And then Mark-who-reads started reading them.
And then suddenly, they were ten times more fabulous. Because if there's one thing I love about Mark's chapter-by-chapter reviews, it's his insightful commentary on something so new to him, and so beloved by the rest of us.
Because at age 13, there was a lot I took for granted. I found it awesome that a girl could disguise her gender for eight years to train to be a knight, but I didn't realize just how revolutionary that was -- for 1983, that is. There was nothing like it in the 90s, and in fact, I don't think there's anything like it even now. When I was growing up, if you wanted female protagonists, you had to choose between Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Drew, or the American Girl dolls, all of which are dated, in their times and their attitudes towards women in the world. Books that cheered girls for being girls were few and far in between, and books that showed a character cross-dressing? Well, others like that haven't really been written yet.
And surprise surprise, living as the opposite gender is hard. Particularly when Alanna is going through puberty, and she has to figure out how to hide and bind her boobs. Not to mention how much she freaks out when she starts bleeding, because no one tells a boy what a period is!
Lurking beneath it all is Alanna's constant sense of inferiority, her fear that she is weak, that she will fail and be revealed, that she's not as good as the boys she's training with. She works hard to combat that -- learning street fighting to beat a bully and practicing twice as many hours as her peers with a heavy sword -- but it's still something that nags at her. Her feeling that she's not special, she's merely masquerading as a boy takes years to overcome. As someone who has always been very short (I stand at a grand 5 feet tall) and always wrestled with a feeling of insignificance stemming from that, Alanna was my life-saver.
And meanwhile, there's a love triangle. Yea, that's right, two men love a woman who's been masquerading as a boy, just for who she is in her own right. But Tammy never lets those loves define Alanna. She is always awesome, and always free to make her own choices. She's also free to make no choice at all, because she's quite frankly scared of love, attachment, and sex. And that's okay.
For all her formative years as a boy, Alanna doesn't really know how to live as a woman. So she spends some of her free time secretly shopping for dresses and makeup, practicing the manners of the gender she doesn't know. Admitting she's ignorant of women's world and work isn't easy, nor is learning it from scratch. And as Mark points out, it's full of wonderful queer subtext.
When her gender is finally revealed to the world, it's done so through a slash and a bang (literally). Alanna leaves court, partly to get away from the scandal, but partly because that's what she's always planned. She is an independent knight, who is bound to strike out on her own. Almost right away, she gets bound up in another culture of desert-dwellers, whose restrictions on women are even stricter than what she's used to. As a legend, she manages to turn a tribe upside down, impressing upon them the idea of feminism in some spheres, yet leaving them to their discretion in others (such as the matter of wearing hijab-like veils).
Simultaneously, she realizes that as much as she may love one man, love isn't good enough for marriage, and certainly not for years of it, especially to royalty. And she realizes that any man she marries needs to take her at her word, especially when it comes to big decisions, like a proposal. That's a powerful realization. And in the end, she proves that such arguments aren't the end, because she saves her country for that man.
Yes, this book is about women being just as strong, and stronger than men. But you know what? Alanna doesn't have to reject her femininity to do that. Her fears, her emotions, her loves, her tears are just as much a part of her as her swordplay and her magic.
I always thought it significant that when she first appears formally at court as a woman, the first female knight in 100 years, bringing home an object of immense power, she decides not to wear pants or a dress, but instead rocking a short-skirt-breeches outfit that she designed herself. Because if there's one thing you learn in four books spent with Alanna, it's that you can't put her in a category, or in a box. She is herself. The Lioness. And she will always surprise you.
So on this Thanksgiving, I say thank you, Tammy. I am so grateful. In writing the books you always wanted to read, you empowered a whole generation. Love you.