Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness Quartet, Book #1)
Fantasy / Young Adult
249 pages (paperback)
“From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.”
In a time when girls are forbidden to be warriors, Alanna of Trebond wants nothing more than to be a knight of the realm of Tortall. So she finds a way to switch places with her twin brother, Thom. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins her training as a page at the palace of King Roald. But the road to knighthood, as she discovers, is not an easy one. Alanna must master weapons, combat, and magic, as well as polite behavior, her temper, and even her own heart.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and make her a legend in the land.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Confession: This isn’t the first book I’ve read from the Song Of The Lioness Quartet. After learning about this beloved YA fantasy series about a female knight, I nabbed the first installment I could get a hold of – which turned out to be Lioness Rampant, the finale. (Oops…) But even though I spoiled the ending for myself, I enjoyed the last installment so much that I resolved to read the earlier books. It’s taken me a while, but I finally bought Alanna: The First Adventure earlier this year and squeezed it in during a recent weekend trip. And I’m very glad I did!
First published in 1983, Alanna: The First Adventure chronicles the first two years of Alanna of Trebond’s quest to become a knight. When her father sends her and her twin brother Thom away for separate educations, she switches places with Thom so he can pursue sorcery (the last thing his sister wants to study). Alanna then begins her charade as a boy named Alan and trains as a royal page in Tortall’s capital city of Corus. Achieving her heart’s desire, however, is more challenging than she had dared to imagine. Her time as a page tests her patience and her fear of her own magical powers – and makes it increasingly difficult to maintain her guise. Can Alanna manage it all without sacrificing her dreams or compromising her secret?
Accidentally starting this series with Lioness Rampant gave me a unique perspective on The First Adventure in a way that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. Not only does Alanna’s journey begin here, but a number of characters I liked in Lioness Rampant also make their formal entrance here. We learn how Alanna threatens former knight Coram Smythesson into being her chaperone (one of the book’s funniest scenes!), befriends the royal heir Prince Jonathan, and finds reason to trust George Cooper, the realm’s infamous King of Thieves. And, we witness Alanna’s first interactions with her later arch-nemesis, Duke Roger of Conté. Also, given what I know about Lioness Rampant, The First Adventure sparked my curiosity about how certain characters will change and relationships will evolve from here.
I can’t talk about characters without covering Alanna. Because as much as I love fantasy that teems magic and action (and you’ll find plenty of that here), a well-rounded, believable protagonist needs to reel me in. Pierce aces this with Alanna. This courageous young girl is fiercely determined to reach her goals, good at listening to her instincts, and loyal to her friends. Not to mention a cheeky little thing! Alanna isn’t afraid of speaking her mind, which is often adorable because she views what others deem rude as from-the-heart honesty. This is exactly the kind of heroine that young female readers would want to emulate.
To match her spitfire of a leading lady, Pierce uses a straightforward, sanguine narrative voice that works well with The First Adventure. Her simple (if not scant) descriptions and plain dialogue reflects Alanna’s personality and age (11 to 13 years old). It also offers an atmosphere of innocence, as if Alanna is trying hard to hold onto her childhood despite the destiny she’s embracing. This allows Pierce to handle mature subjects like puberty with delicacy. She portrays Alanna’s repulsion over the changes in her body so accurately, yet without an overload of details. So, not only did I sense Alanna’s mounting terror about being “discovered,” but I also felt like Pierce was describing my own experience – or any other girl’s – with “growing up,” and I appreciate the sensitivity she showed.
The First Adventure doesn’t follow a typical plot or build momentum the way most novels do. It’s more or less a series of adventures, discoveries, and lessons. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Readers witness every phase of Alanna’s training, from her academic studies and fighting techniques, to the friendships she forges with Prince Jonathan, her fellow pages, mentors, and thieves; and experience Alanna’s joys, fears, and frustrations with her. At the same time, this doesn’t give The First Adventure a clear sense of direction. There’s not a lot of tension between characters or external conflict, and no real momentum until the final chapter. So, when the novel ended, I felt like I’d wandered around flat land for a while before reaching a sudden, steep hill. A little anti-climactic, even though the exploration was fun.
Other comments err on the nitpicky side. Pierce’s simplistic approach in The First Adventure doesn’t allow for much world-building, and makes many of the supporting characters seem one-dimensional. She also has a habit of pulling the reader out of Alanna’s perspective and offering insight into another character’s thoughts. In other words, The First Adventure is told from third-person POV with moments of omniscience, and those moments threw me off-balance. In Pierce’s defense, though, The First Adventure was her first published novel. Her writing skills improve dramatically between here and Lioness Rampant, so these hiccups will disappear eventually.
Apart the critiques, Alanna: The First Adventure really was a delightful read. This took me only a couple days to finish, between the short length, smart pacing, and youthful voice. Plus, I feel even more endeared to Alanna now that I’ve “met” her younger self. She might be my go-to example for a devoted, dreamchasing character from now on. I’m even more excited about continuing the Song Of The Lioness Quartet now – and if you haven’t read this classic series yet and love action-packed YA fantasies with female protagonists, you ought to try it, too. Except don’t do what I did. Make sure you start properly at the beginning, with this book. 😉
Have you read Alanna: The First Adventure? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.