The first adventure
January 14, 2018 7:19 AM   Subscribe

It’s an intense and cult-ish thing to discover Pierce’s books as a young girl. For all their sorcerers and dragons, her books, at their core, are about young women growing up and figuring out who they are: how to be weird and stubborn and heroic and angry, how to deal with getting their periods, how to control their tempers, how to handle jealousy, how to decide whether to sleep with their best friends or their teachers, how to prevent pregnancy, how to navigate romantic relationships with men many years their seniors, how to challenge and defeat men many years their seniors, how to be women who don’t conform to the rigid expectations of their (entirely imaginary!) world and time.
posted by ChuraChura (51 comments total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent take on what makes Tamora Pierce so satisfying to read. I regret not discovering her books when I was younger and they would have done me more good, but I like to think I made up for it later by giving copies to my middle school students.

Also, Kel is the best. A low-drama, eat-your-vegetables hero in a high-adventure world.
posted by asperity at 7:43 AM on January 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

Asperity and others: what age do you wish you'd read them? Asking as a parent.
posted by sy at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

I read the first Allana book in fourth grade. It was perfect.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:02 AM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

sy - I read them first at age 9 or 10, and given that was the mid-80s, only the first 3 were available. I was similar in age to Alanna herself (who is 11 in the first book). The significant part is that I had read them several times before getting my period - and they helped me deal with that.

(This just surfaced a memory! I must have been 9, because I was obsessed with a book by Kit Pearson - also an excellent author - and was haunting the P section of the children's fiction at my library to see if it was available. Then I found Pierce and had all the more reason to haunt the Ps. Also read Katherine Patterson, who wrote kid's books set in historic China and Japan).

It depends on reading level, of course - but I think they're great for kids 8 and up. The stories are age appropriate - the first adventure is very kid-ish, and the books grow with you. That was something that was disappointing about Harry Potter - at 14, Harry seemed the same as when he was 11, which is not at all how life goes.

It concerned my mom that sex happened in the books (behind closed doors, after good discussion of deciding whether or not, and use of birth control) - but within the next year or so, I'd managed to find far more explicit books on her bookshelf. Kids are good at knowing what they're ready for, especially with a book that you can always stop reading if you don't like it (more easily than with a movie).
posted by jb at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

The Circle of Magic quartet's especially appropriate for late elementary schoolers, and most of the rest are a good fit for middle schoolers, generally. Though the author of this article is spot-on about how younger readers are likely to react to topics they aren't interested in yet.

Pierce's characters themselves age over the course of the books, and their problems change as a result. I wish I'd had them to grow up with. (Them, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books, with similar growing-up themes in a non-fantasy setting.)
posted by asperity at 8:09 AM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Aah Katherine Patterson! I can't tell you how many times I read Of Nightingales that Weep.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

sorry, forgot my requisite gushing:

oh my goddess! Tamora Pierce is so brilliant, I loved the hell out of those books, and have re-read the Alanna series every few years into my thirties.

(I'm an Alanna-fan at heart - I read the other series as an older teen/adult and liked them, but never impressed on them the same way.)
posted by jb at 8:11 AM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Alanna books were very important to me as a middle-school aged boy. I do remember reading that first menstruation scene -- there was something refreshing about a book (and a fantasy book at that!) being so blunt about it. But more generally, I needed (for reasons) to have a lot of good female role models in my fantasy novels, and they were wonderful for that.

As an adult, I've had the pleasure or reading all the books she's written since, and the pleasure of watching my daughter race through them. The Beka Cooper books are my favorites of the more recent ones.
posted by feckless at 8:33 AM on January 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

I first read the Alanna books at age 32 with a group of female software engineers, most of whom had read them as kids. My daughter won't have to wait until she's practically middle-aged to find these books on her shelf.
posted by potrzebie at 8:34 AM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oh, and said 11-year old daughter's answer on why Tamora Pierce books work so well for girls her age: "They're very well written and there aren't enough books with girls as main characters." So there you go.
posted by feckless at 8:44 AM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have no connection to this site, but it sure is a handy way to track an author's work.
posted by Beholder at 8:45 AM on January 14, 2018

