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She’s a Man, Baby!

Do you have what it takes to be a Knight of Tortall? Find out how to (wo)man up in Tamora Pierce's Alanna: The First Adventure.

She’s a Man, Baby!

BOOK REPORT for Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness Quartet #1) by Tamora Pierce

Cover Story: Legit Fantasy
BFF Charm: Heck Yes
Swoonworthy Scale: 1
Talky Talk: Straightforward Storyteller
Bonus Factors: Magic, Cross-Dressing, Coach Taylor Award, Series Starter
Relationship Status: BFFs 4 Life

Cover Story: Legit Fantasy

The above image is not the original cover I grew up with, but it seems to be the current version on Ms. Pierce's official site. It makes the book seem like an equestrian lover's handbook, whereas the one below tells you that what's inside these pages is pure fantasy.

Stylized cartoonish cover? Check. Girl and her horse? Check. Magical glowing auras? Check. Requisite fantasy cheesiness? Check!

You’re definitely not going to look at this book and mistake it for, say, a contemporary romance. This is straight up fantasy through and through and it is not ashamed of that in the slightest. As you can see, there have been multiple cover versions over the years, but I vastly prefer the one above to the darker nouveau version below:

Yeesh. This picture leads me to believe Alanna is sitting in a meadow sharpening her blade while contemplating the best way to flay my skin from my bones for her afternoon snack. And, hello, Moonlight the horse was clearly described as golden with a white mane!

The Deal:

Twins Alanna and Thom of Trebond are being shipped off by their neglectful father to locations they’d rather not go--a convent and the capital--where they will learn to be a lady and a knight, respectively. This does not sit well for either of them, as Thom longs to be a scholar and sorcerer and Alanna dreams of one day being a Lady Knight. So they do what any sane twin siblings do: they pull a switcheroo!

While Thom rides off in a skirt, Alanna--now Alan--ventures on to Corus and begins the eight-year-long process of becoming a knight. This first book chronicles Alanna’s first four years as a page, where she must learn to be faster, smarter, and tougher than the other boys due to her smaller stature. Along the way, Alanna makes friends with some influential people--like his Highness, Prince Jonathan, and King of the Thieves, George--as well as some deadly enemies.

BFF Charm: Heck Yes

Okay, let’s be honest: If this were real life, I would probably be uber intimidated by Alanna. Girl does not play around--her life consists of studying, training, fighting, and chores, rinse and repeat. She’s got a goal and she is dedicated to her dream, and I am nothing if not quite lazy from time to time.

But when Alanna does get to relax, she does so with a group of friends who appreciate her for her loyalty, bravery, stubbornness, and sense of right and wrong. I’m pretty sure I would be perpetually amused as Alanna’s friend because she is constantly sticking her foot in her mouth, but secretly I would be glad that she is asking the tough questions we’re all thinking. I would be honored to be a member of Alanna’s inner circle, and not only because she could kick a little ass when the time came.

Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Considering Alanna spends most of her time dressed up as a boy, this is not the book that will set your panties aflame. Alanna begins the book at age eleven and ends it close to her fourteenth birthday, and right now she is not even thinking about cute boys or kissing.

But lest you despair, keep in mind that we’ve got three more books to go, and Alanna is positively surrounded by good-looking men... 

Talky Talk: Straightforward Storyteller

This series was originally imagined by Pierce as a one standalone adult novel until her publishers persuaded her to adapt it to a YA series. This first book is fairly short and easy to breeze through, and does feel like a good bit of setup for the action to come. Alanna starts off as a young girl and Pierce’s writing mimics this age with a simplistic storytelling that grows steadily more detailed as Alanna herself becomes more aware of the world around her.

Pierce introduces us to the rich setting of Tortall, but only teases us with the beginnings of what will become a very well-thought-out fantasy-land that has spawned more than a dozen books over multiple series. This is not her strongest, most nuanced work by far, but, hey, everyone has to start somewhere, and the entire series payoff is well worth it.

Bonus Factor: Magic

What would a fantasy book be without some good, old fashioned magic? In Tortall, it comes in the form of The Gift--you’re either born with it, or you’re not, and just like a muscle you must practice and hone your craft to be any good. Some are granted the ability to speak with the Gods and Goddesses, others with the ability to see the future, and others become hedge-witches or healers.

Alanna is Gifted with the ability to heal people, but she is afraid of her power and usually tries to keep it hidden. Magic is not without its limits in this world, but it also has some awesome practical applications, too, like a charmed necklace that prevents pregnancy. (Why couldn’t it be that easy in real life??)

Bonus Factor: Cross-Dressing

In the vein of Shakespeare and Mulan, Alanna takes over her brother’s life and crafts a brand new identity for herself as scrappy young Alan of Trebond. Close calls, growing breasts, and awkward swimming scenarios abound, and I, for one, never tire of a good cross-dressing plot.

Bonus Factor: Coach Taylor Award

Alanna’s mother died in childbirth and her father has his head buried so far in his work that when he receives updates about Alanna’s time as a page he doesn’t even realize that he doesn’t HAVE a son named Alan. Sooo it’s safe to say that Alanna grew up a bit wild.

Despite her crappy parentage, Alanna has some great people around her that are invested in her well-being. She ends up finding a surrogate father-figure in an impudent drunk of a knight, Sir Myles, who takes Alanna under his wing and teaches her about history and the game of chess, and she also has in her corner the crotchety devotion of her man-servant, Coram, who is the only person in Corus who knows she’s actually a girl.

Bonus Factor: Series Starter


I know this is usually considered an anti-bonus factor, but the plus side about reading slightly older books is there is virtually no wait for the next installment! I, for one, am super glad that this IS a series, because we only stand to learn even more about Alanna and her friends. What Alanna craves more than anything is the chance to be her own woman and have amazing adventures. And, really, doesn’t everyone want that?

Casting Call:

A young Gwendoline Christie as Alanna

Just give her red hair and purple eyes and subtract about 25 years and I could totally see Ms. Christie having the androgynous look Alanna needs to be a young ‘male’ page. The desire to prove herself worthy and the fierceness she portrays as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones would be perfect for Alanna.

Zach Gilford as George

George is described as having a slightly too large nose for good looks, but when he turns on that beautiful smile you can’t deny he’s handsome. And who can resist that smile above?

Tyler Hoechlin as Jonathan

Swap out some bright baby blues for those hazel eyes and Tyler would be a perfect Jonathan. Doesn’t that face just radiate ‘I will one day be a strong and capable leader with an excellent beard’?

Ed Quinn as Duke Roger of Comte

As Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger also has dark good looks and a smile that oozes charm. Maybe a little too much charm...

Relationship Status: BFFs 4 Life

Book, we’ve been through a lot together over the years. We met when we were young and had some fantastic adventures. I still look back on our time fondly, and while I may prefer your older siblings now because of the deeper relationship we share, I cannot deny that this is where a mutual affection that has spanned decades began. You introduced me to a wonderful world I wish I could fall into again and again, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of this book years ago. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. Alanna: The First Adventure is available now.

Stephanie Johnston's photo About the Author: Stephanie is an avid reader who moonlights as a college Educational Advisor. Though she now calls Orlando home, she grew up all over the U.S. Aside from her obsession with YA books and book-related activities, Stephanie loves watching way too much television, reading organizational/DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.