23rd Feb 2012
Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
I suppose it’s a sign that I’m getting older when I find myself tutting that the Twilight novels seem to offer a very poor role model for girls.
I’m well aware that ‘good role models’ is not the first thing teenagers think of when choosing their reading material. But, looking back, I find that lots of the books that I loved when I was younger did have strong female characters.
It’s set in a fantasy kingdom of knights and sorcerers, and tells the story of Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can train as a knight at the royal castle.
As the quartet progresses, Alanna grows up having to hide her secret. She successfully reaches knighthood, and her true identity is eventually revealed. In later books, she travels and has more adventures as the first female knight in her world.
There was plenty of exciting action in the book – Alanna goes to war, learns to use magic, goes on quests and foils an evil duke who plans to steal the kingdom’s throne.
But this was always balanced with a human element, as Alanna has to live with the consequences of her deception.
How does she fit in among the other knights-in-training? What would happen to the respect and friendship she’s earned if people knew the truth? As she goes through puberty, her secret becomes more and more difficult to keep, and she has to work out who she can really trust.
Interestingly, Alanna doesn’t entirely reject her femininity. In fact, as she gets older, she enjoys dressing as a woman in secret. This makes it clear that she doesn’t really want a male identity – she’s only adopted one to get around the restrictions her society place upon women.
As an adult, Alanna has a number of romantic and sexual relationships, which was, of course, thrilling for a teenage reader. Looking, back, it’s refreshing to note that the series had a non-judgemental view of sex.
Alanna had to deal with relationship dilemmas and heartache, but the fact that her relationships involved sex was a non-issue. Plus, there was even a safe sex message – she had a magic amulet that protected her from pregnancy!
When Alanna is revealed to be female, most people in her world see her as an exception – a masculine woman – rather than rethinking their perceptions of women. The title of the third book reflects this – The Woman who Rides Like a Man.
However, it is in this book that we first see signs that Alanna may have the power to change things for other women. Alanna finds herself living among a tribe of desert people and having to train three teenagers to become the tribe’s shamans.
She challenges the tribe’s traditions by choosing two girls for the role. By the end of the series, when Alanna’s friend Prince Jonathan becomes king, you get the sense that Alanna may really have made a difference for women in the future.
You can’t force good role models down a young reader’s throat. What drew me back to Alanna for reading after reading was that she was an engaging character whose adventures I enjoyed. But, looking back as an adult feminist, I’m glad that she was also a strong woman who could more than hold her own in a man’s world.