CBR13Bingo: White Whale
For CBR’s white whale challenge, I’m going way back in the time machine to a book that’s been on my TBR (eventually) list since I was in middle school. Tamora Pierce’s work, especially her Alanna books, were often recommended as a read-alike to Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, which was a hugely formative book for me a kid, mainly I guess because both were books by women starring heroines with swords. For whatever reason, my local library didn’t carry it so I gorged myself on more McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. LeGuin instead. But while reading The Thief for another challenge, this book popped up on the “also read” list, so I decided to finally tackle it. And, well, let’s just say I wish I had read it back then instead of now.
“She would show everyone—including that part of her that was always wondering—that she was as good as any boy in the palace.”
Faced with being sent to a convent to learn magic, Alanna switches places with her twin and goes to learn all the ins and outs of knighthood as “Alan of Trebond,” as girls aren’t permitted to be knights. In other words, it’s a girl-must-dress-a-boy-to-be-a-warrior fantasy book, complete with a vaguely medieval kingdom (with bonus magic! and gods!) and a very transparent villain. While that all sounds pretty basic, back then I’m sure this was absolutely groundbreaking, and, let’s be honest, not a whole lot of books published in the early eighties probably hold up that well. The chivalry stuff in particular rubbed me the wrong way, and that’s not even getting into the whole Bazhir eek-face (which, in all honestly, The Blue Sword suffers from, too). The book also glosses over huge chunks of things in order to fit two year’s worth of training into a small amount of pages. The last chapter especially suffers from this, with a huge battle that’s resolved very quickly and then the book ends without dealing with the aftermath! It almost feels more of a series of vignettes than anything else. The writing itself, though, is superb, and each individual section is full of adventure, even if it’s only defeating a bully.
“Alan, you seem to think we won’t like you unless you do things just like everyone else. Have you ever thought we might like you because you’re different?”
And I absolutely loved Alanna! She’s stubborn and so focused on her goal, but she still has so many doubts about whether she’ll be able to achieve it. I respected her fierce independence while simultaneously wishing she’d let her friends help her for once. And those friendships were seriously the best part of the books! I loved how she navigated her relationships with the other pages, and then, of course, there’s George, who I alternately loved and thought was a stalker creep. Another refreshing bit is that unlike her twin, she’d rather be out practicing in the rain than stuck inside with a book. She’s much more of a doer than a thinker, and not particularly in touch with her emotions, on top of that.
Overall, I think tween me would’ve gobbled this book up with giant heart-eyes. At that age, I had already started to be interested in tech and was keenly aware that, as a girl, I would always be treated differently. Today, though, it feels a bit simplistic and flat, though still a fun read.