So, my library was having a new front door installed, so everyone had to temporarily enter through the basement door, which is where the bargain sale books are. So, despite having *two* stacks of unread books at home, I bought some. One of them was Tamora Pierce’s First Test, which takes place in the “medieval and fantastic realm of Tortall.” I loved these books when I was younger, so I forked over my $0.25 for a bit of nostalgia. The King’s Champion Alanna the Lioness is in here, and handsome King Jonathan, and magic and knights and Immortal creatures and all sorts of things. (I often get this series confused with Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series. I read both growing up. They are different. But I feel like they could exist together!) After I read the first one, of course I had to read the rest of the quartet!
Ten years after Alanna the Lioness, the first Lady Knight, got her spurs, a young lady is finally taking up the offer of letting girls train to become knights (properly, this time!) Keladry of Mindelan, or Kel, a ten-year-old girl, is going to go through the trials and struggles to achieve her dream of becoming a knight. Her training master, Lord Wyldon, is against girls becoming knights, for some reason, and puts her on probation for one year in order to deter her and see if she will give up or fail. But Kel is made of sturdy stuff (and there are three more books in the series.) She makes some friends, including Neal, an older boy in her year who started late due to switching from learning the healing arts, and Cleon, one of the older pages. Also in their group is Prince Roald, as well as Merric, Seaver, Faleron, and Esmond. She also gains the friendship of a bunch of sparrows, who are awesome, and Salma, head of the servants.
Lord Wyldon is not her only problem. There are a group of bullies, led by the pretty-boy Joren, who is a little shit. Kel is having none of that nonsense, and tries to put a stop to the bullying while taking the punishments and beatings like a champ. “You can laugh and say I’m a silly girl – but when I see anyone big pick on someone small, well, there’s going to be a fight.” (167)
What helps Kel get through the constant fights and struggles is her time spent in the Yamani Islands, where showing emotion was a weakness. (Hey, they’re like Vulcans!) Her training there helps Kel keep her temper and follow orders, which some of the other boys have trouble doing. Kel is a thoughtful girl who tries to think before she acts, and cannot let an injustice pass. She never gives up. She does have a rather large weakness in the form of a debilitating fear of heights, which will continue to be a theme through the series. But her kindness and general non-assholeness endear her to all who get to know her (with the exception of those who are bent on hating her, but they suck.)
One thing that strikes me is the difference between children in this story (and probably the past) and our current society. These ten year-olds are put through grueling tasks and training that no modern kid could even comprehend. They train with horses, lances, swords, staves, bows and arrows, survival skills, and all on top of their classwork. Today’s ten-year-olds whine if they have to write a five paragraph essay! The children in this series are *gasp* held accountable for their actions! If they are late, they are punished with physical labor. If an assignment is not done, they have triple the work to hand in next class!
This book takes us through the next three years of Kel’s pagedom. She gains some new friends, although she keeps her old enemies. The big changes in her entourage include the dog Jump and her maid, Lalasa. Lalasa starts out very timid and scared, but eventually she gets used to her position and becomes a friend to Kel. Lalasa also helps Kel with the changes her body has decided to start making, all without her permission! Lord Wyldon assigns tasks to Kel that will supposedly help her get over her fear of heights. There is a battle at the end of her second year, and her third seems fairly quiet, with the Big Drama happening at the end of her fourth and final year as a page, right before the big test. Without making a big deal about it, Wyldon and the other teachers keep adding difficulty levels to Kel’s training, often before the other boys. She is so determined to succeed that she barely notices, and can’t see that they are forcing her to prove herself so that she can make it.
We hear so much about this big test, and there’s a giant lead up to it. Shenanigans happen to prevent Kel from taking the test on time, but there’s drama involved. It’s the climax of the book, and part of the urgency is the fact that she’s choosing to do what she sees as her duty and the right thing instead of ignoring it and taking the test. Awesome! The thing I can’t stand is the fact that we don’t get to see said big test. After the drama, we get some old dude saying that she can take it in two days due to the circumstances, and in the next paragraph she’s already passed the test. I would think this giant benchmark test would get a chapter, or at least a page! Nope, nothing.
Kel is chosen by Sir Raoul, Knight Commander of the King’s Own, to be his squire. One of her biggest fears was that she would be chosen by a knight who no longer went into the field and did paperwork and research all day. Nope, she’s going to be in the thick of it! There’s a brief sadness when her best friend (and crush) Neal is chosen by Alanna the Lioness, Kel’s hero. Kel really wanted to be with Alanna, but Alanna was forbidden to have contact with Kel in case she should be accused of favoritism or helping her via magic.
