom just so happens to be an excellent forger, so there’ll be no problem creating new intro letters from their father. Plus, he’s such a recluse; no one knows anything about his kiddos. There’s only one problem…
They first have to convince their chaperones, Maude and Coram. Maude, the village healer, does some magic to determine if this switcheroo is even a good idea. Her vision gives them the go-ahead, so she agrees to accompany Thom to the convent. Meanwhile, Alanna sees something in the magic fire: a city where all the buildings are black.
Alanna convinces Coram, her guardian, by blackmailing him with magical hallucinations. Plus, Alanna says she’s not gonna embarrass him like Thom would have (’cause Thom sucks at fighting). Coram begrudgingly agrees to take her to the duke.
OK, the thing that’s struck me so far is that while Alanna: The First Adventure is classified as YA, my remembering was correct, and it reads like middle grade. The sentences are simple, so I can only assume it’s the content and ages of the characters that pushed it to young adult. Also, Pierce’s sparing use of third omniscient narration threw me a bit. We’re primarily in Alanna’s head, so it takes a second to get oriented when we change.
Next, Alanna and Coram arrive at the city of Corus. Alanna is a little mesmerized by all people she sees. People who include slaves, who are never mentioned again. O-K. Next, we get some implied sex workers and child pickpockets. We also meet a tall young man who will be important later.
Then, at the palace, Alanna meets Duke Gareth of Naxen. She commits a faux pas, calling him “your Lordship” instead of “your Grace,” which doesn’t make sense for two reasons. One) just two pages prior, Coram referred to the duke as “your Lordship,” and two) Alanna is noble, and no matter how small a fiefdom she comes from, I don’t believe she wouldn’t have learned these social graces.
Duke Gareth exposits The Rules to Alan
na. She’ll be a production assistant page until she’s fourteen. Being a page entails a lot of studying, training and doing whatever nobles ask of you. Then, if she’s deemed worthy, she’ll be a squire. And then, when she’s eighteen, she’ll go through the Ordeal of Knighthood. If she lives through it, she’ll get to be a knight. WooHoo!
Later, Coram and Alanna get settled into their shared room. Then, Alanna dresses and admires her new look in the mirror. She might think she looks Gucci, but unfortunately, Tortall’s resident bully, Ralon, comes to harass her for being small and from the countryside. I don’t love that Ralon’s “crooked teeth made him spit his s’s.”
Before he gets a chance to beat Alanna up, Prince Jonathan and his posse arrive and save the day. They immediately take Alan
na under their wings. Gary, the Duke of Naxen’s son, offers to sponsor Alan na. Side note: Alanna is a very earnest kid, which makes her seem cheeky. What’s interesting is that the word “pert” keeps getting used. Pert has two meanings, one gendered and one not.
Next, we enter montage territory. Training to be a knight is hard! Alanna’s friends try to reassure her she just needs to do her best, but she’s ready to quit! To get Alanna to stay, Coram uses that tried and true parental tactic, reverse psychology. Also, during this time, Alanna befriends her teacher, Sir Myles, the resident “drunk.”
Soon enough, things turn around for Alanna, so the Duke of Naxen grants her the privilege of going into town. She takes Garry with her. From earlier, that tall young man recognizes Alan
na by her amethyst eyes and introduces himself as George Cooper. He invites her and Gary to have lemonade at a local inn called the Dancing Dove.
Umm, so Alanna notices that George is handsome when he smiles, but that generally, his “nose was too big for good looks.” I know this book was published forty years ago, but can we not with these stereotypes? Also, George is the King of Thieves and, if I’m not mistaken, the first person we meet who has “tanned skin.”
From interviews I’ve peppered throughout this article, I believe that Pierce has listened to these sorts of criticisms of her work and made efforts to improve, so I’m not precisely calling her out now. Be careful out there, y’all. Anyhoo, Alan
na, George and Gary become friends, and I guess that’s the point of this scene.
Next, Duke Naxen gets a letter from Daddy Trebond that asks after Thom. So, Alan
na‘s got some explaining to do. Luckily, Duke Naxen never really liked her dad, so the duke buys her excuse that Mr. Trebond is such a book nerd that he mixes up his kids.
