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.