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.

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce: C

From the back cover:
Evvy, the fierce young stone mage introduced in Street Magic, has accompanied her guardian, Rosethorn, on a mission to study a mysterious plant die-off. With the help of Luvo, who is the living heart of a mountain, Evvy discovers the real source of the threat, which is far greater than anyone had imagined.

Preventing a natural disaster may cost Evvy her life. Even more frightening, doing so may require her to melt her own heart of stone… and to open herself to human contact.

Written by Tamora Pierce specifically for the voices of Full Cast Audio, Melting Stones is an unprecedented publishing event: the first time a major novel from a best-selling author has made its debut on audio a full year ahead of the print version!

I’ve enjoyed all of the other books in the Circle of Magic series, but Melting Stones nearly bored me to tears. Here are the main problems I had with it:

1. Evvy herself. She was whiny and cranky, and prone to doing risky things. When Luvo cautioned her against a rash action, she said, “If you’re going to natter and scold, don’t come with me!” As a result, she got into a dangerous situation and all I could think was, “He tried to warn you, dumbass.” Additionally, this attitude meant she had to learn (and I had to endure) a Very Important Lesson.

2. Profound monotony. 90% of the book was Evvy either rhapsodizing about, talking to, or casting her magical self underground to travel within rocks.

3. It was more juvenile than the others in the series. The “real source of the threat” that Evvy discovered turned out to be two volcano spirits, characterized like petulant kids. Evvy’s narrator also contributed to the childish feel. The character’s supposed to be fourteen, but sounded about twelve. Not only that, she sounded like a twelve-year-old putting on her best story-time voice for a group of five-year-olds. If you can successfully imagine someone going on—at length and in detail—about rocks in such a voice, you’ve begun to understand my pain.

I might have enjoyed this somewhat more in a print edition, since I would’ve interpreted Evvy’s thoughts more maturely than the narrator did, but honestly, I don’t think it would’ve made much difference.