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When my friend gave me her copies of The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce, it came with a lot of hype. I was promised strong women and interesting takes on relationships and decently respectful treatment of what is basically Middle Eastern culture, especially since it was written in the 80s. I was promised quick but enjoyable reads, and when I opened to the first page I found this:
I didn’t pick up the book for about a week, because of that. I was too nervous. I have a longstanding ambivalence toward high-fantasy. I know that sentence will make many of you close this tab and I’m sorry, but not all of us have your strength. When I was a child, my poor mother tried her best to introduce me to the medieval-ish adventures she loved so much, like The Hobbit or the Narnia books, but I was not having it. If there were maps or battles on horseback or any sort of complicated family trees I was just bored to tears. To this day I just politely nod and change the subject every time my fiance tries to sell me on A Song of Ice and Fire. Sorry dude, it’ll never happen, give this ring to someone who cares about Star Wars.
This is all to say: I was shocked to discover I loved these books and am crying for my 11-year-old self who never got to read them.
For those who don’t know, the series is about a girl named Alanna who wants to be a knight, so she disguises herself as a boy and switches places with her twin brother. Thus he gets sent to learn how to be a wizard (God, Alanna, why don’t you want to be a wizard) and she goes off to learn knightly stuff. Based on that, I expected the book to be about three things.
1. Binding her boobs
2. Hiding her period
3. Dealing with the aftermath when, inevitably, she’s found out
Rest assured, these things do happen, but I can never get them out of my head even when they’re not happening. Sure, we see the first time she gets her period and thinks she’s been injured because no one explained it to her, but every subsequent time what, she just walks with an armful of bloody linens to the castle laundry room? And she just doesn’t…take off her clothes ever? She’s living with teenage boys! It’s just a concentrated locker room! All of this subterfuge seems a hundred times harder than learning to carry a shield or whatever. A friend has argued that the “pregnancy charm” she gets to keep her from getting pregnant would also stop her period, but I need more proof.
Alanna also has this thing called the Gift, which is basically a knack for magic. She hates it, but it’s one of those great power=great responsibility things where she has to learn to use it for good and healing, otherwise the gods will be angry. And ok, Alanna, I’ve read Harry Potter, I know that having magic can be a scary burden sometimes, but maybe forget about that for a day because you can make fire with your fucking hands. For once I just want to read a book about a wizard who spends all her time going “THIS IS THE COOLEST!”
There are a few things that struck me about this book (though with my limited knowledge of YA fantasy literature I don’t know if these are just common things). First, and I think the reason I wish I had this was when I was a kid, is she is not just a tomboy. Most books about tomboys I read were basically books with male protagonists who at some point had long hair/kept proclaiming their hatred of dresses. Alanna is a knight and a fighter, but she is still a girl. She spends what free time she has during her training with her friend George’s mom (more on George later, because SWOON), wearing dresses and learning to do womanly things, because she realizes she enjoys them as much as she enjoys doing manly things. Later, when she lives in the desert with the Bazhir, she tries to learn weaving, and is relieved to be able to actually live as a woman.
I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming there are many, many girls out there for whom this was the case. Girls who liked playing sports and building with LEGOs, and who also liked painting with glitter paint and having tea parties. Girls who are, you know, people with varied interests. Pierce explores how having ambition does not mean ignoring everything else that comes with life. You can carry a sword and go on adventures, and also stop to wear a dress and make tea sometimes. Being a knight is Alanna’s job and her passion, but it’s not everything about her.
The flip side to this is Pierce’s treatment of sex and relationships, which are explored realistically without them ever becoming the only plot points. Her three lovers are real characters outside of their relationships with her, their relationships develop naturally, and most people are surprisingly mature when they end. And when they end, Pierce lets Alanna cry. She doesn’t sob in bed for days, but she doesn’t bottle it in either. She reacts like a human. I’m sad that I found this so surprising.
(Sidenote: Most books I read taking place in vaguely medieval fantasy worlds are romance novels, so I kept wanting there to be full-blown sex scenes. You literally have a bodice to rip, Alanna, can we please get some details?)
Anyway, throughout the series Alanna shacks up with Jonathan, George, and Liam. However, the order of awesomeness is: George, Jon, Liam. You wanna fight about it? Okay, let’s go. First off, there’s Jon, the knight who makes Alanna his squire. Yes, he has pretty blue eyes, but he is a king who needs a queen to stay put and have babies. And then makes Alanna feel like shit when she stands up to him and says she’s not into that.
Then there’s Liam, the Shang fighter (“warriors from birth” sorta thing) Alanna meets while on her travels in the fourth book. The first description we get of Liam is of all his physical attributes, which include pockmarks and a bushy mustache, and then insisting Alanna was attracted to him. Pierce basically could have written “he looked like a giant, poorly shucked ear of corn. But you know, hot.” I just don’t get it. Are any of you out there attracted to Liam?
Alanna is obsessed the moment she finds out he’s a Shang warrior, because she wants to learn their style of fighting, and to his credit he travels with her and helps her train every morning. But he calls her “Kitten” from the get-go, which, she is a fucking Lioness so just don’t. He also is afraid of her Gift, and gives her this whole guilt trip about how using magic is cheating, when he’s the one who had eyes that change color according to his mood. He has mood eyes! Is this a deeper thing where he is also a wizard but ashamed and takes it out on Alanna? Whatever, she deserves better.
Which is how we get to George. George is perfect. The one flaw I thought he had was that for the first three books I was convinced he was about 35. He is the “King of the Thieves,” which you get to be by killing the last King of Thieves, but I kind of thought he maybe had to be an apprentice for a while or something? You know, work his way up, which takes time. But then someone corrected me and said he’s only maybe four years older than Alanna, so that’s just fine.
George is Alanna’s best friend. He teaches her to fight with knives, he makes her laugh, he watches out for her without thinking he needs to save her. He knows she needs to wander and never tries to hold her back, or makes her feel guilty about being with other men, or about her being far more powerful and famous than him. His mother teaches Alanna how to dress like a woman, but he fell in love with her when she was dressing like a man. He’s just perfect, okay?
There is a reason I gush over the relationships and character development in these books. It’s because, no matter how hard I tried, I just could not care about the action. Alanna and Jonathan defeat evil gods in the Black City and I can barely tell what’s going on. Alanna kills a powerful wizard trying to take over the throne, recovers something called the Dominion Jewel from an elemental, and then defeats the same wizard again after he is raised from the dead (thanks to her brother) and I felt like I was racing through to see the small moments when she learns to deal with her feelings.
This is my ambivalence showing through, or maybe it’s just impossible to write an interesting fight scene, or maybe I just don’t know the difference between sword-fighting moves so I always felt lost. Still, whenever I gleefully described this book to my fiance, it was always about how much of a complete character Alanna is (or how bad she is at naming things, because seriously, Faithful is a shitty name for a god-cat).
Now that my fantasy bubble has been broken, I’m starting to question myself. Should I try Tolkien again? Would I enjoy all those Redwall books my mom slipped into my bookshelf? Should I dive into my fiance’s collection of Star Wars novels? He really wants me to. Please make him stop.