The fourth book I've read for my shelf-sittter reading challenge is Alanna by Tamora Pierce, a YA Fantasy novel about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight, and discovers great power within herself. Not the most innovative of plots, but I'd heard this book mentioned as a classic of girl-power YA, and then I saw it at the used bookstore and figured what the hell.
Long post short: parts of this book were enjoyable, but for me the problems outweighed the stuff I liked.
The aspect of the book that I liked the best was the characters-- which, if you're only going to do one thing right, is the thing to choose. Alanna is a stubborn red-haired girl, and yet for me she was never the clichéd "fiery redhead". She can get a little mouthy when she's pissed, but she also has a lot of self-control, and work ethic like whoa. I appreciated that Pierce didn't try to make Alanna too likable; she's a very prickly person, and she needs to learn to open up and trust people-- a task made all the more difficult by the fact that she's constantly having to hide the fact that she's female.
There's a lot to admire in Alanna. At first I was like, oh gawd, it's the female character who's incredibly awesome at all things knightly: she's an amazing archer, a brilliant student, a natural with horses, she's brave and honorable, yadda yadda. But then Alanna encounters something she genuinely sucks at-- and it's not because she's a girl trying to do a man's job. She's just plain old not good at it, and that fact terrifies her at first. But she works her ass off over many months to improve, and does. That's a pretty awesome message.
I also liked many of the supporting characters: Alanna's posse of affable fellow pages; her down-to-earth manservant; stern Duke Gareth; the King of Thieves; the slightly hippie-ish Sir Myles. Even Alanna's twin brother, whom we barely see in this book, was interesting enough to make me curious what role he plays in the later books.
But being intrigued with the characters isn't enough to make me actually read the rest of the books in this series. And that's because there are a lot problems with the writing here.
Some of the issues might stem from the fact that this book was first published in 1983. Perhaps Pierce was hobbled by the period's ideas about what was possible in YA. This really feels to me like a book that should be longer-- it covers three years, and it's trying to have a sweeping epic feel. There was a lot that was told that I felt should have been shown.
Pierce also indulged-- several times-- in one of my pet peeves, which is making characters forget things they know in order to create suspense. For example (and I'm going to be vague here, to avoid spoilers): there's a character that everyone seems to love, but Alanna instinctively dislikes and distrusts him. Someone she cares about is nearly killed, and she gets a solid tip that the guy she doesn't like is a key suspect. She doesn't say anything about it to anyone, since no one would believe her and she has no real evidence, but she vows to watch him more closely. Fine so far. But then, in the very next chapter, this guy subtly encourages the person who was almost killed to do something incredibly dangerous, and Alanna is all, Surely he's not trying to kill him! How outrageously silly of me to think such a thing! When, dude, you already determined that this guy is a threat. What, did you just forget??
And finally, I think this book really, really could have used another editing pass. Big chunks of it were fine, but then there were sections that sucked, frankly: lots of telling where you could show it in just as few words, headhopping, overuse of "to be" verbs, unnecessary attributives-- just a little shop of writing horrors. I've been reading a lot of excellent children's fiction to The Son lately, so I felt no "but it's just a kid's book!" forgiveness.
In a word: Eh.