Alanna – girls can be heroes too

Book cover: Alanna The First AdventureAlanna doesn’t want to be a Lady. She wants to be a Knight. Her twin brother Thom would rather study sorcery than swordsmanship. When her father packs them off to school, they swap places. With the help of grumpy retainer Coram and charming George the thief, can Alanna keep her secret long enough to win her place?

I fell in love with Alanna when I was perhaps 7 years old (maybe 6), a lonely only child in a rural town whose friends all lived in outlying farms that couldn’t be reached on foot. It was the early 80s, so I was free to roam on my own cognisance, and I spent as many hours in the local library as the local park with the ducks. The librarians soon realised I was no worry (quite the opposite, as I’d help them tidy up and put mis-shelved books back where they belonged), and mostly ignored me almost as completely as the ducks.

I remember finding the heavy hardback with its beautiful cover of the Ysandir looming over Persopolis (even if Alanna and Jon’s horses were the wrong colour) and reading it in the library (repeatedly), as well as carrying it carefully home to curl on the sofa. Alanna was my favourite book for years, and will always have a very special place on my bookshelf (less so the sequels, which I didn’t get hold of for years; I was mid-teens before I even knew books 3 and 4 existed).

So there’s no way I can revisit her adventures without bias, and I haven’t even tried. A few shaky bits of prose aside, it’s fast-paced and gloriously single-minded in letting its heroine overcome her challenges on her own. She may need to learn to ask for help, but she doesn’t need rescuing. For an adult reader, it’s definitely simplistic (it’s a children’s book – it’s allowed to be) – and while the Sweating Fever sequence retains its power, Alanna’s adventures in Olau and Persopolis feel a little too easy, without any real question of her survival. The real joy for me though is in Alanna’s steadfast refusal to give in to the more mundane challenges of bullying, mathematics and swordcraft, repeatedly knuckling down and finding ways to achieve her goals.

Perhaps the boys don’t really feel like teenage boys – they’re all very sensitive and mature; perhaps it would be nice if there were other female characters; perhaps the world feels a bit clean and tidy; and of course there’s the unfortunate aspect that the climax involves two great white saviours coming to the desert to liberate the Bazhir from their semi-divine oppressors. I’m prepared to ignore all of it and enjoy the ride. I certainly wasn’t conscious of any of this when I was 7 (although on that last point, that is the point – representation is important, and this isn’t helpful).

I’ll admit to finding both The Warriors of Taan and Mrs Frisby more satisfying as an adult reader, although whatever comments I made about their potential influence on me growing up they can’t hold a candle to Alanna, who got to me first. I loved her because she resonated, but she was probably also the first female fictional character who reinforced the message that I could be anything I wanted, and I shouldn’t let anyone tell me otherwise.