revisiting corus: alanna

Revisiting Corus: Alanna: The First Adventure

Tamora Pierce was my absolute favorite writer as a child. I don’t know if I would call her my favorite writer now, but that’s only because it’s been a very long time since I’ve done a big reread of her books. With Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce’s 20th book in the Tortall universe, debuting on February 6th after over a decade of hearing about it, I’ve decided to reread Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books in a series I’m calling Revisiting Corus.

When I first read Pierce’s books, I started with the Protector of the Small quartet; I liked the covers and they were the only series that was there from start to finish in my elementary school library. I’d tried to read Melting Stones, a book set in her Circle ‘verse, but it wasn’t for me. In retrospect I’m shocked that it was in an elementary school library; it’s the book that first taught me that people shit themselves when they die, so you can correctly guess that it’s a little dark.

For this reread I’ll be going chronologically through Tamora Pierce’s books. I’m hoping to finish the main chronology by the time Tempests and Slaughter makes its way to my hot little hands. I’ll also try to read some of the short stories set in Tortall if I’m able to source them–I don’t own all of them. Go to Tamora Pierce’s website if you want a preview of what I’ll be reading when!

Alanna: The First Adventure is the first book in the Song of the Lioness quartet. Tamora Pierce reportedly originally intended the books to be more adult, but at the time she wrote the books, she was working as a house mother for a girls’ home. She tested her story by telling a more age-appropriate version to the girls in the house, and that’s how Tamora Pierce ended up publishing it, and all of her other books would follow in age range. If you know this, it explains a lot about Pierce’s very unique style. For many young girls, Pierce was the only writer that wrote inelegant women, who went to the bathroom, acted badly, and importantly, got their period. It’s almost sad that Pierce is so remarkable for tackling the idea that a thirteen-year-old girl in disguise might need to worry about her period, or about pregnancy, but it’s also part of what makes Pierce so magic and vital. She never shies away from the ways real life collides with magical adventures, and that has flourished from Alanna’s worries to nuanced portraits of youth, sexuality, and female power as the books have gone on.

In Alanna: the First Adventure, Alanna and Thom are twins with a neglectful father. In the world of Tortall, young noblepersons are sent off at age 11 to either become young ladies, become knights, or to become priests or sorcerors. Thom is to become a knight, and Alanna a lady, which suits neither of them. So they switch places, Alanna becoming Alan, and Thom becoming the second son, that can now freely pursue sorcery. Alanna convinces her loyal servant, Coram, to come with her on the journey to Corus, to live in the palace as a page, and so adventure starts.

Again, Pierce is very preoccupied with the impact of reality onto her made-up world. In Tortall, where young noblemen study for seven years to become knights, training is hard. There’s backbreaking work, harsh punishments, and high expectations. It reads much like a cross between military school and a private Catholic school; there’s expectations of honor, strength, and loyalty placed on young boys that require that they work above, and beyond, and even further beyond that. Alanna, used to an absent father who never asked her to do anything, has to struggle with the backbreaking boys’ club she’s been shoved into. She’s bullied, horrifically, by an older student. She’s small, so she has to work harder to be as good as other students, and her temper and her big secret mean she ends up in a lot of trouble. Alanna is in a situation that many of us could never succeed in if we had all the chances in the world.

Alanna is not as complex as many of the protagonists that follow her in this series–she can be boiled down. But if you’re looking for a hero that it’s amazingly easy to cheer for, Alanna is an A+ pick. Alanna has a fire in her that won’t go out, despite the trials she has to endure to live her dream. In this book there’s already even hints that Alanna has a much huger legacy to grow into, and it’s refreshing to see how reluctant she is to embrace it. Alanna, out of Pierce’s protagonists, is the closest to falling into “Chosen One” territory, but she certainly doesn’t act entitled or “special.” This book covers several years of Alanna’s life, and we see her grow from being terrified of her Gift (magic powers) to beginning to understand that with her power comes the ability to do good, as long as her courage never fails. As the book comes to its climax, Alanna deals out spells and swordplay as epic as anything in The Lord of the Rings, but it feels very natural that she has come to this, and it leaves room for higher heights. A pet peeve of mine is how sequels always outdo themselves, to the point where the stakes become ludicrous, but Pierce is brilliant at writing for a series, at letting the stakes rise without it feeling forced or too large to fit the characters.

As I mentioned earlier, this book covers about three years of Alanna’s life, and it’s surprising how rushed it doesn’t feel. In her later books Pierce goes much slower with her characters, but it doesn’t necessarily not work for Alanna’s story to move at this pace. The theme of Alanna’s page years is proving to herself that she can become greater, but that she will have to work hard and humble herself to get there, and I don’t know if we would have needed any more books that address this so directly. While it’s worthwhile reading, I think the reader also knows well enough that the protagonist of four books surely will become someone great, and so Alanna doesn’t need to prove herself repeatedly to us. We’ll talk about how this contrasts with Protector of the Small when we get to that series.

Alanna is a great start, and as a huge Pierce fan, it gives me chills to see where so many of her literary strengths began. Here we see a strong, realistic woman, in a struggle to prove herself, to grow to become more. It’s a great beginning, and only greater things lie ahead.

Talk to the author about Alanna, Coram Smythesson, or Myles of Olau on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.

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