The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man is the third volume of the SONG OF THE LIONESS quartet and the weakest volume of the series. Tamora Pierce makes a good effort of exposing Alanna (and thus, the reader) to some of the varying peoples and customs within the Tortallan kingdom and its neighboring countries, but relies too much on the White Savior trope, and the entire book suffers as a result. As I’ve said before, readers should start with the first book, Alanna: The First Adventure and work forward, though Pierce does a great job of summarizing key events from previous books.
The entire SONG OF THE LIONESS series is about old ways changing to make way for the new, and nowhere is that more blatant than in this book, especially during the multiple conversations characters have about that very subject. Newly-knighted and outed as female during a subsequent duel with the scheming Duke Roger, Alanna exiles herself from King Roald’s court and rides into the Great Southern Desert, where she meets and lives among a tribe of the Bazhir, a “walnut-skinned” shamanistic people who live in tents and wear burnooses, and whose women must remain subservient to men in all aspects of life. (If I had a nickel for every misogynistic, mystical, desert-dwelling tribe encountered by “milk-skinned” fantasy heroes…) The Bloody Hawk tribe, which takes Alanna in after she’s attacked by marauding hillmen, is guided by a tyrannical old shaman who denounces her as a she-demon and nearly destroys the entire camp in an effort to murder her. Alanna’s magical Gifts prove superior to those possessed by Akhnan Ibn Nazzir’s, though, and when she vanquishes him in battle, the tribe’s headman names her as the shaman’s successor. Bazhir laws state that she must remain in this role until she can train a successor, or unless she herself is killed.
Alanna immediately sets to training three Gifted teenagers: impatient Ishak, with an aptitude for fire magic; timid Kara, who has glimmers of telekinesis; and stubborn Kourrem, who affects the weather with her emotions. The increased number of female characters in The Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a welcome change from the previous two books, and Alanna suffers a double dose of culture shock when she is expected to adhere to Bazhir norms as a woman and as an adopted member of their tribe. Her difficulties with weaving, a skill she would have had no reason to learn as a page or squire, are both comical and a reminder that “women’s work” is not necessarily simplistic.
There are occasions when Alanna’s opinion that the Bloody Hawk must change their ways make sense, such as when she informs headman Halef Seif that her female apprentices must join her at council meetings if they are to be accepted in their shamanistic duties by the tribe. One can’t fault the logic behind this shift in gender politics. When Alanna says that her apprentices should stop wearing veils in a misguided attempt to prove their equality to the men of their tribe, however, I was deeply upset. The sheer arrogance of coming into another culture and telling its people how to live, down to the minutiae of how some members should dress, was breathtaking. I was grateful that Kourrem and Kara refused to listen to Alanna, and even more grateful when I read Pierce’s Afterword, in which she confronts this very scene and admits that her younger self’s views while writing it were not as enlightened as those of her present self. I’d imagine that admitting an authorial mistake must be difficult, especially since Pierce leaves the original text unaltered, and I gained a whole new respect for her as a result.
Later on, the Bloody Hawk is visited by Prince Jonathan and Sir Myles of Olau, ostensibly because Prince Jonathan needs a break from the rigors and expectations of courtly life. In reality, he has come to propose marriage to Alanna, and does not react well when she tells him that she isn’t sure whether to say yes. His character’s downward slide from respectability is continued in The Woman Who Rides Like a Man; he’s rude, erratic, and vainglorious. His detestable behavior makes it all the more strange that Ali Mukhtab, the venerated Voice of the Tribes — who holds all the Bazhir’s knowledge and traditions, as well as initiating magical mass-communication with each tribe on a daily basis — chooses Jonathan to be his successor. Naming an outsider to this exalted position has never been done before, but Mukhtab believes it is the only way to preserve the traditions of his people and to stop the constant warring between the northern kingdom and the southern tribes.
This plotline is, to my mind, too much like so many other narratives in which a white man is adopted by a darker-skinned group of people, learns their ways, is granted a position of power and respect because he’s better at being one of them than they could ever be, and then rescues those people from whatever problems or difficulties they’re experiencing. (See also: Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.) It’s bad enough that Alanna tries to revolutionize their culture from within, but for the Bazhir people to entrust their entire cultural identity and future to a stranger whose inherited land claim gives him supreme power over them just seems wrong. I don’t like that Pierce, in her own words,
created a [conquered] people who would risk the intimacy of having [Jonathan] as the Voice of the tribes rather than watch their young people lose their culture to the one that surrounds them.