After this, Ralon amps up his bullying. He starts to pick on Alan
na in a way that includes physical assault. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly determined to deal with the bullying herself, all while her internalized misogyny ramps up. Ralon tries to toss her into the water to swim at one point. Swimming is a no-no for Alanna. Because anatomy.
Alanna’s friends try to get her to admit that Ralon is picking on her, but since she believes this wouldn’t happen to a “real boy,” she won’t tell. She insists she fell. YIKES, Alanna: The First Adventure. Even after Ralon breaks her arm, she still won’t budge. But that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, and her friends beat Ralon up for her.
Instead of ending his bullying, Ralon becomes more clever and secretive about it, which makes Alanna more determined to fight back. She goes to the Dancing Dove to ask George to teach her hand-to-hand combat. We learn this is not a “high class” method of fighting. It’s for commoners and Shang warriors, a “peculiar folk.” 🤯
After a month of training, Alanna goads Ralon into a fight and wins; he leaves court. Even after all that, she still doubts herself. Because girl. Duke Naxen punishes Alan
na for beating Ralon up ’cause those are The Rules, even though he’s not-so-secretly proud of her.
Then, The Sweating Fever, a freaking plague, hits the palace, and goodness, is it hard to read about plagues and epidemics now. The kids’ classes get canceled, etc. People irrelevant to the plot die, but then Prince Jonathan gets sick. Finally, Alanna
remembers reveals she has The Gift. She tells Sir Myles.
Alanna jumps right into healer mode, kicks everyone out of the prince’s room, and starts healing him, which seems like she’s sharing her magic with him. I didn’t quite get what was happening in the process. She also tries some natural techniques, like opening the window and making the room hot to “sweat out” the sickness. The Goddess Herself visits Alanna to lend her strength to heal Prince Jonathan, and the power knocks her out for like three days.
Also, the prince has The Gift, which the king and queen used to fear. But now they’ve seen how useful it is, and they want to train everyone who possesses it.
But, before that can happen, the effing biology of puberty swoops in to ruin Alanna’s day. One spring morning, “Her chest moved. It wasn’t much, but she had jiggled.” So, Alanna does something you should never, ever do! She starts binding with bandages. I sincerely hope no one took Alanna’s moves as advice, and I honestly do not understand how this child manages to be as active as she does without seriously harming herself.
The dialogue between Alanna and Coram in this scene is interesting because it implies there might be more to Alanna’s discomfort with her AGAB than just not being given the same opportunities as boys. Coram tells her she has to accept the changes her body’s going through because, you know, nature. But, Alanna says, “Maybe I was born that way, but I don’t have to put up with it!”
Still, it’s unclear exactly what motivates her unhappiness about being a girl. For example, she says she doesn’t want people to think she’s “soft and silly,” which, again, internalized misogyny much? It’s worth noting Pierce herself has said that given the correct terminology, Alanna would identify as gender fluid (though Pierce’s response was to a question about Alanna being bisexual, so make of that what you will).
I tend to subscribe to “The Death of the Author,” but when we’re talking about works where the characters wouldn’t have had the words to describe themselves, I find there’s more wiggle room for the “Word of God approach.”
Back to that whole magic-training thing … this plot point brings another duke into the picture: Prince Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger of Conté. The first thing that Alanna notices about him is that he’s a hawtie, but rather than being attracted to him, she feels hatred towards him. Oh, but she does like his sense of fashion. LOL. All right.
Roger, who prefers to be called “Lord Roger” instead of “Your Grace,” takes an immediate interest in Alan
na. She oozes power, and he’s unable to get inside her head. He tries to read her mind, but her Gift protects her. Considering she doesn’t trust Roger, Alanna does share a surprising amount of personal info with him anyway. Such as the fact she and Thom were trained in magic without Daddy Trebond’s knowledge.
Later, Alanna receives a message from the hostler. He knows she’s looking for a horse — her pony, Chubby, just isn’t cutting it — and the King of Thieves has just the horse for her. But since Gary is in timeout for something or other, who will Alanna take with her to meet George? Prince Jonathan, that’s who!