I was also older when I read Alanna -- I think I must've been 23 or 24, but they were still wonderful books. My friend picked them all up off of the library shelf, put them in my hands, and said "read these." She's the only person I trust to do something like that. I read and read and couldn't stop reading.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:02 AM on January 14, 2018

The Circle of Magic quartet needed some more love in that article!
Lark, Rosethorn, and Sandry in particular embody a specific kind of quiet power that comes from unabashed femininity and domestic craft. The books leave room for Tris and Daja to diverge from our notions of feminine gender presentation without rejecting femininity as weak or undesirable. It was really helpful to me growing up to see characters choosing femininity and domesticity, especially in a genre where so many girls and women are depicted as heroes because they're tomboys or villains because they're catty and superficial.
posted by staraling at 9:18 AM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Her name is actually Katherine Paterson, with one T, in case anyone looks for her books. And she is an amazing talent and lovely person./pedant
posted by vers at 9:32 AM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

If my username didn't make it clear, Tammy is still my favorite author since childhood. I first encountered her through a hand me down copy of the second Alanna book, and spent years re-reading it over and over, unendingly curious as to all the references made towards the first book, and wishing I could continue the story.

A few years later, we came upon the Protector Quartet in a local bookshop and recognized the author name. My mother bought me the whole set and I devoured them, relating to Kel fiercely: a large, awkward girl who feels out of place, yet determined to do right and see justice. Alanna may have been the first Lady knight, but (as even Alanna admits) Kel earned her knighthood out in the open, without magic or being goddess-touched, through hard work, determination, and blatantly rejecting her society's rigid gender norms.

Of all Mrs. Pierce's heroines, I think Kel is the most important in the values she teaches. Cruelty, bullying and hatred should be challenged in all their forms. The most vulnerable deserve protection. You don't need to be particularly special to make a meaningful impact. No one else's judgment should limit what you strive for.

All of these values are present in her other works, but they feel the most pronounced in Kel's story, and especially applicable in our current political climate. We need fewer Joren of Stone Mountain's in our government, and more Keladry of Mindelan's.
posted by ProtectoroftheSmall at 9:33 AM on January 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

I read her as a male child and it was very gratifying to find women and girl characters who had agency and inner lives that felt real. Most fantasy that boys my age discovered had women as nags or wallpaper.

Also I'm pretty sure I actually learned what menstruation was from that book.
posted by selfnoise at 10:11 AM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Our daughter, now 22, loved reading these when younger, and still does. I enjoyed reading them with her, sometimes aloud.
posted by doctornemo at 10:20 AM on January 14, 2018


I am so in love with Kel I cannot even. The thing about Alanna is that she had all the fancy trappings--she's the goddess' chosen, has the divine familiar, has the magic dancing to her fingers, beautiful purple eyes, all the special things.

Kel isn't that. Kel just looks at what she wants, nods, and moves implacably towards it like a bulldozer, and the hell with anyone who tries to stop her for any unfair reason. She's a big girl, isn't particularly lovely, isn't particularly any one thing really, except: Keladry of Mindelan is as stubborn as the bull terrier she adopts along the way, and god help you if you don't treat her fairly.

Keladry of Mindelan is Lawful Good done in the best possible way, and I love her. And best! She's talented, it turns out after she tries it, at command. At management. I never get to see that out of women. I like to be in charge, I like to be in command because I'm good at it when I'm not overwhelmed, and women NEVER get that skillset shown off as the skillset it is in fiction--except Kel, who is right there.

I love her. I love her so much. She is amazing. I want to be Kel when I grow up.
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on January 14, 2018 [25 favorites]

I am a little embarrassed to admit how often, when faced with an ethical dilemma, I ask myself, "What would Kel do?"

One of the privileges of adulthood is that I own all of her books in hardcopy (bought slowly over time with babysitting money and in some cases read almost to pieces) AND as ebooks so I can reread them on my kindle whenever the mood strikes me. When you're an adult you're allowed to splurge $100 to finish out your favorite author collection in hardcopy AND buy the ebooks too!

(Also like the sole fan group I belong to is a Tamora Pierce fan page on facebook, and when I mentioned to the group that I'd had my baby, TAMMY HERSELF congratulated me and I almost died.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:54 AM on January 14, 2018 [21 favorites]

The last time we had a Tamora Pierce thread, I told this story. I'm linking it again because any time she comes up, I will sing her praises as a human being in addition to loving her work.

