Welcome to our discussion for Alanna: the First Adventure! Today we have a special guest joining us, the wonderful Aussie scifi/fantasy author Andrea K. Höst, author of the Touchstone trilogy and a Midnight Garden favorite, And All the Stars.
Our backgrounds: Wendy has never read this before, but both Layla and Andrea have. This series seems beloved by most fantasy fans, so it seemed like a great selection for our classics series.
*As always, please be aware there will be spoilers if you haven’t read this book yet.
Andrea: Glad to be here! And it’s a great excuse to refresh my memory: I read the Alanna series a long time ago – long enough that I’ve forgotten most of it (except some vague memories of not going swimming). It’s a book on the younger end (main character goes from eleven to thirteen).
Wendy: I was surprised to find how young Alanna was as the story began, and as we discussed briefly on Twitter, this first book reads like very young YA or even upper MG. I liked the plot very much (hello, secret girl knight in training!), but at times the transitions between scenes were a bit abrupt and episodic. And there are a lot of things that happen that just…happen, sometimes with very little explanation or back story, or just accepted because “Oh, it’s magick.” The world-building also doesn’t feel solidly real, facts and are suddenly related within a scene as just before you need the background info.
Andrea: I agree that this is more a series of events rather than a single coherent plot – though I don’t necessarily dislike that kind of story. If it keeps me entertained and wanting to find out what happens next, I’m not going to insist on a traditional rising-action-climax-denouement structure.
Wendy: Oh, I don’t mind episodic books, either–some of my favorite children’s books are nothing but that. I just wish the transitions felt a bit more polished. But I very much enjoyed the descriptions of Alanna trying to control her magic. The parts in which she forces powerful elements to her will, in both the battle scenes and the healing ones, were some of the most exciting.
Layla: Hiiiii Andrea! Thanks for joining our chat today! I first read the Alanna stories when I was eleven-ish or so and I looooooooved them. (Of course, as a Catholic school-girl, I also thought they were super sinful, but that’s another story altogether.) Anyway, I think the first book is not the series’ strongest – in a lot of ways, it’s setting the stage for the next three books, which become more interesting and complex, although tbh, I haven’t read them in over fifteen years so this may be totally wrong. I think part of this is because – if I’m remembering correctly, I think the series was initially written as one book? And Pierce was asked to separate it into a series. For me, at least, the feeling of – “hey, the story just seems to drop off here, why?” – seemed particularly strong this read-along. Also, I realized that I need to apologize and that my favorite character, MAGIC CAT, does not make an appearance until the next book or so.
Andrea: Magic cats improve all books. I agree that we’re just setting up here (fascinating to picture this series as a single book!). I’d have to say that in setting the stage it tends toward the heavy-handed, especially in the “good people all like Alanna and bad people are obvious” stakes, with additional deus ex machina (eg. Maude helps with the deception because the Goddess tells her to, George helps Alanna because of his Sight). This does build up Alanna as a tool of the Goddess, but also takes away from the plot I originally thought I’d be going into (“determined girl successfully becomes a knight through sheer hard work”). She gets in plenty of sheer hard work, but her progress is heavily sprinkled with magic swords and strong healing abilities. View Spoiler »I also can’t quite look past her letting Francis die. « Hide Spoiler
Wendy: I had trouble with that, too. I kept expecting her to realize she need to act, and then she doesn’t–and though she feels some remorse, I’m surprised no one else calls her out on that. Like Jon, for instance, since Francis was one of his best friends. AND it’s the right thing to do. I agree about the use of magic as well, I liked the way it was described, but I wasn’t always entirely satisfied with its appearances.
I suspect that readers who breeze through all four books at once will likely be less critical, since I hear the books improve as they go along. Liyana and Chachic also mentioned they liked the spinoff series about Alanna’s daughter even more.
Layla: I haven’t read those! Maybe it’s time to finally dive into those puppies.
Andrea: This is the introduction to a series, covering two years in quick succession, and The First Adventure is not a particularly subtle book where characterisation is concerned, with its crooked-toothed bully and later the major villain who Alanna “just knows” is a problem. Alanna is stubborn and brave and clearly marked for a grand destiny.
