In the first part of Alanna: The First Adventure. nothing is what I expected it to be. IT IS ALL SO MUCH BETTER. I was not ready. I am, however, hopelessly hooked.
Spoilers follow for chapters 1-4.
“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. 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: Disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent; 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.
“This isn’t just going to be any ordinary memory lane. This is memory city.”
So spoketh my good friend and reading buddy for this new outing, Dvorah, as we were reading this part of Alanna together on Saturday. I might be reading these books for the first time, but it’s an old favourite for her, and as well as conveying her feelings for it in one impressively snappy line, this felt like a good-natured challenge, in a way. Was I going to end up feeling as strongly in favour of this book as she does? We were about to find out!
And I’ll be honest, straight up front: I’ve got a very strong feeling already that the answer is going to be yes. I was not ready for any of the things Alanna has already done to my brain, and to my heart – but I am 100% here for more of it.
Boys Will Be Boys?
The opening premise of this book seemed pretty straightforward, and fairly familiar: girl rebels at societal norms and expectations, girl gets a chance to play the system and get what she really wants, girl takes it, hijinks ensue. And while that is basically what appears to be happening, I’m not seeing any of the things I expected to count as “hijinks” actually coming to pass.
“Alan” makes it to the palace, is accepted as a page, and immediately undertakes the sort of education that would put the will of even the most stubborn-minded child to the test. And indeed, Alanna soon finds herself challenged in ways she had never expected. She lasts only a few days before telling Coram, her ‘servant’ and lifelong friend, that she’s stopping all this nonsense and going home. (Not quitting, though. Never that. That would be unthinkable, etc.) Obviously he believes this not at all, and his ‘disappointment’ at her not-quitting-just-being-realistic gets under Alanna’s skin deep enough that she decides sticking it out is better than being seen as a weakling who couldn’t handle the pressure.
This goes on to become a bit of a theme with her, in fact. Remember how I said that nothing here was what I expected it to be? That goes especially for the boys Alanna befriends in the palace – or most of them, anyway. Where I expected to find a bunch of competitively-minded “lads”, instead we see level-headed, warm and genuinely friendly souls. Mostly.
There’s always one, and Ralon of Malven is that one in Alan of Trebond’s case. He’s the sneering, mocking, strutting, mean-spirited one, and at this point I’m bearing in mind that nobody is ever born a dickhead; that behaviour is learned. On the other hand, I don’t particularly sympathise because childish is as childish does, and with his toxic behaviour set against the remarkably overwhelming example of How Not To Be A Dickhead from the other boys around him, Ralon does very little to actually earn any sympathy.
But he is only one among a much more admirable many, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see “boys will be boys” meaning something other than a flimsy excuse for terrible behaviour. Some boys are smart, kind and good-natured, and it’s wonderful to see that being highlighted instead.
What really adds weight to this particular narrative, though, is that shining external example set against Alanna’s internal insecurities. Despite all evidence to the contrary (and bless those boys for encouraging ‘Alan’ to put faith in The Rules when dealing with Ralon), Alanna quickly convinces herself that in order to be as good as any real boy, she’s got to be strong enough to handle Ralon by herself. And you can probably guess what that means.
I Need An Adult
At this point I want to talk a little bit about the various adults who enter Alanna’s life at the palace, and in the city, because their influences at this stage are just as important, and arguably somewhat stronger, than those of the boys she befriends. Duke Gareth is firm and direct from the outset about what’s expected of Alan in the performance of his duties, and about what might lie in his future if he performs well. But he’s never harsh or unkind, and while he refuses to openly encourage breaking any rules in order to put a stop to Ralon’s bullying, it’s made clear that he also doesn’t turn a blind eye to it. He’s presented as the polar opposite to Alanna’s father, who didn’t even know his own children well enough to tell them apart when it counted, and so it’s clear why Alanna admires and respects him.
The same goes for Sir Myles, who is immediately presented as charismatic and charming, and a potential friend to all of these boys. Coram is nearest and dearest to Alanna’s heart, as the one adult she trusts well enough to confide her secret to, even if necessity and logic dictated the decision in the first place. Coram sees the potential trouble afoot in maintaining a deception like this, but at the same time he can’t pretend that having to assist in training Alanna rather than her brother isn’t preferable to him; Alanna, at least, is capable of learning what he can teach her. (And that raises some interesting questions about Thom, the actual Trebond son, but I’ll leave that for another time. This is Alanna’s story, after all.)
