Before we get started, I need to get something off my chest. Alanna: The First Adventure is a terrible title.
There. I feel better. We can move forward now. I’m not going to cover whole chapters in these blogs, since in the Song of the Lioness series, each chapter represents about ten percent of the entire book. And that’s a lot. Instead, I’ll try to cover a good thematic section. Also, I feel like this should go without saying, but these posts assume you’ve read the books already and want them to think about more deeply. If you want a fun accompaniment to your first reading, I suggest checking out Mark Reads’ review of the series.
So here we are, book one, chapter one of the entire Tortall universe. We’re introduced to our main character, Alanna, and her twin brother, Thom, who are both dismayed that they are turning ten and must therefore go to a convent to learn to be a lady and become a knight, respectively. They decide the only way to escape their fates is to switch places: Alanna can disguise herself as a boy and take Thom’s place, and the convent conveniently teaches boys to be sorcerers before they come of age because convenient, I guess. Then Maude, the twins’ teacher in magic and healing, agrees to help them pull it off after seeing a vision from the gods in the fire.
Most of this is just plot setup, but it’s also the only long scene we get with both twins until book three, and even then, Thom is only in and out of the story. Therefore, I want to focus on him and how he’s portrayed. Some of it is foreshadowing, of course, but not all of it. Thom and Alanna are parallel characters, not just because they’re twins but because they struggle with the same issues: intimacy, controlling their magic instead of the other way around, achieving greatness at a young age. And Alanna succeeds, while Thom ends up dead.
There’s one important difference between the characters, besides their sex: Thom is queer. I want to focus on him in this reread, because here we have our first queer character in the Tortall universe, and he’s standoffish and distrustful of everyone. Also, his queerness is only suggested, not explicitly stated (although these books were written in the 80s, so they get more of a pass). Casual readers might not have even realized Thom was gay for Roger. And Thom gets a bad ending.
First, when Alanna asks Thom if he has the guts to pull off the charade on his end, since it was her idea and she has more at stake, Thom replies this way:
Thom straightened his tunic. His eyes were cold. “Just show me the way!”
Before this point, Thom might have come off as a coward; his objection to knighthood is that he’ll have to fall down a lot and hit things with sticks, and he doesn’t like Coram because Coram makes him feel stupid. This is the first time Thom shows a spine, but… it’s not a positive description. His eyes are cold, cold to the only person who he loves and who will keep loving him over the course of the series.
Next, when Maude enlists Thom and Alanna’s help to see the consequence of their decision to switch places, this happens:
The woman drew a deep breath and grabbed the twins’ left hands, thrusting them into the fire. Power shot up their arms. Thom yelped and wriggled with the pain of the magic now filling him up. Alanna bit her lower lip ‘til it bled, fighting the pain her own way.
I want to keep track of what the text presents as masculine and feminine as we go along, since Alanna’s story is about feeling out the edges of the gender binary and figuring out how to live comfortably when you don’t fit neatly into one box or the other.
(A note: I don’t read Alanna as trans or nonbinary, and not just because these books were written before those ideas were commonplace. Alanna is only uncomfortable being a woman because she doesn’t fit within the narrow constraints her society puts on women. As she starts to break down those barriers, she becomes more comfortable with her identity as a woman, and the Great Mother Goddess in Tortall is definitely only aligned with people who identify as women.)
Anyway, these two reactions are meant to highlight the inherent differences between the twins. Thom is fascinated by the magic, but he can’t handle the pain. Alanna hates magic, but she can bear the pain without struggling. It’s meant to show why Alanna is suited for knighthood and Thom isn’t, but it’s another suggestion of Thom’s inherent weakness, contrasted with Alanna’s strength. (We can talk about the way endurance of pain is presented as strength another day, since the Tortall books do put a lot of emphasis on training and hard work to achieve a goal, versus finding a way to change the system to make things less difficult. But I think that’s something to talk about when we get to Kel, because she doesn’t have as dramatic of a magical destiny getting in the way of her smashing the patriarchy with both fists.)
These first two scenes are effective set dressing for the rest of the story and get the plot moving efficiently. But they do an even better job setting up the eventual fate of the twins. Thom is never presented as a positive character; he’s got issues right from the start, and while he depends on his sister, she clearly can’t depend on him. Thom is weak and more interested in magic than people. Alanna is strong and dependable, and her fear of her own magic doesn’t seem like much of a flaw compared to Thom’s obvious issues. When Thom resurrects Roger in the third book, we’re not surprised, because we always knew Thom was destined to do something hinky.
On the one hand, it’s a neat writing trick. Thom is Alanna’s clone character, her AU bad ending if she had never learned how to love or how to value people over power. By seeing how bad Alanna’s downfall could have been, the reader understands just how great her final achievement is and how much she’s overcome by the end of Lioness Rampant. On the other hand, it’s a shame, because Thom never gets the support he needs to reach his own good ending.