Wendy: It is interesting to come into this story 30 years after it was published in 1983. We’ve come to groan at characters with red hair and purple eyes and so on, but tropes began as less commonplace elements at some point. I’d agree the characterizationisn’t hugely complex as a whole (Roger and Ralon are particularly cartoony), but I was sufficiently interested in all the players, and able to easily distinguish between everyone. I do like that the author took pains to develop some of Alanna’s trials slowly, and show her progress over time; the gradual build-up with her friendship with George, for example, and her training to defeat her Ralon. I admit to being a shocked when he broke her arm! I liked the aftermath of the defeat as well, when she says she enjoyed the actual fight, but not how she felt about it afterwards.
Andrea: I did laugh a little at the violet and sapphire eyes – but, heck – I also like ‘em! [One of my current projects is a book set in an MMO and the full colour palette is entirely encouraged.]
Layla: As a romance reader I will never be tired of red hair and purple eyes as a signifier of particular beauty. ;) And yes! I listened to this on audiobook, and I wondered if it was just the quality of the narration that made Roger so obviously and immediately evil (the audiobook narrator is really rather good at making him sound like a manipulative mustache-twirling villain), but nope, apparently not.
Wendy: I confess, I rather enjoy both those things, too. I only ever mind it, as I mentioned in our Bookish Pet Peeves post, when the rest of the book is terrible; then my mind wanders and I start nitpicking. But if the bearer of glowing purple eyes is, say, a sexy guy who shapeshifts into a flying cat, I’m totally on board.
Layla: Jon is … more boring than I remembered him being as a child. (I have read ahead and find him EVEN MORE BORING AND DULL than I remembered him being in future books. He’s fine, but I don’t find his character arc in this book to be particularly interesting, though it could have really been given that Duke Roger is his uncle!) Whereas I really liked George this read-along! He’s charming! He’s interesting! He’s a good friend to Alanna and she trusts him! (No small feat.) And that scene where he basically gives that beautiful horse to Alanna! (!!!!)
Wendy: George is definitely the most intriguing one for me! Roguish thieves are always so charming. I’m interested in her twin brother Thom’s fate, too, in switching places with Alanna so he can study to become a sorcerer. I am rather worried he’ll turn out to be evil, what with the alarming words chosen to describe his brief appearance at the beginning. I’m assuming we meet up with him again at some point.
Layla: I ALSO thought Thom was going to end up being totally evil. It’s just the way that he’s described, and because Alanna is so good … so clearly one of them must be evil? (Also, his letters are weirdly mature for a preteen. I’m not going to spoil you on what happens to Thom though, so the mystery will remain unsolved and his true nature awaits your discovery in later books.)
Wendy: I was surprised and rather pleased that Alanna experiences changes in her body–not just the one typical having to bind her breasts scene, but recurring reminders that they are tender as she grows–and her first menstruation, which is singled out as the momentous occasion it is. We don’t see that much in books, and it would be nice to see that come up more often in coming of age stories. I think a lot of girls can relate to the comical mix of horror and outrage when Alanna finds out that she’s menstruating, and I like that George’s mother was there to matter-of-factly reassure her. And to briefly tell her that women enjoy sex, too.
Layla: I know! I think the book deals with that aspect of coming-of-age stuff fairly well. As an adult, I really appreciate all of this more than I did as an eleven year-old and – my opinion! – think these are good messages and good foundations to be laying in children’s fiction.
Wendy: Also–there is SO MUCH NAKEDNESS in this book. I wasn’t prepared for that.
Andrea: Perhaps that’s why the main thing I remember about this book is the swimming. Just picture yourself as an 11-13 year old, chilling out on the bank watching all your naked male friends swimming…
Layla: Yes! A lot of naked sleeping, too.
Andrea: The big thing that stands out for me in Alanna’s first adventure is the issues Alanna has with being female. Alanna is adventurous and a willing fighter but (even though there has been the occasional female warrior in the past, and there’s a religious order of female warriors) she knows she won’t be allowed to follow the particular tradition she’s most interested in: that of the chivalric knight. I don’t think the narrative itself is telling us that being female is a bad thing, but there are very few girls or women active in the story, and a few references to girls as silly, giggling things. Alanna’s attitude to her gender borders on hatred – but that is born at least in part from how being a girl means not getting to do the things she so very much wants to do. She seemed more settled with her big secret at the conclusion.
Wendy: It seemed rather natural to me that she would feel that way; it seems to me that Alanna has identified being a knight as the way out of her unhappy circumstances at home, and she thinks the only way to do that is to sublimate every shred of her femininity, to the point of rejecting all things womanly. I can understand her perceiving silliness and so on, but balancing this out with more prevalent strong female characters would have helped, since Mistress Cooper and Maude are in the story all too briefly. Along the way, however, several characters urge Alanna to see that she doesn’t have to compromise her warrior spirit just because she’s a girl, Coram, and later George and Jonathan in particular. “Ye’ll be happy only when ye learn t’live with who ye are.” I hope that she comes to accept the different parts of herself as the books progress.
