Tamora Pierce in general is an amazing writer, who exploded onto the scene of YA fiction with a quartet of books that I read on loop for a solid month.
"Alanna: the First Adventure" introduced us to the titular character, a short, red haired tomboy who wanted to become a knight.
Unlike many other similar characters, Alanna wasn’t chasing glory, but rather fleeing a life of ornamental confinement. Nor does the book shy away from the dark side of this. In the first chapter, Alanna is warned by her first mentor that, along with learning to fight, she must use her magical gift to heal, to pay for the lives she will take as a knight.
The first book covers Alanna's years as a page, the first step on her road to knighthood, and goes into depth on the struggles that come with secretly pretending to be your twin brother, as well as the everyday challenges.
Alanna gets teased because she can't/won't go swimming with the other boys, because
Puberty hits, and Alanna can't exactly go to the Palace Healers for advice on how to deal with her first period, or binding down her growing breasts. She has even less idea of how to react than her friends do, in the face of a flirtatious noblewoman, and she can't exactly talk to them about it.
Added to this is the problem of enemies both within and without, unconventional allies, and relationships that blur the line between friends and lovers.
Interestingly, the main villain of the series isn't a secret, nor are there red herrings littered through the plot to try and pretend that he isn't the villain.
Duke Rodger of Conte is Prince Jonathan's cousin, next after him in line to become King of Tortall, and a powerful sorcerer. His motivation is simplistic; getting rid of the people standing between him and the throne, but he's smart enough to leave no solid evidence, just a string of very convenient coincidences that just happen to turn events in his favour.
Alanna suspects, as do George and several of Alanna's other allies, but none of them can accuse him without proof.
Romance isn't really a factor until the second book, and Alanna is once again unique for the 90s in that she not only has a physical relationship without being married, but several, and is shamed for none of it.
In book 2, "In the Hand of the Goddess", Alanna's relationships are explored with the two of her male friends who are in on her secret: Jonathan, the Crown Prince and Alanna's Knight-Master, who she shared Page training with in her first year before Jon became a squire and eventually a knight in Book 1; and George, the Rogue, or ruler of the Undercity, who had been in on Alanna's secret early on, and helped her maintain the ruse several times.
While Alanna is attracted to both, there is none of the drama you'd expect about them being jealous of each other, and the two men remain friends throughout. Book 2 also explores Alanna's desire to explore her femininity and the clash with the necessity of remaining in disguise in order to achieve her goal. She takes the opportunity to explore both sides of herself, rather than being forced to choose one or the other.
This was an extreme rarity in YA, and even General, fiction in the 90s. Female protagonists, when they weren't acting as the (male) Hero's sidekick, tended to be either the ultra-girly Love Interest, or "Not Like Other Girls", where in order to be afforded the respect given to other main characters, they had to be, in essence, One Of The Guys, but with breasts.
Book 2 culminates in Alanna's knighting, and a fatal duel with Duke Rodger after she exposes his treason.
Book 3, "The Woman Who Rides Like A Man", gives us a change of setting.
Alanna is travelling as a new Knight, and finds herself in the desert south of Tortall, and encounters the Bazhir, desert people who live in tribes.
(Pierce herself later admitted that she isn't satisfied with her first foray into representation of a foreign people, and strove to do better in subsequent books.)
The Bazhir are a cross between a Bedouin-inspired society, and the homogenous stereotype of "Middle Eastern Society" that was unfortunately very common in the 90's. A tribal society living in tents and led by a Headman and a Shaman, they live by very strict gender roles, and women must wear veils and never expose themselves to anyone not their husband.
Adopted into the tribe, Alanna has to navigate a different culture as she replaces the Shaman after he dies, taking both male and female apprentices. It's the 'female' part that causes controversy. There's a lot of focus on prejudice and bias, both conscious and unconscious, and the fact that just because a culture is different doesn't make it wrong, and that cultures have greater depth than the casual viewer might see on the surface.
The other main focus of this book is relationships.
Jonathon comes to visit Alanna, and proposes marriage to her. What follows is a surprisingly progressive look at marriage as the commitment it is, rather than the default. Alanna loves Jon, but marrying him means becoming Queen one day, giving up the life of adventure that she's currently enjoying, and ultimately resigning herself to the life she spent so long trying to escape.
"No can always be changed to Yes, but it's very hard to change yes to no."
Alanna asks for time to think about it. Jon agrees, but can't stay in the desert for long. When Alanna still hasn't given an answer by the time he has to leave, he assumes that she'll say yes and starts packing for her. Understandably, this results in a messy break-up and a fight of epic proportions. Jon returns to Tortall alone, and Alanna completes her work with the Tribe before going to visit George.
George is understandably hopeful upon discovering that Alanna isn't married or engaged, but unlike Jon, doesn't press her, letting Alanna be the one to set the pace, and willing to be content with being her interested friend, if that's what she wants.
They do start a relationship, testing the waters, but Alanna isn't ready to return to Corus (and Jon) when George has to leave, so they part ways amicably.
The book ends with a set-up to Book 4, when Alanna is asked by the Bazhir Headman to check on a friend of his, a Sorceress who he fears is in danger. Alanna agrees, but arrives too late to save her from being killed by a mob. The Sorceress gives Alanna a scroll to take back, which the Headman informs her is a map to the Dominion Jewel.
Book 4, "Lioness Rampant", concludes the series in a very satisfying way.
It opens with Alanna off on another quest, searching for the Dominion Jewel. Along the way, we are introduced to a number of new characters, mainly Liam Ironarm, the Shang (an order of martial arts fighters) Dragon, Thayet jian Wilima, a refugee Princess, and Buriam Tourakom, Thayet's maid and bodyguard.
The Quest for the Dominion Jewel takes up the first half of the book, with side forays into what was many people's first introduction into war refugees. (Post Vietnam War and Pre 9/11, most readers had no immediate knowledge of the fallout of war).
The other sub-plot is, again, relationships. Alanna becomes friends with Liam, and in short order romantic lovers. The main stumbling block is Liam's dislike of magic, an integral part of Alanna, and his tendency to black-and-white thinking. He sees and respects Alanna as a warrior foremost, and is thrown when she wears dresses and enjoys her feminine side. Their fling is short-lived, but genuine, and ends with no hard feelings.
The second half of the book is the return to Corus, where Alanna has to face her past and a resurrected Duke Rodger in the lead-up to Jon's Coronation.
Duke Rodger presents himself as having turned over a new leaf, but it's not difficult to doubt how genuine this 'new and improved' facade is. Jon and Alanna reconcile as friends, and she is offered the position of King's Champion as Jon welcomes Thayet to his Court. George and Alanna rekindle their flirtationship, but put future plans on hold until after the Coronation.
Rodger turns out to be planning treason again (surprising no-one), draining Alanna's twin brother Thom of magic to restore his own. Alanna fights him again, killing him permanently this time, and returns to the desert to mourn her brother.
In the Epilogue, George, now pardoned and a Baron, comes to visit her. Ultimately, Alanna asks him to marry her, and the quartret ends with them going to announce their engagement.
I'd originally planned to do the entire Tortall universe, which spans five series and 17 books, but that would have taken too long, so I decided to do a few different articles, focussing on the main characters individually.
Next up will be Daine, and the Immortals series