Then there’s George, the King of the Thieves, a man set apart from the more law-abiding influences on Alanna, but nonetheless the one she chooses to turn to for help when Ralon’s bullying grows more serious. If obeying the rules won’t help her, then Alanna needs to learn how to get around them in order to really fight her own battles. Enter the professional rule-breaker. George is fascinating simply because of how he’s presented, but his willingness to help Alanna, and his apparent forthright nature regarding her, make him even more deeply intriguing. What is he getting out of this? Any man who builds a life such as he leads doesn’t get there by being soft-hearted, but he clearly does have a soft spot for her – or him, because it’s always worth remembering that Alanna is deceiving just about everyone in her life at this point.
The Struggle Is Real
And that, lest we forget, is where the emotional investment comes in. With all of the friendships and relationships she’s building in her new life, there’s bound to be a lot for Alanna to lose if it comes to light that she’s not who or what she says she is. But at the same time … will she lose quite as much as she fears she will? Or are all of these kind and admirable people capable of seeing her worth enough to put aside the fact that she was born a girl? Alanna doesn’t have to win a fight to prove that she’s as smart, strong or capable as any male. She brought all of that potential with her, but for all of her initial confidence, we’re starting to see that her fears are rooted in insecurity; she doesn’t truly seem to see it that way. So there is a sort of toxic masculinity here after all – it’s just quieter, more insidious, and in a way, much more deeply affecting for me as a reader. What girl doesn’t know what that internal struggle is like?
And while we’re on the subject of emotional investment and internal struggle, I can’t sign off without flailing a bit about the events of chapter four. With all of the character study that was going on up until this point, I was a bit blindsided – and in the best way, damn you Tamora Pierce – by the ‘sweating fever’ plot twist, and the dramatic scenes marking this book’s halfway point. Among Alanna’s newfound friends is Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne, who – like Alanna – has a Gift. He’s also the only child that the Queen is capable of having, and when he falls ill with the fever it’s revealed that this outbreak might be a magical attack of some sort, and it’s possible that Jonathan was the real target; the outbreak itself is a smokescreen for an assassination attempt.
First of all, sorcerer assassins and political intrigue are like catnip to me. I want more, I want the truth, I WANT MORE DRAMA AND I WANT IT NOW OH GOD IS IT SATURDAY YET.
Second of all, I mentioned in my livetweeting on Saturday that I think I’m starting to ship Alanna and Jonathan, and that is still true, but by the end of chapter four it’s clear that the bond between these two is deeper, and going to become deeper still, than I’d imagined at first. What is a typical blossoming romance in the face of two Gifted young people bonding during a life-threatening outbreak, set off by magical means in order to assassinate one of them? I was white-knuckled, waiting to see if Jonathan would live or die (he’s a sweetheart and I REALLY don’t want him to), but this is still Alanna’s story, and despite all of her fears of discovery, she steps up to fight for her friend every bit as fiercely and bravely as she’s fought for herself until now – and all of the adults around her acknowledge this, and don’t patronise her, and put faith in her healing abilities rather than simply seeing a child in need of (over)protection.
There is so much in this book that reflects upon our world right now, not only in the issues it touches upon (toxic masculinity, the resilience and agency of young people, the responsibility of adults to educate them) but in the ways it handles those issues. Alanna is a girl in a world that caters to men, and rather than being actively oppressed in such a world, we’re seeing that most of the barriers she’s up against are the ones she has internalised. Where it seems to matter most, her capabilities and her knowledge are being deferred to … but everyone still calls her Alan.
Would that respect and deference remain if her secret comes out? God, I hope so. I want to trust that these are people who could understand and forgive Alanna’s perceived need for such a deception, because for all their demonstrated kindness, that need was arguably very real. This noble caste might be set apart from your typical fantasy-world nobility, but it isn’t perfect; any system in which a young person has to disguise their gender in order to be permitted to chase their dreams is a system that’s fundamentally flawed, but I can definitely see some light at the end of this tunnel for Alanna. All it needs is for the demonstrated fairness and kindness of heart of these men to hold true.