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Alanna: The First Adventure

Alanna: The First Adventure
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What surprised me most about this book, selected for a YA book club, is that I had never heard of it, any of the other Tortall books, or the author, Tamora Pierce, before. This is strange to me because this sort of literature was right in my wheelhouse as a young reader. I devoured fantasy almost as much as sci-fi in middle school and on. Given how much time I spent in that section of the library, all I can figure is that for whatever reason it wasn’t stocked, or something about the cover art or jacket description at the time made me pass it by. I wonder in part if, because it was published in 1983, it wasn’t yet considered a classic by the time I would have been browsing in the early ’90s.

Given all that, I tried very hard to read this as my younger self, but I wasn’t very successful. I think it has a lot of the classic fantasy tropes, and some interesting takes on them, but fundamentally it’s a coming of age story, and it hews to that pattern pretty closely. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I think I would have enjoyed this more had I read it as a kid. I don’t think it had anything to do with failing to identify with a female protagonist. Looking at other ratings and reviews, it’s clear that this book has a special nostalgic place in many hearts, probably similar to my connection to Tolkien, l’Engle, and other series I read and reread.

I found myself regularly comparing the story to Ender’s Game, in large part because of the amount of time spent “in school”, dealing with bullying and navigating a world while largely controlled by adults. This is of course a typical teen experience, although I don’t remember feeling that way as a young teen. Another parallel (one which I understand is developed further in the later books) is that while Alanna is in school, her sibling is elsewhere, honing his own special talents. I also found myself early on trying to figure out which of her fellow trainees would develop into a romantic interest, because I assumed that would transpire.

In our book club discussion, we focused a lot on the role of religion in this story as compared to other fantasy settings. I think the religious content has a few features common to those others, which I suspect are chosen mostly to avoid offending anyone by seeming too similar to a particular modern religion.

First, it’s non-liturgical: we hear the characters acknowledge the existence of gods, and maybe even give thanks or an oath here or there, but there’s effectively no communal religious practice, at least not one the main characters participate in on a regular basis. Any reference to organized religion is mostly about the political power structures – orders of priests, leaders like bishops, and so on. This is a huge distinction from the day-to-day medieval setting depicted in this book compared to European history. There are some quick asides referring to an order of female warriors that prevent men from entering a temple, but not much beyond that, at least in this first book.

Second, it tends to be highly ecumenical but polytheistic, where a given character probably worships one or more gods, but acknowledges the existence of others (usually in the context of claiming they’re dead/gone/weaker than theirs). We see Alanna’s encounters with the Goddess when she’s using magic, but I wouldn’t describe any of her experiences as worship. I think this is connected to how often the magic systems in fantasy derive power from gods (or at least an elder race with godlike powers), but also again to avoid the perception of an attack on a particular monotheistic religion.

Third, the gendered aspects of the gods and goddesses are usually pretty explicit, often along a sky father/earth mother axis. I don’t know how much of that is tapping into historical nomadic vs. agrarian splits compared to an author trying to make a point about the typically patriarchal power systems in a medieval setting.

We also touched briefly on the religions in other fantasy worlds, like in Narnia and on Arrakis, and the nature of good and evil. One trope talent Alanna had, a sort of child-like insight, was a better sense of who the good guys and bad guys were. To quote Samwise Gamgee, she noticed those that “look fairer but feel fouler”.

This book is probably a good one to have on hand for a young fantasy fan, boy or girl, but as an adult fantasy fan, I wasn’t able to get into it as much as I would have liked. I enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t that immersive. Again I think a big part of that was that Alanna’s school experience (ignoring the fantasy setting) was a typical teen one, but fairly different from my own, growing up in a very nerd-positive environment.

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A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No spoilers for my thoughts on this one. First, on a metapoint, I thought about holding off on a review until I had finished A Dance With Dragons, because this book doesn’t really come to a conclusion and focuses on an overlapping timeline with just a subset of the characters. I definitely missed a few of the narrators, because of that split, but I was glad to see more of the “bad” guys getting to tell their stories.