All it would have taken for me to accept a change of Bazhir custom would be for Mukhtab to name a member of the Bazhir as his successor, adopt Jonathan into a tribe so that he has access to their group-mind, and then install the new Voice of the Tribes as one of Prince (and eventually King) Jonathan’s advisors. That way, the Bazhir would have a presence in the Tortallan court and could speak for themselves. Instead, a powerful young man is given even more power, and the strongest elements of The Woman Who Rides Like a Man are lessened as a result. While I will grant that the SONG OF THE LIONESS quartet is over thirty years old at this point and shows other signs of being written by a young and inexperienced author, this theme and plotline seem better suited to the beginning of the twentieth century than the end of it.
George Cooper makes an appearance near the end of the book, and even gets a few chapters devoted to his point of view. George encounters a threat to his leadership as the King of Thieves, suffering poisoning attempts and attacks in the street from unknown assailants, and in an unrelated instance, confronts Alanna’s twin brother Thom for performing a magical experiment which has drained the Gift (and, in some cases, health) from any magically-inclined person in the city of Corus. During his year at court, Thom has become even more ambitious and headstrong: he’s allying himself with Duke Roger’s former paramour, dressing in extravagant robes, and claiming to be capable of raising the dead. George’s chapters are stylistically very much like Alanna’s, down to his interactions with her cat, Faithful, and serve the function of setting up the primary antagonists and conflicts to come in the quartet’s final volume.
While I have complaints about some of the secondary characters (and occasionally, Alanna herself), Alanna’s continued journey of exploration and self-discovery are immensely appealing. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man is good despite its dated flaws, and builds upon the best qualities of the preceding two books, leading to a thrilling conclusion in Lioness Rampant. Watch this space!
The third book in Tamora Pierce‘s four-part SONG OF THE LIONESS series takes an unexpected direction. After many years of disguising herself as a boy so she can train as a knight, Alanna of Trebond’s secret is finally exposed. With her gender revealed and her nemesis Duke Roger of Conté defeated, Alanna is permitted to keep her hard-won title and remain the first Lady Knight of Tortall.
So two plot-points which might well have been stretched out over all four books are abruptly brought to a close, leaving Alanna to pursue her dream of being a wandering knight across the realm. She and her man-at-arms Coram have decided to go south to Tyra, when they’re waylaid halfway through the southern desert by the Bloody Hawk tribe of Bazhir.
Due to the fulfilment of a prophecy in Alanna’s past, the tribe tentatively invite her to live among them, where she’s soon integrated into their culture and traditions. Many are welcoming, but the shaman is staunchly against her presence, believing that she’s a demon sent to bring ruin on his people — especially when she flouts tribal tradition and takes three young apprentices under her wing.
There’s a lot to unpack with this storyline. On the one hand, there’s a very feminist slant in which Alanna helps younger and more vulnerable girls to stand up to the cultural norms that stifle them. On the other, there’s a definite sense of the white saviour complex, what with Alanna effortlessly taking a place of authority within a different culture and improving upon it.
But hey — the book was first published in 1986, and it’s clear that Pierce had good intentions. SONG OF THE LIONESS paved the way for a whole range of novels starring flawed and complex female characters, and even in the early stages of her career there’s plenty of interesting nuance to be found throughout the characters and their interactions. One of my favourites is Alanna’s disappointment that the women of the tribe are less accepting of her young female apprentices than the men — she assumed they’d be pleased, but instead they’re jealous.
Pierce also turns what might have been a clichéd love triangle into something far more interesting: over the course of the last two books Alanna has held romantic interest in both Prince Jonathan of Tortall and George Cooper, a roguish king of thieves. Both are her friends, and both are worthy men, but Alanna doesn’t let herself get carried away with romance and hormones. To her, finding a life partner is a practical concern as well as an emotional one, and Alanna doesn’t necessarily end up with the first man she’s intimate with.
Even in the early days of her career, Pierce is a thoughtful and creative writer. There are so many lessons her stories impart, and yet it’s never done in a preachy or heavy-handed way. Alanna herself is surely one of the best heroines in YA fiction: sensible but bad-tempered, disciplined but naïve, stubborn but as true as steel. No one who reads about her will ever forget her, and she’s only the first in a wave of wonderful female characters that Pierce followed up with.
The Song of the Lioness — (1983-1988) Young adult. Publisher: Becoming a legend is not easy, as young Alanna of Trebond discovers when she disguises herself as a boy and begins training to be a knight. Alanna’s skills and stubbornness help her befriend Prince Jonathan and alienate his evil uncle, Duke Roger. Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, this book is a rousing introduction to the intensely satisfying story of Alanna.