When they meet, Prince Jonathan learns how many eyes and ears George has in the palace. Perhaps that’s why he decides to befriend him? George sells Alanna a beautiful horse for a lot less money than it’s worth and slyly gets Prince Jonathan to cover the difference. The prince receives his horse out of it too, so…
We need to take another “Ummm, that’s racist timeout!” The guy who sold George the horses is described as a “filthy old Bazhir.” The Bazhir are based on Bedouins or perhaps Arab people in general. Even Sir Myles later describes the Bazhir people as “unusual,” so this isn’t a great look for Alanna: The First Adventure. You know, y’all, even I get bored of my constant complaining about things being problematic, but it’d be great if there weren’t so much problematic stuff for me to complain about.
Next, Alanna starts sword lessons, wherein the instructor insults all the students, including fat-shaming one of them. He also calls Alan
na a slur for a little person, though the word wasn’t more widely recognized as a slur until the 2010s.
My point in mentioning all of this is not to be an apologist but rather to contextualize — I haven’t read Pierce’s recent work. If she’s still using language like this, that’s a red flag, but this piece is 40 years old. (Yes, I know I’m contradicting myself. My head’s gonna explode.)
Alanna loses her first-in-class duel, and her instructor is mean about it. But rather than give up, she decides to practice more on her own. Good job.
Unfortunately, puberty strikes back again. That’s right; Alanna gets her first period. No one in the castle can help her, so she sneaks into town. To get the medical help she needs, she reveals herself as a girl to George. He takes it in relative stride and immediately won’t be naked in front of her anymore. Alanna kinda takes that as an affront.
Next, George takes Alanna to his mom, who’s a healer. But, before they go in, he makes Alanna tell him her “real” name. She doesn’t want to because she’s worried he’ll let it slip in front of others. He says he won’t, and I believe him, but it’s hard to read this now without the implications of deadnaming. George insists on calling her her “real” name when they’re in private, and Alanna begrudgingly acquiesces. I don’t know, y’all; it makes me squirm.
Geroge’s mom (gently?) teases Alanna for not realizing what’s going on with her own body. But, she quickly and rightly gets mad that no one taught Alanna about these things. Like Coram, Mistress Cooper insists to Alanna that she cannot change what the gods made her. She says, “The sooner you accept that, the happier you will be.” 🙄
She also gives Alanna a birth control charm. Then says they’ve got to tell George everything they’ve discussed … why!? The good that comes of that is he tries to convince Alanna that none of her friends will hate her when they learn the truth. It’s interesting how quickly George softens toward her differently now. Alanna is right — people treat women differently.
A few months later, Alanna and Sir Myles are playing chess. He asks her if he’s ever been to his estates. LOL. She hasn’t. So, he invites her to come with him and explore the ruins there. Something compelled him to bring her there. He had nightly dreams about it until he asked her to join him.
This makes sense because Alanna finds a magical sword in the ruins. She calls it Lightning because it emits magical firelight — sometimes. Also, Roger is afraid of the sword, so that’s something.
That winter (wow, we are flying through time here), George brings Alanna a letter from Thom. The letter makes a few things obvious: Thom loves Alanna deeply, he’s drunk on his power, and Roger is def up to no good. It seems likelier than ever that Roger created The Sweating Sickness as a way to claim the throne.
While Alanna obsesses over this, she and Prince Jonathan continue to hang out with George. While Alanna practices mixing sorcery and swordplay at the Dancing Dove, Prince Jonathan becomes acquainted with his subjects. Yes, the “good” noble.
Then, suddenly it’s spring, and Alanna’s BFFs are all becoming knights, which means they need squires. She doesn’t believe she’s anywhere near in the running. For one, she’s a tiny little dude, but also, “She was a girl, and she was a liar.” Oh, Alanna.
This whole story changes when the duke sends the whole gang on a mission to the Southern Desert, where the Bazhir live. Prince Jonathan wants Alan
na to join, and the Duke of Naxen agrees. It doesn’t hurt that Alanna finally won a duel in sword-fighting class.
But like, also? When the duke asks Prince Jonathan why Alan
na joining them on the mission means so much … the prince’s answer is … a lot. He says, “Because I think he’d die for me, and — and I think I’d die for him. Is that enough?” Hmm. The bisexual vibes are strong here. Look, I am not saying dude-bro friends can’t feel passionate about one another as friends. Just that this does not feel like that.
Remember the Black City Alanna saw way back at the beginning of this book? Well, it’s in the Southern Desert they’re all headed to. And, according to Roger, it’s dangerous. So don’t even think about going there!!! He says directly into Prince Jonathan’s face. Challenge accepted.
