The 4 books that make up the Song of the Lioness series are Tamora Pierce’s first exploration of her world of Tortall. A western medieval society with chivalry and magic of many kinds. I read the first book in this series (Alanna) when I was a child and for many years never even realised it had sequels. But it stuck with me over the years and about 10 years ago I found the books again and read them all with new eyes. I come back to them sometimes – particularly at times like now when I’m feeling a bit low and need something light and easy to cheer me up.
Alanna: Her First Adventure
In the first book the young (11) Alanna trades places with her twin brother Thom as he doesn’t want to go and train to be a knight, and instead wants to become a sorcerer. Alanna disguises her identity and goes to the capital city of Tortall to train first as a page, with the aim to become a squire and then a knight.
This first book covers events that happen to Alanna between the ages of 11-15 as she trains as a page. What I always liked about this book is it doesn’t shy away from the issues of being a girl growing up in this environment. Alanna has to learn to bind her breasts, has her first period and freaks out, has to deal with being small and therefore bullied. She also has to come to terms with her own magical gifts to help save lives.
She has the support of the “King of Thieves” George Cooper and his mother who is a healer in dealing with personal issues (so George knows she’s a girl). She also has friends in the palace, in particular she forms a close bond with the heir to the throne Prince Jonathan. Events at the end of the book force Jon into also finding out her sex and the great thing then was it didn’t change his opinion of Alanna.
In the Hand of the Goddess
This book covers Alanna’s life as a Squire – in particular as the personal squire to the Prince – cover her years from 15-18. This book more overtly deals with Alanna learning to be female and also learning to cope with feelings of attraction towards both George and Jon. I loved that it didn’t treat this like a bad thing – once she was of age (16 in this universe) – Alanna eventually makes a conscious choice to start a sexual relationship with Jon. At the same time it doesn’t diminish her abilities as a warrior and she fights in her first war and faces the trials to become a knight. At the end, as a result of exposing an evil influence, her identity as a woman is revealed. But she still becomes a knight
The Woman who Rides like a Man
Alanna left Tortall following her knighthood to allow the scandal to pass and is spending the winter in the desert with the Bazhir (essentially an islamic tribal culture). As a result of events she takes on the role of shaman to a tribe in order to train some young women and their magic gift. They become the first female shaman of the tribe and change comes to the Bazhir. Prince Jonathan follows Alanna to learn the gift of The Voice (a mystical connection between the Bazhir) and makes the assumption that Alanna will marry him.
The great part here is that whilst in book 1 that would have felt like a happy ending Alanna realises she can’t marry Jon – they will fight and she’s not a political match for him. The break up is handled realistically and Alanna travels further to get a break, she ends up helping George with problems with the court of thieves and does start a relationship with him. Again, this is not handled badly – no-one acts like Alanna is a bad person for having these affairs.
Alanna is restless and searches for a great treasure – The Dominion Jewel – which brings power and control to a ruler who wields it wisely. During her journey Alanna teams up with the Shang Dragon Liam Ironarm (the Shang are a warrior society), and meets a deposed princess (Thayet) who is capable of handling herself. Retrieving the jewel after immense hardship and risk Alanna returns to Tortall and is shocked to discover Jon is now King and worse his cousin (who Alanna had killed as a traitor) has been resurrected.
Again here, Alanna has a fun sexual relationship with Liam but realises they’re too far apart for it to work. They break up peaceably and she realises she’s happiest with George who accepts who she is. Of course, that is initially a lot less important than saving the kingdom on Jon’s coronation day but it works out in the end!
Whilst some things may change if written more recently these books are still to be recommended to an audience of 10+ – in particular to girls who want to understand you don’t have to behave a certain way, you can challenge convention, you’re not a bad person if you want to sleep with multiple people before settling down. And you are just as capable as any man if you work hard to achieve your goals.
The areas that could do with change – and I think the author has acknowledged this – is that George does basically kiss Alanna when she can’t stop him (she has her hands full) and she is also only 15 at the time. She does protest this and he later apologises but it can feel a little awkward.
But I’ll always love that it subverts the handsome prince idea – Jon is incredibly attractive but Alanna is like “yep, I like you and want to sleep with you. But if I marry you I’ll probably kill you because you’re arrogant and stubborn and so am I”. I think that’s an important lesson to learn – you can like someone but it doesn’t mean you’re a forever relationship.