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218 pages, Kindle Edition
First published June 7, 1999
Alanna clenched her fists. What was going on? Was Jonathan inclined to give way to the man who'd saved his children?And with that, possibly the stupidest line Pierce has ever written, Kel's story begins. I'm big on details lately, and the introduction is shaky on them. Here are more places the writing is less than precise:
The training master absently rubbed the arm in its linen sling. At last he bowed in his chair. "May we compromise, sire?"Maybe that first line is here to show Wyldon's hesitation before answering Jonathan with the probation proposal. The problem is that his gesture calls to mind the reason for the sling ("hey, remember when my arm was raked by a hurrok while I was saving your kids?") which makes the gesture - not quite absent.
The men stared at the door. Each of them was trying to remember if Alanna the Lioness had ever spoken to Jonathan in that tone before.1. Why would Wyldon care?
"The short sword is the sword of law. Without it, we are only animals. The long sword is the sword of duty. It is a terrible sword, the killing sword." Her words struck a chord in Kel that left the little girl breathless. She liked the idea that duty was a killing sword.This is an idea Pierce reaches for, but I don't think she ever gets there. Though it would be fascinating if she did, a sort of justification of the violence of this world.
Wyldon's eyebrows snapped together. "You have been told to mind your manners, Page Nealan. I will have an apology for your insolence."HUMOR: THE SPICE OF LIFE. Neal is funny from the first moment he's introduced, and not only is that entertaining, but it comes to form a cornerstone of his character, and it's consistent, and it's great. (Later on, Duke Baird is said to wear constant mourning for the two sons he lost. If Pierce could've said why, and how, and how that affected Neal, instead of that remaining a throwaway detail...)
Nealan bowed deeply. "An apology for general insolence, your lordship, or some particular offense?"
"One week scrubbing pots," ordered Lord Wyldon. "Be silent."
Nealan threw out an arm like a player making a dramatic statement. "How can I be silent and yet apologize?"
"Each one of you is a gem, all the more precious because we lost so many. Combined, you are the treasure of the kingdom. Treat yourselves as such... Build your stores of learning. Do it not for yourselves or your teachers or your monarchs. Do it for the kingdom. Do it for us all." He looked over them one last time, nodded briskly, then strode out of the hall. He was gone before any of them remembered to bow.Whewwww. Always loved that part. Jon relies on charisma, sure. But he also shows up and makes them realize they're seen and valued. Kel - grudgingly - recognizes why people are so loyal to him, even calm, pragmatic people like her father. (Incidentally, I'd love to hear more about that.) (Later, Wyldon apparently doesn't know why they have a treaty with the Yamanis - Wyldon, YOU LIVE IN THE PALACE. Why are you allowed to be stupid whenever it's convenient for the plot?)
"How dare they say the Lioness cheated!" growled Kel. "Great Goddess, she fights ogres and spidrens and armies all the time -"That's - that's timeless, you know? I've thought about that line for over a decade now, ever since I first read this book.
"You really look up to her, don't you?" Neal asked.
"She's a hero. She's proved it over and over."
"And will go on doing so until the day she dies," he said evenly. "You can smack some people in the face with a haddock and they'll still call it a mouse if a mouse is what they want to see."
Before starting to read the Protector of the Small quartet, I read that Kel was just another Alanna and that the books are basically Song of the Lioness all over again. I was actually okay with that going into this series, since I love Alanna and think that there are far worse things Kel could have been than just like her. I'm happy to report, however, that although there are similarities between Alanna and Kel, their experiences are extremely different and Kel's story expands upon and continues a lot of the themes that were present in Song of the Lioness.
I wrote about this a little bit already, but I have to reiterate it here because it makes me so happy. Kel has a lot more support than Alanna did, from her family as well as from people she meets when she goes into page training, but at the same time Kel faces a lot more active and targeted sexist bullying than Alanna did. Alanna disguised herself as a boy, which meant she had to live in constant fear of discovery, but Kel faces danger because she isn't hiding.
Something that I find interesting about the contrast between these two different situations is the ways in which their coping mechanisms and strategies overlap and diverge. Both Alanna and Kel find women who are friendly to them, although Kel and Alanna are denied each others company so far, which makes me rage. Both girls deal with bullies as pages; however, Alanna's bully was personal while the bullying Kel faces is sexist and institutional. Both girls make friends among the other pages, finding older boys willing to help mentor them.
Something I especially loved was that, while Alanna hid her gender successfully for years, Kel makes a point of wearing dresses when she can as a way to never let the boys and men she is surrounded by forget that she is a girl. I love this little bit of recognition that gender is a performance and that the choices we make about how to perform are intensely personal AND political. In some ways, Kel is even more of a trailblazer than Alanna, simply because she is trying to become a knight openly. Alanna may have opened the door a crack for Kel, but Kel is the first girl to try and go through that door as a girl.
In a lot of ways, I think that First Test is a lot more successful as a feminist work than Alanna: The First Adventure was, although I think both books should be required reading for girls (and boys, ideally). I think that Kel's experiences are closer to the real life ways in which girls experience sexism, and that's a valuable thing for young people to read about.