Her next book coming out is the Numair backstory book that I've been waiting to read for decades.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 10:54 AM on January 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Alanna of Trebond, Anne of Green Gables, and Harriet the Spy are like the perfect trilogy for young girls.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 12:01 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't think I've ever read one of her books, but that is a lovely essay and makes me wish I had encountered her books when I was young.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:55 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I read the Alanna books as a preteen boy, and they definitely made an impression on me -- both in terms of awareness of what girls my age were going through, and how lame and two-dimensional the female characters were in a lot of the other fantasy I was reading.

Sounds like I need to real the Kel books.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:06 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Asperity and others: what age do you wish you'd read them? Asking as a parent."

I started Alanna when I was 8 or 9. (The Circle of Magic books you could even read a bit younger, even as a read-aloud; they skew a bit younger, at least the first series. When I recommend it to moms I know, I generally let them know that there's sex and sexuality, but that it's very healthy sex and sexuality -- the girls really think through what they want to do (and different heroines make different decisions); they are supported by their female (and sometimes male) authority figures, who give them no-nonsense advice, and to whom they feel they can turn with questions (Kel talks openly to her mom! Her mom gives great advice and is non-judgmental!); heavy emphasis is placed on consent; there's an emphasis on mutual enjoyment (not ignorant virgins being educated by sex-crazy men); the boys are often a bit shy about it; relationship consequences are treated fairly realistically; it's never prurient (and the actual sex is elided, but the attraction and decision-making is not). If you're going to have a pre-teen reading about fictional sex, it's the kind of message you'd generally like them to get.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:19 PM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I love these books and reread them regularly. My favorite is Aly, though. After all the work Alanna did to get her shield and then be accepted, she still blocks her daughter from going after her dreams. (Totally sympathize with the desire to keep her daughter safe.) I love how tricky Aly is and how she goes after what she wants her life to be and I love even more the history and mythology of the Copper Isles.
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:14 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I probably would have bonded with Kel more strongly over Alanna but I hit the Alanna books first and probably long before the Kel books were written. I have read some of the later books, like Kel, which I liked very much, Terrier, which I liked, and the ones about Alanna’s daughter off as a spy ambassador bodyguard or something, and didn’t really click with those. But I think still want to read the Circle books eventually.

Anyway, the Alanna books along with the Robin McKinley books were one of the big strands of my childhood reading and I think I got a lot of my practical understanding of things from how Alanna approached them. Also I had a giant crush on George, but who didn’t?
posted by PussKillian at 6:20 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I didn't encounter the Pierce books until a couple years ago, and I'm sixty (mumble mumble), but I've loved getting acquainted with her writing. I'm glad you all agree that these books are good for middle schoolers. The grandkid's getting the Kel books for her birthday this year, and I'll tell her mom everybody here approves.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:26 PM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

My favorite Pierce books are Kel's quartology, by an order of magnitude. Alanna was great, but she did have "special chosen one" written all over her, plus I liked her better with Jonathan than I did with George (even though I agree she would not have made a good queen at all). I liked Aly, but really didn't like Nawat, and some of the supporting characters in that book really irked me. I liked all of the Winding Circle books, but really didn't like the twist in "The Will of Empress" (not the part about Daja, though. That was great). Daine and Numair were really great, but the fact that he was her teacher for so long felt a bit strange to me.

I just loved the fact that Kel's arc had so much more to do with being true to herself, growing into her strengths, learning to command, and being who she was. Romance was just incidental. I LOVED her knight-squire relationship with Raoul, I loved that she personally took out the Big Bad at end of her Lady Knight, and that she never lost her passion for justice. I'd go out of my way to read more books with her in them.
posted by dancing_angel at 6:50 PM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

My first Tamora Pierce series was the Immortals, and I read that entire series as a young teen. I love and cherish those books, but I found the way Daine and Numair got together to be deeply off-putting. Like, I honestly remember feeling betrayed by it. I mean, it was all clearly consensual and well communicated in a way many books are not. But I clearly remember this sense of "... oh. I thought they had this incredible platonic relationship built on trust and respect. But I guess it's all about sex after all..." which is sorta a devastating lesson to take away as a 13 year old girl.