I don’t remember the exact publication dates, but Martin’s writing style has definitely evolved somewhat over the series. There were a few things I noticed. For a few of the narrating characters, instead of the chapter headings being their first name, they got some other identifier, which was an interesting touch. The other large difference was that a lot of the action was elsewhere, so we had a lot of events that weren’t directly experienced by the characters either being relayed to them in dialogue, or recently past events that they were thinking over. This can be bot an interesting style choice, and an annoyance, because you get weird verb tenses and don’t just see the action as it occurs. Obviously one of the factors here is that we had to know what other narrating characters who weren’t covered in this book were up to.

The ending to this book wasn’t as nicely wrapped up, I guess because of the two-parter effect. It also didn’t have the surprises that really shocked me near the end of Book 3. This is part of why I gave this book a slightly lower rating than the rest of the series – it felt mostly like filler leading to the big confrontations in the next book, instead of having a lot of interesting stuff on its own. That is, most of the characters were either alluding to events coming soon, or talking about events that had happened in Book 3, without making as much happen themselves.

It’s still a necessary read for the continuity of the series, but definitely not as impressive. I don’t know what kind of pressures Martin had from his publishers, but I think he would have been better off waiting to produce one large volume. I wonder how the hypothetical fourth season of the HBO series will handle it – I suspect they’ll interleave characters more, since they don’t want to not feature actors for an entire year.

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A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I made a silver lining out of a flat rear tire on my bike to read this one on my commute to and from work, either walking through Danehy Park or taking the Red Line. Since my commute is normally so quick, I don’t have a block of time to read on public transit or hypothetically listen to podcasts or audiobooks in a car. That means I mostly end up reading before bed.

Overall, I think this book was a bit of an improvement in the writing style, but I didnt like the directions in which he took some of the plots. It did make me realize I have no idea where he’s going with all of this.

Below the cut are giant spoilers of the who dies variety!

(more…)

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A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose it’s problematic when I don’t write book reviews until well over a month after finishing the book in question. In my defense, I finished this book on the plane back from Cancun, and then immediately had two insane weeks of coding for my final project. I was to some extent additionally demotivated by the fact that this is the second book in an as-yet unfinished series, which are always difficult to write up because they neither start nor end stories.

This review does not contain spoilers.

As I mentioned in my review for A Game of Thrones (from before I was cross-posting reviews to my blog), I had actually started this book a few years ago, although going in I thought I hadn’t gotten to this one. As I was reading, I kept thinking that I had gotten to a new-to-me section, only to find a familiar scene in the next chapter. I think the point where I had given up on it previously was somewhere around two thirds through the book. For various reasons, even though I was initially ahead of the popularity of the series due to the HBO television adaptation, I set it down and didn’t come back to it until this year. Speaking of, even though I’m only a few episodes into the first season, it’s been amusing seeing people tweet about the second season, which corresponds to this book.

Overall, this book seemed more solid than the first book. I don’t know if that’s because the pace was picking up, or if the characters had a bit more agency, or what. I think the fact that it ended with most of the main characters embarking on a journey helped frame things nicely, in setting up the third book (which I will review shortly).

In terms of characters, it’s really hard not to love Tyrion, even if he is a twisted little imp. He got a great storyline, and as a nerd I have to respect his reliance on his wit as a strength in the face of pretty awful events. I also really enjoy Arya and Jon Snow; I assume to some extent they’re written to be more likable. It will be interesting to see where their journeys take them in the third book.

I thought one of the weakest story lines was that of Theon Greyjoy. He gets an entertaining introduction with his homecoming, but after that, it’s pretty bad. I think the character needed to be introduced more in the first book, to help us understand the motivation behind his actions in this book.

My usual complaint about the level of violence, and the creepy sex, stands. I think an epic fantasy tale with a lot of intrigue and war could be told without quite so much gory detail. I won’t deny Martin’s penchant for the descriptive when it comes to helping a reader visualize all of it, but the exact nature of the content still dulls my enjoyment of the world building.

On to Storm of Swords…

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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