Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

From the back cover:
“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: disguised as a girl, 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.

For a period of several years, I was an administrator on an online roleplaying game based on a popular series of children’s fantasy books starring a protagonist with a peculiarly shaped scar. New players to this game would frequently submit applications for characters that read very similar to this:

“Ten-year-old Alanna has red hair, purple eyes, and a twin brother. She is very smart, determined, and brave. Plus, she has a great magical gift, so great that she will one day be able to succeed in curing a deadly sickness where all other healers have failed. She also excels at becoming the best at unarmed combat and swordsmanship (albeit with quite a lot of practice), distrusting bad guys instantly, and conveniently finding ancient, powerful swords with sparkly crystals on them.”

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit better than your average newbie attempt, but there are still some striking similarities. This resulted in me snickering out loud the first time Alanna’s looks—for, yes, that paragraph is describing the protagonist of this book—were mentioned, and in rolling my eyes every time her awesomeness was further established. The action in the book covers several years, and Alanna’s plan is to divulge her secret on her eighteenth birthday, after she is made a knight. It’s certainly welcome to see a female proving herself in that environment so adeptly. I don’t mean to suggest that awesome women cannot exist, but after a while I started asking myself, “What next?”

Perhaps such a heroine appeals more to young adults, the intended audience for this book. There are some good messages here about applying oneself when the things you want to do prove challenging and not letting anyone’s idea of your limitations get in your way. It’s just that everything kind of happens too easily. Even though we know Alanna is spending hours and hours practicing, her evolution from fumbling beginner to “a matchless swordsman” doesn’t seem to take very long. The climactic battle at the end against an immortal race of evil beings living in “the black city” also seems too simple.

In the end, I liked Alanna: The First Adventure enough to continue with the rest of the quartet. It appears to be the first book Pierce published, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t match up to my favorites amongst her works.

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  1. Hahahaha.

    Everything you say here is true. Alanna is a ridiculously overpowered character. I believe even Pierce figured that out as she went on, as she did eventually write another series in the same setting where a girl is -also- trying to become a knight (the first one since Alanna). Except she is awkward and not magic.

    • I was kind of wondering how that other series tied in. I think I’m glad I didn’t read this series before any later works, because my reaction might’ve been more, “Oh, that was pleasant. Moving on!”

  2. A lot of the plotting in the Alanna series is very cliched. But it still has a spark that made it readable.

    The later Tortall books get a bit more complicated (though still aimed at a middle school audience) and take more risks in the plotting.

    I haven’t read the most recent few, mostly because I wasn’t buying them in hardcover and lost track. I’ll have to catch up. 🙂

    • That’s good to know about riskier plotting. This one was very straightforward but, as you said, had a certain spark.

  3. You know, from what I remember, because other readers and reviewers had the same problems with the Mary Sue-ness of Alanna, she created the series Protector of the Small about the very first non-Goddess-protected, non-magical Tortall girl knight – and that one is very good and realistic but still Tortall adventure style. You might enjoy that more. I discovered Tamora Pierce when I was 40. But I’m also a reader who has enjoyed several Black Jewel books by Anne Bishop in a pulpy way ^^.

    I’ve loved all the Tortall books so far to varying degrees, though.

    • Probably I will like that series more, yeah. This was my first Pierce book set in the Tortall universe. (My previous exposure had been limited to the ten books involving the characters in the Circle of Magic series.) I figured I’d read them in publication order ’til I’m caught up with her newest series, which seems to be the latest chronologically in the Tortall world (if I’m not mistaken).

      • I endorse this plan – although the Bekka Cooper series is about a female ancestor of the guy that Alanna eventually marries, so it’s set a few hundred years earlier on Tortall.

  4. I think the Alanna books are perfect for 10-13 year olds. I do agree she’s a Sue, but compared to a lot of popular other young adult book characters, she’s not so bad. For the most part Pierce got better with each series, so I think she’s a great author for a girl to grow up reading.

    • Michelle says

      While I haven’t read all of her works, that’s the general impression I get, as well. I really liked The Circle of Magic series, except for Melting Stones, which is a fairly recent one (or, at least, has had a fairly recent installment published.)

  5. Sounds fantastic! One of my friends just recommended I add this book to my classroom library. I’ve been trying to find more books that fit in with a middle school audience and this looks like it fits the bill. Does The Circle of Magic series have the same target audience, or does it skew more mature?

    • This would be a great classroom addition. There are three other books in the series, as well. The Circle of Magic series has the same target audience, I’d say. The kids in that one are about eleven when we first meet them. By the ninth book in the series, The Will of the Empress, they’re young adults, and there are some hints about the boy’s sexual conquests and a somewhat-on-screen romance for one of the girls, but nothing inappropriate, in my recollection.

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