Anyway, I recently read another (otherwise excellent) YA series by a female author, and the exact same thing happened! The hell is wrong with authors! Your books are otherwise so good! Just don't have girls sleep with their father figures!
posted by Emily's Fist at 7:29 PM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

The Tamora Pierce quartets raised me (along with L.M. Montgomery and Diane Duane's Young Wizards books). I really would be a different person without them.

I love the Kel books and would recommend them to any preteen, teenage girl, or, hell, adult woman. Like sciatrix said, her story is remarkable because she's not remarkable, just scrappy and intelligent and good-hearted.

When I was young I thought the Alanna and the Daine books were so much better — they had romance and magic and saving the world! Then I hit my twenties and realized, all of those parts of the Protector of the Small that I thought were mundane and difficult and unsettling and not-fun? That was Tamora Pierce writing Real Life, and writing it well. The Kel series are kind of revolutionary as fantasy books, for that reason: there's no whiff of destiny or magical talent, just old-fashioned determination and hard work.

Like a lot of kids raised by fantasy books, I had a hard time growing up and adjusting to this real life thing. Realizing that there was not some grand, extraordinary task out there, no role just waiting for me to step into it — just choices. That a good life is built upon a foundation of mundane things, like remembering to call your friends and family back and keeping your home in order and practising hobbies that you care about.

I love me a good special destiny, saving-the-world story, but kids and teens need more books like the Kel books.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 7:40 PM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Also, can I just say: I love Kel's Kel's realistic, ambiguous romances. By the end of the series, she's had sex, she's pined, she's had relationships that didn't work out; very relatable. And she ends up on her own — not having married her true love or anything like that — looking forward to all the things she's going to learn and do and experience. I love that.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 7:42 PM on January 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

Anyway, I recently read another (otherwise excellent) YA series by a female author, and the exact same thing happened! The hell is wrong with authors! Your books are otherwise so good! Just don't have girls sleep with their father figures!

Oh my god I know, what the fuck is with that? It was a huge thing with the Mercedes Lackey books I was also devouring at that age, too--like, your coming of age is to what, sleep with the older dude who is nobly avoiding that because he trained you and he's your mentor and he would never ask but is pining and---

I really, really, really, really hate that, and it's everywhere in YA aimed at girls, especially by female authors. I would say Alanna subverted it in part by not marrying the prince, but.... George was significantly older, too.

I dunno. I loved Kel ending her saga single, making her own journey. I wish that sort of thing was more common in female bildungsromans, that they didn't necessarily have to end with marriage or choices about Forever Romances.
posted by sciatrix at 8:37 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Re: age appropriateness, I would probably have read them... let's see, I started with Daine, too, and I think I would have been around ten or eleven when I picked them up for the first time. I think I was reading the Protector of the Small series as they came out--I remember Lady Knight's release and I own it in hardcover, which strongly suggests I remember that right; at that age, I never bought books in hardcover unless they were fresh out of print and I couldn't stop myself from reading them. And I remember Squire coming out while I was reading Pierce, too.

That was a good age for me. When my sister was growing up and learning to read, I just... made sure the Pierce books were around and figured that when she was ready for them, they'd stick. She also loves Kel, and I think they did stick for her and she got the appeal around age eight or so--Alanna first, and then Kel and Daine, as I recall; I didn't own Daine, so she had to do a little more work to find those.
posted by sciatrix at 8:43 PM on January 14, 2018

I've never read her work and now that makes me sad. I'm 29, has that boat sailed? If not, where do I start from? She sounds amazing.
posted by Nieshka at 11:39 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nieshka — it's never too late; come join the club!

My recommendation would depend on your affinity for young adult novels and coming-of-age fantasy stories. Her books come in quartets, each featuring a different protagonist. If you still read and enjoy YA as an adult, or if fantasy books with hero(in)es & magic were formative for you, you can start with the Alanna books (The Song of the Lioness quartet), continue with Daine (The Immortals), and then Kel (The Protector of the Small). I haven't kept up with her Tortall books past that, so I'll look to others for suggestions there.

If YA and/or fantasy aren't your usual, I still think any feminist who loves to read would get along with Kel. I'd rec The Protector of the Small to anyone.

