Cover of First Test: Kel standing by a river holding a kitten with sparrows on her shoulder

About the Book

Title: First Test (Protector Of The Small #1)
Published: 1999
Series: Protector Of The Small
Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Cover Story: Selfie With A Castle
BFF Charm: Yay
Talky Talk: Take Two
Bonus Factors: Sparrows, Glaives
Anti-Bonus Factor: Bullies
Relationship Status: Sparring Partners

Caution: This is the third series set in the fictional world of Tortall. While it could be read as a standalone, the series does contain some spoilers for how the previous books ended. In addition, Kel’s story will be a lot richer and more rewarding if you start from the beginning

Cover Story: Selfie With A Castle

The kitten and the sparrows have relevance to the story, but aside from that, this cover looks like Kel was taking a walk alongside the river and decided to snap a selfie with the castle in the background so she could show her family where she works and lives.

The Deal:

It’s been more than a decade since Lady Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop snuck her way to a knighthood by passing herself as her male sibling during her training, and years since King Jonathan decreed that any Tortallan female has the right to do so without subterfuge. Yet no female has ever taken him up on that offer…until Keladry of Mindelan. Raised by her ambassador parents on an island nation far from Tortall, Kel received training unique to the Yamani people, who expect women to know how to defend themselves.

But although people like Alanna are over the moon that Kel wishes to join the ranks of the pages, Lord Wyldon, the stodgy training master, has his doubts. He imposes a one-year probationary period on Kel with the implication at that she will leave if she cannot keep up. Kel is annoyed that such a restriction has been placed on her and no one else, but she’s determined to prove everyone wrong. Of course, the path to knighthood is everything and nothing like Kel thought it would be, complete with bullies, stubborn horses, demanding papers, and exhausting workouts. But if she can just make it through the next seven years, she can become more than she could have ever dreamed.

BFF Charm: Yay

Yay BFF Charm

Kel is a good egg. She’s disciplined, honorable, and has a practical streak to rival Daine’s. She’s got a lot of emotions swirling around under the surface of her “stone” face, but she’s been trained in the Yamani way, where showing overt or extreme emotions is seen as distasteful and shameful. Lucky for us, though, we get to be in her head, so we know she’s not “The Lump” the other pages think she is. (Geez, kids can be so cruel).

Unlike Alanna, Kel has a cooler head and knows when to play the system and when to rock it, like when she wears dresses to dinner to not-so-subtly remind everyone that she is female, hear her roar. Kel’s biggest fault is probably that she’s too willing to step up for other people. She gets herself into some sticky situations when she goes to defend her fellow pages’ honor (and because those pages are all boys, they are less than thankful that they just got “saved by a girl” because there are very few feminist men in Tortall). Being that I have zero fighting ability, it’d be useful to have a friend like Kel on my side in a scrape; and, because she has such a good heart, I know she’d come to my defense no matter what.

Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Kel is only 10/11 throughout this book, and even though she’s a lone girl amongst a bunch of prepubescent boys, they’re all so intent on making it through their training that no one has time for crushes (well, except Neal).

Talky Talk: Take Two

This book is what I feel Alanna: The First Adventure could’ve been if it was written just a few years later, after YA became so fetch (let’s make “fetch” happen!). Instead of compressing the first few years of training into a few dizzyingly quick chapters, Kel’s story gets a chance to stretch its legs and breath, and really highlight the time and dedication it takes to become a knight of the realm.

I felt like the pacing of the story evokes the feeling of watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione putter about Hogwarts learning magic; we see Kel and her friends go through sword and pole exercises, study law and customs and argue about war strategy, and participate in a tactical nightmare against spidrens (the disgusting half-spider, half-human immortals that popped up in during Daine’s series).

It’s one of those novels that in summary sounds kind of boring, but in practice is a fascinating look at the type of person who knowingly and willingly gives up their childhood for a chance to serve their king. Also, Tamora Pierce has said that she based Kel and her experiences/actions on accounts she read from first women who joined military schools like Annapolis, West Point, and the Citadel, and that’s pretty awesome.

Bonus Factor: Sparrows

A sparrow sitting on a tree branch

Due to the proximity of Daine and her wild magic, all of the animals that live around the castle grounds are a little…different. Kel befriends a group of sparrows that live in the tree outside her dorm, and their loyalty and smarts make me want to make some feathered friends.

Bonus Factor: Glaives

Glaive weapon (staff with a blade on the end) on a white background

Kel grew up learning how to use a glaive—a long staff with a blade on the end—because it is the female Yamanis’ weapon of choice. Of course, the knights of Tortall don’t use such a weapon, but that doesn’t mean that Kel can’t use her kick-ass glaive skills to put some boys to shame during staff and sword training. If I had to pick up a medieval weapon, this honestly sounds like the best of both worlds: stick ’em with the pointy end without getting too close.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Bullies

A group of girls surround another girl by her locker and pick at her sweater with mean looks on their faces

Kel is surrounded by some classic chauvanists, but there are a few boys, one in particular, who cross the line into truly cruel (though I cackle when Kel turns the whole lance debacle against them). Part of what makes Kel such a wonderful person is that she weighs her conscience and her honor against the unspoken rules of “follow along and keep your mouth shut” and determines that she would be no knight at all if she didn’t stand up for what she believes is right.   

Relationship Status: Sparring Partners

Do you need someone to study with, Book? Or run your jousting drills with? I can’t promise I’ll be any good at swordplay, but you’ve been such a good friend to me, I’ll gladly return the favor in any way I can.

FTC Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of this book. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. First Test is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.