In this chapter Alanna gets her first period, tells George she's a girl, gets a magic sword, masters the blade, and gets to go on a big girl trip with the squires. More than half of this chapter is about getting pieces in place for the final showdown at Persepolis, and I'm not terribly interested in that. Instead, I mostly want to focus on the first few scenes, where Alanna hits puberty part two.
Before we talk about that: periods in no way make anyone a woman. Some aspects of this book are outdated and need to be discussed. But we'll get to that in the scene with George's own dear mam, Eleni.
So, yeah, Alanna wakes up with her sheets covered in blood, and she has no idea what's going on. I wish this scene was not still relevant, but this was the most detailed explanation of periods I got until about seventh grade. I went to a religious school, but still. If you think girls are raised to understand how their bodies work and why they do what they do before the first incident happens, don't. Periods are stigmatized. We still make jokes about how guys won't buy pads for their girlfriends. The only time periods get mentioned in fiction, besides books that are specifically about puberty, are when a woman realizes she's missed one (and of course that means she's pregnant, not that she's stressed or sick).
And yeah, yeah, periods don't get mentioned because they're not relevant, just like how most stories don't mention how characters go to the bathroom. Except that periods take up a bunch of mental real estate. They're irregular. They sneak up on us. And for a lot of women they come with debilitating symptoms like cramps or nausea. Pierce normalizes talking about periods--Kel has a similar discussion about puberty with Lalasa and then with her mother. And that's awesome.
(Although I gotta say--my ordinary birth control keeps me from having periods at all. You'd think magic birth control would do the same, because I doubt many cis woman would say, "Yeah, sure, I'll keep staining my favorite jeans every month.")
And this is one of the only stories I've ever read that shows how scary getting your first period can be. Even if you know what's going on, waking up with blood on your bed or finding it in your underwear is startling. In my case, my first few periods also came along with crippling depression, which no one had ever told me could be a side effect. So having Alanna be terrified and then a scene where someone sits her down and says, "You're fine, all of this is fine, it's just a thing that happens if you have a uterus," is really great. (Pierce also makes a point of mentioning that all of her female characters have birth control and that they've thought through whether or not they want children, which is another conversation I didn't get until I was much older.)
But I can't say that it's good without also acknowledging that it's problematic. When Eleni explains all this to Alanna, we get this exchange:
Again Mistress Cooper raised her eyebrows. "You're a female, child, no matter what clothing you wear. You must become accustomed to that."
"Why?" Alanna demanded. "I have the Gift. I'll change it! I'll--"
"Nonsense!" the woman snapped. "You cannot use your Gift to change what the gods have willed for you, and you would be foolish to try! ...Your place in life you can always change, whether you have the Gift or not. But you cannot change what the gods have made you. The sooner you accept that, the happier you will be."
So... yeah, not the greatest?
As I've said, I don't read Alanna as trans. She *does* have to learn to accept herself female, because doing so makes her happy. She takes pleasure in wearing pretty dresses and jewelry and gossiping with other women. I'd see things differently if she came out as a woman and still chose to dress as a man all the time. But this is only acceptable in Alanna's specific case. Biology is not destiny. If we can help trans folks be their true selves in our world, then trans folks can definitely change their bodies however they choose in a universe with literal gods and magic.
Not that Tortallan healing magic is all powerful. In the Protector of the Small books, they mention that healers can't save people who have gut wounds. But it can make a difference in less time-constrained settings. Neal can repair a congenital heart defect, for example, and if you're going to tell me there's no form of magical cosmetic surgery, I'll laugh in your face.
(But M.A., I can hear you saying, there's a trans woman in Beka's books, and she didn't seem to physically transition! I know. We'll get to Okha eventually. She is... not the best trans representation. But that comes many, many books from now.)
The point is, this section of the book is definitely an artifact of its times. But guess what! Something can still have value, even if it's problematic, as long as we discuss the ways in which it's problematic. On the one hand, it's good for cis girls to hear that the strange and scary things happening to their bodies are perfectly normal, and that they'll get used to it eventually. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I could recommend this to young trans or gender noncomforming kids. Not without a long discussion about this scene, at least. Then again, kids these days are about 1000 times more informed than I was when I was their age, so maybe they would automatically recognize the problem here.