The Circle of Magic books lean a bit more towards middle grade — though I loved them too, and the worldbuilding and characterization are very rich and subtle. Anyway, I wouldn't start there, as an adult reader. I think Tamora Pierce's Tortall universe is more widely known and read than the Circle universe in any case.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 12:49 AM on January 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I feel the need to mention, in the Things There Should Have Been More Of Dept., Ms. Pierce wrote a six-issue limited series for Marvel, White Tiger, where a an ex-FBI agent has to pick up her life while inheriting the power amulets of her uncle, the previous White Tiger. I haven't read it in a while, but I remember it being awesome enough to get me reading the Alanna books in my mid-30s.
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 3:00 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anyway, I recently read another (otherwise excellent) YA series by a female author, and the exact same thing happened! The hell is wrong with authors! Your books are otherwise so good! Just don't have girls sleep with their father figures!

It's embarrassing enough to have liked Drizzt and R.A. Salvatore through the first three trilogies as an angtsy early 90s adolescent. But when I checked in on plot summaries years later and found out that Drizzt and Cattie-Brie had been shipped I was profoundly grossed out.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:41 PM on January 15, 2018

" I'm 29, has that boat sailed?"

Join us.

Join us.

Join us.

Join us.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 PM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Guys, should we have a Tamora Pierce fanfare book club?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:55 PM on January 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

posted by PussKillian at 7:22 PM on January 15, 2018

I'm re-reading my way through the Tortall books chronologically because they don't make me angry like the real world. I'm about halfway done with Mastiff - join me...
posted by ChuraChura at 7:34 PM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]


I, for one, am due for a re-read. I'm sure that half of us reading this are too, right? Right?
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 8:34 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you link it, I will come!

(I'm terrible at Fanfare because for whatever daft reason I keep forgetting it exists, but if someone organizes it...)
posted by sciatrix at 8:34 PM on January 15, 2018

I MADE A CLUB. Come join it here.

Here is the first post, for Alanna, the First Adventure. I have no particular schedule in mind, we can hash that out in this fanfare club talk thread.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:40 PM on January 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

Can I just add — for anyone who doesn't have time to re-read books on a club schedule, consider joining us anyway! I mean, all the Tamora Pierce fans I know have re-read them so many times that they don't need to physically read the words in order to re-experience the books ...

(I didn't even realize the Clubs tab existed at Fanfare. So that's two good things that happened today.)
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 9:59 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I started reading the Tortall books a couple of years ago, (thanks to Mark Reads actually) and have introduced them to my septuagenarian geek mother, who also loves them! I especially love the book of short stories set in Tortall, the name of which escapes me right now..
posted by Coaticass at 10:55 PM on January 15, 2018

Love this post and will hop over to Fanfare (for the first time!) in just a minute. Tamora Pierce is amazing and has been my favorite author since I found Alanna in fourth grade (many, many years ago). Alanna will always be my favorite, because she was my first, but I agree that Kel is remarkable and probably "better" on balance. (I actually didn't read Kel till my 20s.) I think 9/10/11 is a good age to start with her books.
posted by john_snow at 10:45 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

" I'm 29, has that boat sailed?"

I read the first quartet when I was eleven, the second in high school, the third in college/grad school, and only later realized that my mom would love them too. So she read her way through the series when she was in her sixties. As far as I can tell, any age works.
posted by Margalo Epps at 11:37 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

My wife and I discovered the Alana quartet when we were in a phase of reading aloud to each other. We were probably 25 and we loved them.

There are still a bunch of her books I haven't read, though I probably will get around to all of them eventually. They're really refreshingly open and honest without feeling cheesy. I'll probably try to get my young reader to try them in a couple more years.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:45 AM on January 16, 2018

I'm definitely in for a re-read. Loved Alanna and Daine, but the one Kel book I read as a teen didn't stick with me. Sounds like the kind of thing I'd value a lot more now, so I'd love to revisit it. Yay!
posted by Emily's Fist at 1:23 PM on January 16, 2018

I had the opposite reaction! I loved Kel so much, but Alanna and Daine both left me feeling a little cold. Maybe I also need to revisit the series.
posted by PearlRose at 7:44 AM on January 17, 2018

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