Tamora Pierce's "Song of the Lioness" tetralogy (****-, on an uncalibrated four-point scale) is easily one of the best juvenile fantasies of the past decade. It loses some points for world-building -- the setting is generic medievaloid -- but gains those back and more for the main character, Alanna.
"Alanna: The First Adventure" introduces us to the ten-year-old Alanna and her twin brother Thom, as they are about to be sent off for schooling -- he to become a knight, she to become a sorceress. Except that it's Thom who's interested in sorcery and Alanna who is determined to become a knight -- so they trade places, and she disguises herself as a boy.
This first book covers the early years of her successful imposture. As a page she begins to learn the skills she will later need as a knight -- the sword, some sorcery, courtly manners, some book-learning. She also begins to know the people who will be important to her in later years, such as Jon, the prince, and George, who styles himself king of the thieves, both of whom befriend her. And such as Duke Roger, who is only two lives away from the throne, and whom everyone but Alanna seems to trust implicitly.
The book has the feel of a cross between Howard Pyle's "Men of Iron" and Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonsinger", set against a fantasy background. That comparison, however, doesn't do justice to the writing, which is excellent, or to the main character, who is more complex and interesting than Myles or Menolly. If you enjoy a good juvenile, try this one. If you can't find it in a children's bookstore, your local children's library should have it. Then, if you liked it, there are three sequels.
"Yer father will have my hide!"
She made a face. "Father doesn't care about anything but his scrolls." She drew a breath. "Coram, I'm being nice. Thom wouldn't be this nice. D'you want to see things that aren't there for the next ten years? I can work that, you know. Remember when Cook was going to tell Father who ate the cherry tarts? Or the time Godmother tried to get Father to marry her?"
"In the Hand of the Goddess" covers Alanna's years as a squire, and the growing but covert enmity between herself and Roger. He doesn't act against her directly, but the deaths that keep coming close to her seem to bear his fingerprints. Alanna receives assistance, some of it super-natural, but eventually is forced to take the Duke on alone. Against this background, Alanna must also learn to grow as a woman, despite a necessary dearth of guidance.
The third book, "The Woman Who Rides Like a Man" is the weakest book of the four, though still worth the reading. Alanna, now known to be a woman, has been knighted, but she is not precisely welcome at court. Her travels take her to the southern desert, the land of the Bazhir. (The Bazhir, modelled upon generic pseudo-Arab tribesmen, represent the worst failure of imagination in Pierce's world-building.) First captured and then adopted by a Bazhir tribe, Alanna finds herself in a time, between adventures, during which she must confront her goals and self-identity. Always leery of magic, she is forced to become the tribe's Shaman. Having hard-won her independence, she must deal with numerous claims upon it.
"Lioness Rampant" finishes Alanna's story in high style, as her travels take her on a quest for one of the world's great magical artifacts, and then back home, where all the troubles she'd thought behind her threaten to explode at once.
As I said, if you enjoy well-enough-written juveniles, you'll want to read this one. The converse is also true, though: If you don't care for juvenile fiction, this tetralogy isn't likely to change your mind. (If you're not sure, stop by the children's library and borrow a copy of "Alanna: The First Adventure", or have them get you a copy via inter-library loan.)
Pierce is currently writing another series in the same setting. It is not about Alanna, though she makes brief appearances, and it is not as good as the first series, though I'm enjoying it. The first book in the series, "Wild Magic: The Immortals", came out in hardcover last year, and the next, "Wolf-Speaker", is due this spring.
%A Pierce, Tamora
%S The Song of the Lioness
%T Alanna: The First Adventure
%T In the Hand of the Goddess
%T The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
%T Lioness Rampant
%I The paperbacks are printed by Beaver Books in the UK and by
%I Knopf/Borzoi Sprinter in the US
Dani Zweig email@example.com
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