protector of the small

Revisiting Corus: First Test

In this series, I’ve been reviewing each of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books. In this post I’ll be going over the first book in the Protector of the Small series, First Test.

Kel was my first Tamora Pierce heroine, and she’ll always be my favorite.

Daine was a bit of a turn compared to Alanna, and Kel is a whole other country compared to those two. While Alanna and Daine start from different places, they both end up as epic figures, legends whose story is satisfying to read. From the moment we meet Kel, we know she’s none of those things. She’s bulky, tall, awkward, quiet, determined, and completely nonmagical. Her time in the Yamani Islands gives her a bit of a quirk, but it’s not to her immediate advantage–she is disliked by her fellow students for her stonefacedness as much as her femininity. And while Alanna paved the way for female knights, being a lady page is still hard for Tortallan society at large to accept. The book is called First Test in large part because Kel’s knightmaster-in-training, Lord Wyldon, has ordered that she prove herself equal to the boys in her first year before she is cleared to continue her training. Kel has plenty of obstacles to overcome to prove her worth, and none of the magical or immortal friends either of her predecessors had.

This is also part of an overall trend we see in Pierce’s writing, which is that the further she gets along, the more dark and grounded her books become. In the acknowledgments of Trickster’s Choice, she will thank the Harry Potter series for convincing publishers that children/teens were willing to read thick books; I wonder if perhaps other publishing trends allowed her books to change to be darker as well. After all, The Song of the Lioness quartet kicked off in the mid-80s, while First Test was published in 1999, and Lady Knight  was written in the midst of 9/11 (we’ll address this when we get to that book). I’m not trying to go to hard into ancillary material beyond the published work, so it may well be that Tamora Pierce has addressed this tone shift, but it’s interesting to observe.

For my money, Kel is my absolute favorite. I love that things are a little bit tougher than they are for everyone else, and that she’s coming into this with a unique cultural standpoint. I really like reading the stories of outsiders, people who aren’t automatically comfortable in their skin in a given environment–let’s be honest, I relate to those stories. As I’ve grown up I’ve learned to love Kel for the lesson she provides, namely that you don’t have to start out extraordinary to become extraordinary.

Again, we get references to a culture that’s been cribbed from another culture. There were references to the Yamani Islanders in the Immortals quartet, but they were small characters in a larger war, and now they’ve come into clearer focus. The Yamani are so obviously Japanese that one wonders if Tamora Pierce is being more tongue-in-cheek about her cribbing; the lucky cats are a dead giveaway. At the same time, however, she continues to focus on having these cultures part from their inspiration to have some originality. While both cultures have sacred swords conferred upon their culture by their gods, the place these artifacts have in their cultures is very different. The Japanese imperial regalia confer the divine right of leadership on those who possess them–which caused fierce fighting over them in Japan’s feudal period. In First Test, the swords are the sword of law and the sword of duty, and they bind all Yamani to those principles. This is very thematically similar to some of the concepts brought up in “Hidden Girl,” where the Book of the Sword and the Book of the Distaff, dictated by an Oracle, bind his followers with their principles of law and duty. Again, in a world where the gods are very real, differences of religion are made more complex, for all the characters involve believe in very real gods. Despite minor differences in gods or location, we see here a recurring theme of the gods handing down the concepts of law, and of duty to other persons, in particular to those who would lead them.

Again, Tamora Pierce’s habit of doing this is a thorny subject. When it comes the Bazhir, it’s borderline problematic; in “The Hidden Girl,” it allows a complex and lovely story that may subtly open the minds of readers who aren’t in a position to gain more information about the real-world equivalents of Pierce’s fantasy cultures. Pierce always seems to be attempting to bring in new cultures for altruistic reasons, and here, frankly, the Yamanis exist mostly as flavor text to Kel’s personality; we should have more to pore over about them in the coming books.

The story told in First Test is a little simple, but it’s fun. It focuses mostly on Kel proving her worth, not just to Lord Wyldon but to her fellow pages. One of the central conflicts in this is in Kel’s attempts at jousting. Early on, she’s bad at it; she insisted on saving irritable Peachblossom from the glue factory, so she has a giant horse, and she learns early on that Joren, her nemesis, has had her lance weighted down. While Kel is theoretically receiving a fair education, she comes across many similar obstacles, where she has to work twice as hard to be half as good as any of her companions. Kel’s ultimate triumph at jousting is utterly jubilant, and is a microcosm of the larger story. We read of Kel’s struggles and the ways she is pushed back, hard, by the resistance she finds everywhere she goes. But she keeps fighting, and in the end, her fight is rewarded. She has earned her place, two or three times over, and it is hers to continue to fight for.

This book was probably my first introduction to the idea of institutional sexism. I’m sure I was aware that girls were treated differently, but there’s a difference between being aware of it and being aware that it’s making you suffer. I remember making my twin sister incredibly angry one day, around the time I read this book, because I repeated to her something that my gym teacher said–that women were physically smaller, weaker, that their lungs worked differently and worked against them in certain ways. While some aspects of that were true, which was why I smugly repeated it, it was also being used as a weapon in gym class, to shape the way we thought and saw ourselves. My twin sister saw through that bullshit well before I did, and it actually took me a lot of work to deprogram from that way of thinking. Tamora Pierce was one of the major reasons I began to see strength in myself and other women–because we could do it, if we tried, even if things were harder for us.

Kel is…just…amazing, and I’m glad we’ve got so much more of her to go.

Got opinions? Leave a comment or come on over to Twitter. The art used in the header image is “a self-portrait as a teen” by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

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