Layla: Coram also says, after Jon gets better: “‘Lass, ye’ve got to accept who ye are,’ he protested. ‘Ye can be a woman and still be a warrior.’” What I like about this scene is that Alanna is all, “I don’t want to be a woman, women are soft and silly!” And Coram is like, “You’re only being silly right now.” I do think it’s true that the novel suffers from a lack of other female characters – Mistress Cooper is there but she isn’t there much and some of the later books suffer a little from “Alanna is not like the other girls” – I think Alanna’s rejection of femininity in this book in particular is more of a structural problem than a personal problem (she’s been raised in a society that devalues women! and she thinks her friends will hate her once they discover her secrets!). I will say that I also really like how well George and Jon etc. handle it one they find out – Jon particularly finds out at a rather difficult moment (spirits attacking us! ahhhhh!) but takes it in stride nicely. I find many of the friendships in this book particularly moving, obvs. (Myles! George! Dawwww.)
Wendy: 3.5 stars I enjoyed reading this very much. I don’t have the raging love for it yet that many readers see to have, but perhaps that will change in the future books. I wish the writing had been more nuanced,, and more time had been spent on building up the other characters–and that we felt more as well. Overall, it was a fun book, but an uneven one for me; I probably would have loved this more if I’d read it as a child. But I am intrigued by Alanna’s story, and I definitely want to find out what happens to George and Thom!
Andrea: For me this is enjoyable, but isn’t one of my comfort re-read books. This is partly because it is definitely aimed toward the younger reader end of the scale, but it’s also simply too heavy-handed for my tastes.
Layla: 3.5 stars, too, because this isn’t my favorite Alanna book (although for me at least, they only get better from here on out). I do have a RAGING LOVE for this series, though I guess that’s partly nostalgia – these books were so important to me as a kid (especially as one who didn’t feel very girly and felt constantly angry and rebellious!), and gave me permission to think about gender in more fluid and interesting ways. Thanks, books.
About Our Guest
Andrea K. Höst is an Australian author who writes SFF about worlds where magic is real, women aren’t relegated to the background, and expectations are twisted slightly out of skew. She can be found at www.andreakhost.com (often reviewing video games) or posting pictures of flowers and cats as @dragonflyautumn.
Andrea’s last release was The Pyramids of London, where a family takes on intrigue, automatons and the weather-vampires of Egypt. Her upcoming releases include The Sleeping Life, in which the most powerful mage in the world can’t overcome chronic illness, and Snug Ship, where players of the world’s first truly virtual MMO join a race to gain a spaceship – and unravel the mystery behind the game.
Our thanks to Andrea for joining us today!
I have a particular fondness for Mary Poppins, and if you only know the film, you definitely need to read this with us! Mary is much sterner and sarcastic in the book, but underneath the gruff exterior, there’s a great deal of tenderness as well. Really, if you enjoy British humor and anecdotal stories with a fantastical twist, I can’t imagine you won’t love this as dearly as I do.
Title: Mary Poppins
Author: P.L. Travers
Discussion Date: Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
From the moment Mary Poppins arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane, everyday life at the Banks house is forever changed.
It all starts when Mary Poppins is blown by the east wind onto the doorstep of the Banks house. She becomes a most unusual nanny to Jane, Michael, and the twins. Who else but Mary Poppins can slide up banisters, pull an entire armchair out of an empty carpetbag, and make a dose of medicine taste like delicious lime-juice cordial? A day with Mary Poppins is a day of magic and make-believe come to life!
This should be readily available at libraries, or it’s only $4.99 at Amazon for the ebook.
Please note that this discussion takes place on the Wednesday before Christmas.
For the future…
This is where we usually announce the month-after-next book to give you a heads up as well, but frankly I’m not sure whether we’ll be continuing the readalong series in 2016. We enjoy this series immensely, but it is a fair amount of work and time commitment during a busy time for all three of us, and it seems that interest and participation seems to have lagged over the past year or so. I know we’ve encouraged readers to pick up some of these books even if you aren’t specifically joining us that month, but at this point, we’re still weighing pros and cons.
So…stay tuned until next month? We’ll be talking amongst ourselves on whether we continue, and if we do, what that might look like. Feedback is always welcome!