Tamora Pierce’s first book, Alanna, was published in 1983 – the year before I started college at Pierce’s own alma mater. This explains why I never read her books at the proper age, why they’re not part of my formative canon as they are for so many younger fantasy readers, and why I’m just getting around to them now.
I wonder whether they will fill that role for budding fantasy readers today, because this, Pierce’s first series, hasn’t aged that well. I read her Circle series a few years back and don’t remember the same issues, so probably these are mostly first-book (or at least first-series) writer issues. First, I recognize this as the source of some of those tropes Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland land and similar writings are making fun of – the violet eyes, for instance. Alanna is a bit of a Mary Sue, too, in the way everyone loves her – in some cases, instantly. Sir Myles affection for Alanna feels a little creepy to me and I was honestly relieved when the Mother Goddess herself told Alanna “He only wants to be your father”.
There’s the gender thing. Even though the whole premise of the book is about Alanna being a girl set on becoming a knight, the gender stereotypes are reinforced heavily and often. “Alanna realized that boys didn’t understand girls any better than girls understood boys” – well, it’s understandable if her fellow squires and pages, having lived in an almost exclusively male world for years, don’t understand girls and view them as a thing apart, but I would hope Alanna is comfortable with boys by that point! The rigid gender roles seem a little odd in a country that has had warrior maidens in the past but gender perceptions have varied enough through Earth’s history, and have varied rapidly enough, that I think that bit is realistic.
And then there’s the way a couple of male characters, sympathetic ones, forcibly kiss Alanna after she’s told them no, and this is presented as just peachy fine – in fact, she learns to like it. And she’s told, again by the Goddess, that wanting to avoid entangling relationships due to her career goals means she’s afraid of love and she needs to get over it.
The important determination for if the book is dated, of couse, isn’t whether those things bug me but if they’d bug a 12-year-old. I think some of them might, though not as much as they bother me. In reverse order: the forcible kissing would not have bothered me at all when I was 12 back in 1979 – I know, because sex enforced through the the dragon or fire lizard links in the Pern books didn’t phase me. I think awareness has risen enough that it might be a problem for a kid now. Same for the suspicions of Sir Myles, and probably for the gender-difference reinforcement – then again, the last time someone told me men and women are inherently different was about half an hour ago, literally.
As for the other items… common tropes are not a problem to anyone who is coming to them freshly, and I think the way everyone loves Alanna would have felt like wish-fulfillment to be as a reader. (Wish fulfillment is what you call a Mary Sue when you aren’t being critical! After all, there’s a reason there are so many of them. Overall, I think I’d have loved the series, even if I had a couple nits to pick.