Squire Kel goes off with the King’s Own and does squire stuff. She acquires a baby griffin, which kind of sucks for her because baby griffins are ungrateful little shits who bite and scratch and wreak havoc. Kel is the only one who can care for it, because otherwise its parents will go after whoever touches it, hopefully except for her. Prince Roald’s intended bride from the Yamani Islands shows up, and it turns out that she knows Kel from her childhood. Yay friends!
Kel sees injustice and tries to fix it, or goes to the people who can, and in doing so she realizes that there is a lot she does not know, especially about politics. As the royal family goes on a Grand Tour to show off Roald’s new prospective bride, there are tournaments that go on in the camps. We get to see Raoul joust as well as Kel. It’s kind of like A Knight’s Tale, and I love that movie!
We also see Kel struggling with her newfound feelings for boys, or rather, men. She has strong feelings for Cleon, but she gets fluttery feelings every time she looks at Dom, one of her compatriots in the King’s Own. He’s very pretty, and the cousin of her friend and former crush Neal. But Kel knows she’s not ready to settle down yet – she has her shield to earn, and work to do. And on top of that, Cleon is betrothed. She gets some very practical advice from her mother, which is basically “have fun if you want, and you know how to prevent babies if you don’t want them yet!” Since she’s not after a noble husband, she doesn’t have to follow their dumb rules.
We also get to see the Chamber of the Ordeal. In order to become a knight, one must enter the chamber and not speak until they come out. Unlike the other ‘big tests,’ we get to see this one. Kel has been going to the room throughout the years and placed her hand on the door and received visions in return. This is the final test, and not everyone passes. Those who fail usually don’t live too long, so everyone is usually terrified. I was not too impressed with Kel’s time in the Chamber. It is creepy AF though. It also acts weird and gives her a task.
So, Kel is a knight now. Yay! (Like the title of the book didn’t give it away.) There’s trouble on the border, so she is sent up there. Before she goes, she decides to enter the Chamber of the Ordeal again, to learn more of her task. No one has ever entered the Chamber a second time, but she is allowed to speak in and of the second time if she wishes. The Chamber is still creepy AF. There’s a face, and it talks to her. It shows her the man who is making devastating killing machines for the enemy that are powered by the spirits of children. She learns his name and that of his second.
So Kel is chomping at the bit to go north, and luckily that’s where she is sent. On the way north, she encounters a young boy being abused in a stable of an inn. She will stand for none of that nonsense, because she can’t let an injustice slide. So she buys his indenturement from the innkeeper. The boy Tobe has a touch of horse magic, and proves to be a vital part of Kel’s ever growing family.
Instead of being sent to the front lines to fight, she is given the command of a refugee camp. She’s a little pissed off about it, because she’s stuck babysitting instead of going after the enemy. She is promised fighting, though, because the enemy will come to her, and she has to defend the camp and its inhabitants. She knows that she has to obey orders and that she is best suited for the job out of who is available, but she is still young and is unsure if she can successfully take command. She is committed to doing the best she can, and she has been trained well in command by Sir Raoul.
Kel really is suited to command the refugee camp. She sees everyone as individuals, and she is compassionate and fair. People go to her with their problems, and she listens to them. She also trains them to survive and fight. She doesn’t act all high and mighty like other commanders, and works chore shifts amongst her people like everyone else. Kel is only 18, and her struggles with obeying orders she does not understand or agree with and the pressure and responsibilities of command take their toll. She starts out with a lot of her friends, but many of them have to leave to go fight, including the pretty Dom. “I’m going to miss looking at him, she thought. And I’m going to miss his support.” Eventually we get to the Big Drama, and Kel once again has to decide between what is right and what is easy. No surprise as to what she chooses.
This final book of the quartet is longer than the others, and it has more details. We still get some of the abrupt transitions that occurred in the previous three books, but not as many. We get to see Kel and her friends grow up, although Kel always seemed a bit more mature than her friends. But she is a strong female character with flaws. Her flaws are not that bad, however, so she does seem a bit more perfect than she could be. Her fear of heights she eventually gets over, but her inability to let an injustice go can be seen as a strength or a weakness in some circumstances. She has strong principles and beliefs and sticks to them, even to the detriment of her overall goals. I would (and have) recommend this series to both girls and boys who enjoy fantasy and knights. The themes of chivalry and fairness are present throughout, and the romance bits are only really in the third book, and even then they are not the main focus.