Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

These aren’t new books at all, but sometimes I think the reason I read so much fantasy now sort of goes right back to all of those quartets by Tamora Pierce. Tamora Pierce writes young adult fantasy, and for a really long time they were in the form of these four-book quartets that would overlap characters, setting, and story. I think a few years ago she wrote two books in a series instead of four because she had said that Harry Potter kind of really proved that young readers would pick up and read much longer books. It was this model that caused her to reorganize the structure of her novels.

The first quartet, The Song of the Lioness, begins with Alanna: The First Adventure. That book started this binge reading of Tamora Pierce for me that ended twenty-four books later. I started reading them in elementary school and continued right through until high school – whenever a new one came out I’d pick it up, no matter which quartet it was part of or who the characters were, or what world and setting Pierce placed them in. I knew I’d be reading exceptional fantasy, and importantly, exceptional fantasy with a strong female character. I can think of a lot of fantasy books that do have well-written, well-rounded, and engaging female characters – Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Abarat by Clive Barker, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – but there was something in the fact that Pierce writes high fantasy, completely separated from the real world, and she chooses to populate the world that she builds with compelling female characters.

The thing about Alanna, the very first of Pierce’s books that I picked up, is that you’re immediately immersed in the character Alanna’s thoughts and experiences. The choices that she makes are recognizable; even when it seems like she makes the wrong decision, Pierce immerses the reader so fully within Alanna’s way of thinking that at least it is possible to see how she gets there. This is a point that has been brought up frequently with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: sometimes protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes decisions that seem really unwise to just about everyone else around her, however, because Collins spends so much time inside Katniss’ head, it is possible to at least understand the reasoning that leads to a lot of it.

Alanna begins with the protagonist, Alanna, and her twin brother Thom switching places in the fantastical world of Tortall. This allows Alanna to adopt the name “Alan” and travel to court to become a page (and eventually a knight), while Thom is free to go to the City of the Gods to train to be a sorcerer. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins training and quickly makes both friends and enemies at court. Two of her friends are sort of unique in that one is Jonathan, a prince, and the other is George Cooper, the Thief King.

Alanna’s story progresses through four books and follow her progression from page to squire to knight. I can’t help but always come back to the fact that the thing about Alanna is that she really is a strong female character, and it’s impossible not to be completely drawn into this world where she has to pretend to be someone she’s not in order to do the one thing she wants to do, while all the while using the one thing that she keeps like a secret to herself – that she is a girl – to make it happen. Pierce’s world-building is impeccable. Tortall is such a tactile place with it’s own politics, rules, borders, and history. As Pierce continues to write, this place becomes even more fleshed out and brilliant, as new characters provide detail of very specific areas of the kingdom.

These books hooked me on fantasy really early. I’ll go back and read the entire quartet every once in a while, and I’m always fascinated by how the story and characters work so well together. I’m still on the lookout for new Tamora Pierce novels. Twenty-four books in and I’m always so excited for the next one.

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