Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure (2005 ed). 240 Pages. Simon Pulse. $6.99
Song of the Lioness: Book One
This is one of those books which is older than I am, but is still in print, which is a sure mark of a good story. I originally owned the 1989 paperback, but since it’s in a box somewhere, I’ve got a new copy of the 2005 printing. Every couple years (or sometimes only a few months apart) I re-read this series, and I enjoy it every time.
Alanna and Thom of Trebond- nearly identical twins- are both dissatisfied with the futures their father has chosen for him. Alanna dreams of being a lady knight, not a lady stuck in a convent. Thom wants to be a sorcerer instead of a knight. The ten-year-olds come up with a potentially brilliant plan; they’ll trade places. Alanna will pose as Alan, and Thom will start his sorcerer training at the convent (where young boys learn basic magic).
“Alan” arrives at the palace a few short weeks later, eager to start as a page. Despite being a bit clumsy at first, Alanna proves to be one of the best pages of her year, excelling in nearly all of her lessons and putting in extra hours of training. The other pages- and even some squires- are impressed by “Alan,” who becomes one of Prince Jonathan’s most trusted friends.
Alanna must make several ethical decisions; she hates and fears her magic, but to continue denying it will cost her friend his life. She is haunted by images of a dark city, and somehow feels drawn to it, but knows it is incredibly dangerous. As much as she trusts her friends, is it safe to let any of them know her secret?
The Song of the Lioness series is one of my favorites, and I really love all of the books set in Tortall. That said, having read Ms. Pierce’s more recent work, it is clear she has really grown as an author since she wrote this book nearly 30 years ago. It deals with some mature themes- Alanna gets her period, and there are some sexual references- but I feel that children can handle this*. It was originally targeted at higher-elementary, I believe.
The characters are fun, but take a long time to develop. Alanna grows up, but it happens in leaps and bounds; months disappear, days are stretched into several chapters, and time does not flow smoothly. However, the mundane does not make a good story, so it’s understandable that the boring, routine days are cut out.
As far as publishing goes, I’m surprised there is not an omnibus edition**; Ms Pierce herself has said that J.K. Rowling taught her that kids will read long books***, so it surprises me that they remain in individual volumes.
The Quick Version:
With a strong female lead, and a plot which starts at the beginning, this book opens the series well. It is not my favorite; I prefer older Alanna, but issues which real girls face are dealt with fairly well. The adventure itself is fun, and at times even a bit scary. The drama of the climax grabs and doesn’t let go until everything is over. It gets a 4/5, because it’s good, but the books later in the series are better.
*I spent a lot of time arguing in a children’s literature class about whether kids can handle this sort of thing. I’m a strong supporter of letting the child decide, and while I could handle this at 8 years old, not every child will be able to. It takes on new meaning when you reach the “young adult” demographic- girls who have experienced puberty are more likely to understand and sympathize with what is going on with Alanna.
** Like the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, which were released in individual volumes and then combined into Omnibus editions.
*** Apparently nobody had considered how much children like bragging about having read a 700+ page book… (Also, on a Harry Potter note, I don’t believe I’ll review them any time soon. I’m still angry about the end.)