It’s been ten years since Alanna the Lioness disguised herself as a boy in order to became the first lady knight in the realm of Tortall, ten years since the king decreed it lawful for women to train to be knights without having to resort to trickery. And Keladry of Mindelan wants to be the first to do so. Ten year old Kel was raised abroad, the child of a diplomat, and has a very different way of looking at the world as a result. Trained in the ways of the Yamani warriors since the age of 6, to her it seems only a natural leap upon returning home to Tortall with her family, that the next step for her is to train as a knight. Unfortunately, since she is the first girl to want to train as a knight since Alanna, the path to knighthood proves to be more stressful than she had imagined. On top of dealing with the rigorous training young pages all must go through, she also has to deal with the scorn that comes with being ‘a woman out of her place,’ as one character so deftly puts it.
This is the third series by Tamora Pierce that I’ve read, after Song of the Lioness and The Immortals. So far, I like this better than Immortals, and it is a more polished text than Alanna as Pierce had been writing for years at this point in her career. The hook in Song of the Lioness was that Alanna was pretending to be a boy and doing something no girl had ever done. Here, everyone knows Kel is a girl, and her biggest challenges come from dealing with the expectations placed upon her by the men in her chosen field: her fellow pages, the older boys (including some bullies), and her training master, just to name a few. I enjoyed Kel as a character, even if she is a bit humorless. She overcomes all the obstacles thrown at her with stubborn integrity, and manages to piece together a loyal group of friends in the process.
There were several appearances from past characters, including the Lioness and Daine and Numair from the Immortals. I love how Pierce is building this world. Continuity with past books makes me so happy, and its evident throughout the entirety of First Test. This isn’t the same Tortall from Alanna. This is a Tortall that is slowly changing, as characters grow up, as political climates shift, and as the immortal world encroaches on the mortal world. Probably my favorite bit of continuity is how all the animals in Corus (capital city where they all live) are gradually getting smarter because of Daine’s influence.
Overall, a really fast, fun, and satisfying read. On to book two.
I’m really enjoying my romp through Tamora Pierce’s third Tortall quartet. I read this one through in one sitting in just a couple of hours, not because of the length, but because I was so engrossed in the world she’s created, and probably more importantly, because I was so invested in what happens to Keladry, her main character.
Page picks up not long after First Test. It’s Kel’s 2nd year training to be a knight, and she’s no longer on probation for being a girl. It would have been really easy for Pierce to keep the conflicts from book one the same, but the conflicts Kel faces grow as she does. Page covers roughly three years of story, speeding through her 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year, allowing Pierce to highlight the important stuff and gloss over the unnecessary. She’s still facing gender prejudice, despite being one of the best in her year (and as an incident involving bandits proves, probably the best at tactics and strategy), and she’s still facing bullies (this series ain’t called Protector of the Small for nothing), but now the bullies aren’t just beating up first years in the halls. They’ve escalated. The most notable adjustment comes with Kel’s age. Not only is her gender always an issue (at least to some), but with the onset of puberty, Pierce adds sex into the mix. Kel is only marginally aware of it at this point, but it’s clear that the boys around her are very aware. This will no doubt lead to trouble in the future.
This isn’t the most complex literature ever written, but it’s just good (in every sense of the word) in a way that a lot of YA lit today isn’t. And now I have to wait for for book three — Squire — to come in from special order from my library, and who knows how long that’s going to take (it’s already been three weeks). It’s either that or pay eight bucks for the paperback or the e-book, and honestly I might have to give in. (Haven’t been able to find it at my local used bookstores, either.)
Funnily enough, Squire follows our heroine, Keladry of Mindelan, through her years as a squire. I know, right? Who’d have guessed. (Spoilers ahoy!)
I’m not sure why I’m being so snarky about this, the book was lovely. At this point in the series, I’m not sure if there’s any more apt of a word to describe Kel than to say she’s ‘steadfast.’ She not only survives her (3-4?) years as a squire — and she squires for no less of a knight than Raoul of Goldenlake, the commander of the King’s Own, protectors of the realm — she thrives. Not to say that she isn’t presented with challenges, because she is. She has to prove to almost every person she encounters that she deserves to be where she’s at. They come at her with derision and violence, and she defeats them by doing nothing more than being herself: a skilled fighter and commander in training with a knack for winning the loyalty of others (be it human, animal, or immortal).
Squire also serves as a sort of pivot point for the series. Kel’s old adversaries either admit defeat (Lord Wyldon finally acknowledges Kel’s worth as a potential knight and resigns) or are defeated, but not always by what you would expect (Joren and Vinson, the bullies from books one and two come back in a grand fashion, only to be defeated by their own unbendable natures — they both die while attempting the final Ordeal that would make them knights, the Chamber of the Ordeal apparently having found them unworthy). But as soon as old adversaries are removed from Kel’s path, new ones begin to show their faces. Scanran raids grow ever more frequent during Kel’s years as a squire until finally they are on the brink of all out war. The appearance of a mysterious, strong, and new mechanical foe on the side of the Scanrans heralds things to come in book four. Kel, newly knighted, will no doubt have a place in those events.
Oh, and also, there be some romance in the mix for the adolescent Kel. I can’t say that I’m all attached to the idea of Cleon and Kel as a romantic pair, but I do like that Pierce is so dedicated to providing Kel with an authentic teenage experience, even as the rest of her life is so different, not only from our experiences in the real world, but from the experiences of girls in her own fictional world.
The final book in the Protector of the Small quartet finds Kel newly knighted and off to her first assignment, a command post nonetheless. The fact that her first assignment makes her a commander makes her more upset than anything else, first because she’s nervous the more experienced knights and soldiers, and even the commoners, will not respect her, and second because commanding a refugee camp means she won’t be out fighting battles and participating in what she initially sees as the more active and worthwhile part of war.
But Kel is the perfect person for this job, and she soon comes to realize it as well. She’s spent her entire career so far championing those who had trouble helping themselves, for whatever reason (hence the title of the quartet), and protecting refugees (and teaching them to fight and protect themselves) is probably the most effective use of her talents Lord Wyldon could have come up with. The book is split into two parts: the establishing of the refugee camp, which Kel calls Haven, and the rescue mission she must launch in order to save those refugees when no one else will.
I really liked this series. Pierce’s style is a bit understated for me to ever LOVE love this, but Kel is a wonderful heroine, and if I ever have a daughter, I’m definitely going to be adding this series to her collection. The way Kel is constantly encountering issues of gender, class, and power and then overcoming them is just really satisfying. I also really liked that the series didn’t end with us finding out who Kel ends up with, because it doesn’t matter. This wasn’t a romance, it was Kel’s coming of age. My only complaint is I’m fast running out of new Tamora Pierce books to read.