This post is part of #ReadWomen2014.
by Anya Josephs
Tamora Pierce has written a number of series of books for young adults. Most of them are set in one universe, a sort of magical alternate history in a place called Tortall. Her first series, The Song of the Lioness, focuses on a girl named Alanna, who disguises herself as her male twin to train as a knight instead of learning courtly mannners like a lady is supposed to. (Her brother doesn’t have to crossdress for eight years like Alanna does, just disguise himself for the journey and then learn magic at the convent Alanna was supposed to go to). She, however, has to remain in disguise for the years she is a page. She then becomes the squire to the crown prince, her good friend Jonathan. She learns magic, defeats an evil sorceror, and then goes on a quest to find a mythical jewel.
There’s a lot of amazing things about the series. Alanna is a great example of empowerment for female characters. She relentlessly pursues her goal of being a knight, she overcomes all sorts of practical and personal hardships, and she becomes physically and mentally stronger than any of the boys she trains with. She’s naturally small in stature, and has to work harder than the others to make up for the fact that she’s physically weaker, but she still becomes the best of the knights.
Alanna is also an interesting and complex character. She’s flawed, but not in the typical “quirky” way we see with a lot of young adult heroines. Alanna’s major flaw is that she has a terrible temper. She also has difficulty accepting some things about herself, a problem she has to overcome in the books. Alanna was born with the Gift (basically magic powers) and she’s very afraid of this aspect of herself. She also has to learn how to accept herself as a woman even though the traditional path of early, arranged marriage wasn’t for her. Despite being surrounded almost exclusively by men because all the other pages are boys, she seeks out and develops friendships with women.
She’s good friends with George, the King of the underground Court of Thieves, and goes to his mother for advice when she first gets her period. Eleni Cooper, George’s mother, also teaches Alanna how to wear makeup and wear dresses when she chooses to (although this has to be in secret because she’s disguised as a boy). Eleni also gives Alanna a magic charm that acts as birth control. In a scene I found really realistic, Alanna at first has no intention of having a sexual relationship, saying that she’ll be too busy maintaining her disguise and achieving her dream. However, she takes the birth control charm as a precaution. A few years later, she enters into a healthy sexual relationship with Prince Jonathon.
This first romance fizzles out because Jonathon pushes her to marriage, which she isn’t interested in, and she briefly flirts with her friend George before leaving on the aforementioned quest for the Domionon Jewel. On the way, she meets Liam, basically a wandering martial arts expert, and they become lovers on the trip. However, he’s intimidated by her, and the relationship ends. Alanna ends up happy with George, but what’s significant about all these romantic relationships is the tropes in literature, especially young adult literature targeted at girls, that are being subverted.
First of all, I think this is the only YA book I’ve ever read where a young female character has three happy, supportive relationships that are explicitly stated to involve sex. There are a lot of love triangles in fiction, but there are rarely multiple, subsequent relationships, all fulfilling and happy in their own way—the way Alanna’s relationships, and relationships in real life, often are. Also, the traditional happy ending of settling down and marrying the handsome prince is decidedly avoided in this book. Alanna is romantically involved with the prince, and sleeps with him, and remains his good friend for the rest of their lives—but when she realizes being queen isn’t in her best interest, she ends their romantic involvement. Another stereotype, that women are naturally jealous of each other and compete for the attention of men, is hugely subverted. Alanna ends up introducing Jonathan to a foreign princess, Thayet, and encouraging their romance. She and Thayet become close friends and she is genuinely happy for both of them when they get married.
Another wonderful thing about this series is that a number of different cultures are represented. Fantasy novels can veer a little bit into white-washing, because they’re often set in medieval England where almost everyone was white. However, The Song of the Lioness (and even more so the rest of Pierce’s books) have equivalents to many different cultures. Sometimes (as with the Bazhir, a nomadic tribe living in the desert and clearly based on Arab people) these can seem a little bit stereotypical, but in my opinion it’s still wonderful to have a YA fantasy novel that represents people of color, although the representation isn’t perfect.
I don’t find Tamora Pierce’s prose particularly beautiful—rather, her style is plain, existing more to tell the story than anything else. Additionally, the basic plot is not the most original thing—it’s a very similar story to many other quest narratives.
However, what is completely unique and wonderful about this series and the rest of Pierce’s books is how sensitively and thoroughly she deals with gender issues. She creates a rich, interesting, fantastic world, and fills it with complex and appealing characters, men as well as women. Honestly, I can’t recommend her books enough to anyone who loves science fiction or fantasy.