Regular readers of this blog will know I’m speculative fiction nerd. I grew up on a steady diet of Asimov, Tolkien, and Mervyn Peake, and spent much of my adolescence reading every volume of serial and epic fantasy I could find. Gradually, with ineffable leaps of taste, my reading matured away from swords-and-sorcery, and I never got around to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the current face of epic fantasy to a non-nerd.
This year, with the Emmy nominated HBO adaptation of the first book (A Game of Thrones) and the long awaited release of the latest (A Dance with Dragons), epic fantasy has arrived. Once derided as “escapism” and “barbarians with babes and big blades”, it has suddenly become “gritty” and “challenging”. As a veteran spec fic reader, I already know that such fantasy has a lot to offer, but it’s gratifying to have one’s beliefs validated. If only, I muttered to myself as the internet was invaded by literary sorts ‘discovering’ epic fantasy, they had chosen any other series to get excited about! I could’ve offered up plenty of choices; one of my favourite books of all time is Toll the Hounds, from Steven Erikson’s amazing The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. Unfortunately, I don’t get to set trends, merely follow them, and I began reading this whopper of a series.
A Song of Ice and Fire lives up to all the criticism fantasy has received in the past, placing itself staunchly in the most regressive tradition within the genre. Sady Doyle’s hilarious take on the series covers many of my grouses with it: the assumption that all women must need breed by fifteen; more heraldry than chivalry; endless gore and rapine; our mutual impatience with the faux-medieval setting fantasy writers are so fond of evoking. These books treat their women like chattel and their men like jerks, which is all very well and perhaps realistic, but not, you will agree, fantastic. In between the books, for all her excellent reasons, I need a break to drown out Martin’s misogyny. The obvious choice, if you are as fazed by the late Lord Martin as I am, is Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet.
Song of the Lioness is the first of Pierce’s many series set in her “Tortall” universe, which, like Martin’s Westeros, is vaguely reminiscent of the European middle ages. It is a feudal universe, a land in which noble knights wander about and perform great acts of derring-do. Unlike Martin’s venal nobles, the nobility here is largely benign, and the books follow the adventures of one knight, Alanna of Trebond. She disguises herself as a boy in the first two books to undergo her training, while the latter novels explore the challenges she faces as the first female knight in a century.
When I first read Song of the Lioness, I fancied myself a cynical teen. I skipped her romantic adventures- from the Crown Prince to the King of Rogues to the highly shaggable “Shang Dragon”- and read them for her struggles with femininity in an unsympathetic world. I even thought, with the pomposity of the very young, that Pierce was evading the possibility Alanna could grow up queer. By now, sadly, her biography has become wholly aspirational (if only I could be half as disciplined and valiant as this mighty knight!) and it was the boys I cherished most this time around. The boys, it must be said, are delicious: regal Jon, with his sapphire eyes and midnight hair; crooked George, all wit and wickedness. Best of all is her dance with the Shang Dragon, a conquest worthy of any hero. As an adult skeptical of stereotypes, I respect the novels’ insistence that the choices Alanna makes between her boys, in this conservative universe, are entirely her own. She pays a price for them, and is called a slut more than once by her peers, yet Pierce refuses to let convention buckle her heroine.
Song of the Lioness is young adult fiction, and ought to be read as such. It isn’t, moreover, brilliantly plotted and Alanna’s far more a hero than a person. This improves with later books in the Tortall universe, and I loved the ones featuring Alanna’s daughter Alianne (Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen). I don’t want to give away Alanna’s final choice of boy, so let’s just say he was my favourite and Aly takes after her dad. I’m told, though, that the best Tortall books are from the Immortals sequence. I shall be reading them for solace between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Wish me, kind reader, fortitude.