So, the crew gets to the Southern Desert, and we learn the Bazhir are an occupied people, which was their “prize” for declaring loyalty to the king after a war or something. Neat. Then, the kiddos learn that a Bazhir youth gets called to the Black City every so often. The pull is so strong that their family either chains them up so they don’t go and they starve to death, or they go to the Black City, never to return.
Of course, Prince Jonathan decides to sneak off to the Black City that night. Alanna joins him because she wants to stop him, but she can’t stop him, so they enter the city together. They meet some ancient people (I guess?) called the Ysandir who feed off human souls. One of them outs Alanna by magically stripping her naked.
Luckily, Prince Jonathan realizes that now is not the time to worry about that. He hands Alanna his tunic, and they get to fighting these maybe-gods. The prince and Alanna call upon the power of their Goddess and sun god to help them fight the baddies. And Alanna’s sword helps them out quite a bit as well.
So, these Ysandir, who say they’re immortal, actually aren’t, and even though Alanna and the prince get pretty tired of eradicating them, it doesn’t seem so hard. All it took to release the Bazhir from this centuries-old hell-city was a couple of white kids and their religion. Cool. Anyway, Alanna and Prince Jonathan go to a nearby oasis to rest and bathe.
Like George earlier, Prince Jonathan suddenly is all shy about how many times Alanna’s seen him naked. Also, like George, he insists on calling her Alanna. Interestingly, Alanna herself has called Prince Jonathan “Highness” instead of “Jon.” He’s not happy about that. Alanna doesn’t get why he doesn’t hate her for lying and being a girl. She starts crying. Honestly, he thinks the whole thing is funny since she’s more than proved herself a knight.
Alanna’s worried about some things, though. How can they know the Ysandir are gone? But, more importantly, Duke Roger knowingly sent the two of them into the Black City to fight the Ysandir. It turns out Prince Jonathan already knew that. He doesn’t believe it was a trap to get him killed, as Alanna does. So, Alanna leaves it alone for the moment.
The story ends with Prince Jonathan asking Alanna to be his squire. She can’t believe he’d pick her. But, he informs her that he has to fight for her. Everyone and their brother wanted Alanna as a squire. We get this exciting dialogue from Jon-Jon when Alanna asks if it’s not different now that he knows she’s a girl. He says, “No, not in the way you mean.” Hmmm. #NoMoreHomo, amiright?
Does it live up to the nostalgia?
Hell yes! I sped through this book because it was so fun. It was like sharing a hug and catching up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. Sure, we’ve grown apart — my friend is now married with a kid and probably votes Republican, but I still love them. Alanna: The First Adventure is entertaining, and it’s always nice to see the underdog win.
That’s probably where my metaphor breaks down. At least so far, Alanna hasn’t become part of the status quo. But will she pull a Harry Potter and join the dark side after spending her childhood fighting evil? I don’t know because I can’t remember.
I can see how Alanna: The First Adventure could be incredibly powerful for young girls, and I don’t want to take away from that. That’s the beauty of art; it can be multiple things to multiple people. I can’t read a piece like Alanna: The First Adventure without my specific lens as an AFAB nonbinary queer person in 2022.
And to be honest, I don’t know if it’s necessarily fair to criticize this specific work through that lens. Then again, Pierce said that Alanna is gender fluid, which is interesting to me. If that makes sense, it almost feels like a character informing an author of something after the fact. Also, I realized that Alanna didn’t “get with” anyone in this book, so I couldn’t answer my question about why the romance bothered me. I looked up who Alanna “ends up with,” and it’s George. It likely bugged me since he’s an adult when they meet, and she’s still a kid.
I can’t end this article without mentioning again how much I love, love, love that Pierce doesn’t shy away from bodies or sex. She also seems to be making a genuine effort to be more inclusive in her work these days. More than anything, it was kind of excellent to read this and see how far the YA landscape has come in just forty years. We’re still dealing with many jerks trying to ban books and people, but there has been a sea change.
I can’t help but think books like Alanna: The First Adventure helped pave the way for that. So, if you’ve never read it or just haven’t read it in a while, it’s worth taking another look. So, folx, do you remember this book? What should I misremember next?