Everyone has that book. The book which taught you life lessons, the book which kept you company like an old friend on those rainy afternoons. The comfort book you come back to at least once a year because it feels like home.
For me, that book starts with Alanna: The First Adventure, and the beginning of the legendary Song of the Lioness quartet. These four books defined my childhood, and not only inspired my own writing, but many other young adult authors who credit Tamora Pierce as the queen of YA fantasy. I first discovered Alanna when hiding in the library at school. I was enthralled by these stories of a girl who disguised herself as a boy to train and become a knight.
A slip from my school library telling me off for basically stealing these books…
The first book was released the year before I was born. Back then, young adult fantasy needed to be around the 200 page mark in order to sell. It was thanks to J. K. Rowling and the success of the Harry Potter series that YA has grown, both in size and sales, allowing Tamora Pierce the space and word count to evolve her collection of books set in the fantasy world of Tortall. The first book is short enough to read within a few hours. In fact, put the tea on, and you’ll be able to get through all four books within an afternoon.
Each book is written from Alanna’s point of view in third person, and don’t feature the same complex world building, fast paced action, and in-depth character development you may expect from modern YA fantasy novels, but they still make for a thrilling read. Many of the core themes, including feminism, the fight against bullying and injustice, and Alanna herself as a strong female character in charge of her own destiny, have paved the way for modern YA fantasy novels featuring female protagonists. Whenever I read a YA fantasy story now, I can see the threads which link back to Tamora Pierce. For that reason alone, reading The Song of the Lioness is an important history lesson in young adult fantasy.
The world that Tamora Pierce wove is full of swords and sorcery. Whilst The Song of the Lioness books do feel a tad generic with its knight school inspired by European medieval chivalry, Tamora Pierce develops the world, culture, lore, creatures, and magic into something utterly unique with each subsequent series. You could say the Alanna books were the foundation. Not just for this amazingly rich world, but also for Tamora Pierce as an author, as her writing style naturally grows and improves.
I would recommend The Song of the Lioness to both seasoned YA fantasy readers and those new to the genre, especially girls at the younger age of the YA age bracket. Like the Harry Potter books, each book in the quartet is based on a time within Alanna’s life and we grow up with her as a character.
My first copy!
The first book introduces us to the young Alanna and her twin brother Thom who swap places so that Alanna can head to the capital city to train as a page and Thom can study magic. The story focusses on Alanna’s desire to become a knight and her struggles and challenges as she pretends to be a boy in a court full of taller, stronger boys, including the prince himself. The main conflict here is Alanna’s rivalry against a bully and also the need to prove herself just as good as any boy.
The second book, In the Hand of the Goddess, brings in more magical elements such as mysterious goddesses and a talking cat companion. Alanna is an older teen here acting as a squire to the prince, and so the story becomes more high-stakes. There is some blossoming romance between Alanna and Prince Jonathan, as well as the roguish thief George Cooper. Alanna’s goal remains resolute; to take the final test and become a lady knight, but she also has a new rival in the form of Duke Roger, the prince’s charismatic cousin, who she suspects may be a threat. In the Hand of the Goddess is my favourite of the four books, as the action really picks up, along with a dash of romance, and Alanna’s story comes to ahead.
Of course, Alanna’s journey doesn’t end there. Our freshly knighted heroine leaves the capital on her own adventure and finds herself caught up with the affairs of a desert tribe in The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. This is a much slowly paced book compared to the first two in my opinion as the story takes a back seat from Alanna’s knighthood to focus on Alanna’s magical abilities and her call to lead a group of magical apprentices who need her. It continues with the strong feminist themes as Alanna’s new peers aren’t overly accepting of a woman knight. The romance develops further here, and takes a more realistic approach as Alanna decides for herself what kind of future she wants.
The last book, Lioness Rampant, is the largest of the four and, as you may expect, it goes out in explosive action. The first half of the book sees Alanna travel across the world on an adventure to claim a powerful jewel. It’s the adventure that Alanna, and the reader, wanted to go on from the start. Along the way, Alanna meets a new love interest with a different perspective on what it means to be a warrior, and also makes new friends in the guise of a strong princess and her bodyguard. The second half of the book brings us back to the castle where Alanna received her knighthood to discover her old enemy has returned. The story takes a few dark turns, and not every character survives the climatic battle.
And in true YA fashion, the series ends with Alanna choosing the right love interest, and I will fight anyone who disagrees 😉
The Song of the Lioness quartet has been re-released with many different book covers in many languages across the world, but I’m in love with the more recent covers. Compare these to the edition that I own above:
Aren’t they gorgeous?
You can get a copy of these from your bookstore. They’re also available in eBook format, whereas some of Tamora Pierce’s older works are not. And if you love these books as much as I do, the world of Tortall continues with Daine, a wild magic user in The Immortals Quartet set in the not-so distant future, followed by The Protector of the Small Quartet which features another girl who follows in Alanna’s footsteps to become the first real lady knight earning her shield. All of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series feature cameos from The Song of the Lioness and expands on favourites such as Alanna, Prince Jon, George, Raoul, and introduce Alanna’s future children.
If you’ve read any of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, but somehow missed Alanna’s adventures, this fall is a great time to put on some tea and save an afternoon for the story which started it all.