Old-School Review: The Protector of the Small Quartet (First Test, Page, Squire, Lady Knight)

First TestBy Tamora Pierce [Pierce at LibraryThingPierce at Amazon]

Though for ten years, it’s been legal for girls to train as pages and aspire to Knighthood, Keladry of Mindelan is the first one who has actually done so — and being legal doesn’t make it easy. She’s put on probation as a page, something never done with a boy; she’s hazed by bullies; she’s treated unfairly by the training masters. No one, it seems, wants to see a lady knight. But Kel is determined, and she won’t let anything — or anyone — stand in her way.

Tammy Pierce is Jess’s favorite writer, the way mine is Bruce Coville — and we shared them similarly as adults, in that I had also never read, and had barely heard of, any of her books, much to Jess’s horror. But she’s been highly recommended to me by, oh, everyone, including co-blogger Jess, and also my father, who was so scandalized that I’d never read any of Tammy’s books that he mailed me the entire Protector of the Small quartet.

PageNeedless to say, I loved them. I devoured them, actually, reading all four over the course of Labor Day weekend, unable to put them down for things like meals or sleep until I’d finished. That is pretty much the highest praise I can give.

The books tell Kel’s story, starting with her at age ten, beginning her training as a page; the show her grow up to age 18, as she completes her training and handles her first mission as a knight. They really are not especially plot-driven (particularly not the second and third, which seemed to rush through her training to get to the good stuff once she was knighted), but Kel is such a compelling character, and the books are so much fun, that plot is secondary: what you’re reading for is to see Kel overcome and triumph, and when she does, you feel victorious as a reader.

SquireThere was some minor awkwardness in the series, in that it was clearly based in a much longer, more-established world; there were a lot of references to other characters and events that had happened in past books, which I could follow because someone whose name rhymes with Shmessica has described them to me in great detail, but even so I wasn’t always clear on what was going on in the greater world — particularly in the third and fourth books, when the country goes to war with another country. I wasn’t sure if there was really a reason for the war, which I wasn’t clear on because I hadn’t read the backstory, or if they were just generic fantasy villains who were villainous just because. Also, due to the nature of the series, there were some odd pacing choices; the climax of the second book involves Kel saving her maid, who has been kidnapped, but the kidnappers aren’t caught until well into the third book. At the end of the second, I was confused about why that hadn’t happened. (Also at the end of the second book, Kel has been worrying and worrying about a giant test she hast to take — and we don’t even see her take it; she goes in and then we skip to her finding out she passed, which seems like an odd choice.)

One of the things Tammy is known for — or at least, one of the reasons she has been recommended to me so many times — is her excellent female characters, and oh boy, was that true. Aside from Kel, there was Alanna (gosh, do you think I should read that series?), the only other lady knight; the queen, a princess, and their ladies-in-waiting; Kel’s mother and sisters; and Kel’s maid, Lalasa, and other female servants. The women vary widely in personalities and skills, and in what they want from life. The only one a lot of time is spent on is Lalasa, and like Kel, she grows and develops as a character.

Lady KnightThat said, there was also something a little bit odd in the way Kel related to femininity. She both concentrated on it — as the only female page, she made sure to wear dresses to dinner so one would forget she was a girl — and yet rejected it. When she hit puberty (and I’d just like to say again, there is something really odd and awkward about including a what-are-these-changes-happening-to-my-body? speech in a fantasy novel), she pretty much declared she didn’t want breasts — or her period — because she didn’t want to be a woman, she wanted to be a knight. Even though the whole thing was that she was becoming a lady knight. And when she had crushes on her various male friends, she also constantly worried about being one of those girls, fickle and falling in and out of love all the time. That really irked me, actually; first off, because one of her male friends did that but she still only associated it with being a female trait; second, because I get uncomfortable any time any woman being written of as “that kind of woman,” becauseā€¦ Well, it’s unfair and judgmental. It’s not that I thought Kel shouldn’t crush on her friends, it’s that I kept waiting for Lalasa to sit her down and explain that it was okay — normal — for her to feel that way, and that most people aren’t in love with the first person they have a crush on, and that that’s not a bad thing. Instead, Kel continued to feel guilty over her crushes, to look at them as a bad thing, and to associate that badness with femininity.

So there you go: the series was not without its flaws. But it was a great read regardless, and I am definitely converted to fangirling. I want more of Tammy’s books, and I want them now. As in, I know what my next paycheck is being spent on. The awesomeness far outweighed the few noticeable flaws, and so the Protector of the Small quartet as a whole gets four cupcakes. And sprinkles!


    5 Responses to “Old-School Review: The Protector of the Small Quartet (First Test, Page, Squire, Lady Knight)”

    1. Gillian says:

      I have so much love for both Tamora Pierce and Bruce Coville. If you listen to audio books you should definitely check out some of the ones that Bruce and his company (FullCast Audio) made of Tammy’s books.

      I would also recommend all of Tammy’s books, but Terrier is my favorite. The Circle of Magic books are great too, so don’t miss out on those.

      Plus she has a couple of fun blogs. She has Girl Wonder in her link section.

    2. Megan says:

      I loved Tamora Pierce’s books when I was in middle school and high school. If I wasn’t so attached to my copies of almost everything she’s written I would totally send them to you to read. I actually don’t think that I have read anything by Bruce Coville.

      Although I definitely prefer her earlier series I really liked Protector of the Small (I think my favorite quote came from one of those books “threats are the last resort of a man with no vocabulary”) I’m glad you enjoyed them, and I’ll have to keep an eye on the blog to see what you think of the other ones.

    3. Esha says:

      YES you should read the Alanna books. You will enjoy them EVEN MORE. (I did the same thing you did and started with the Protector of the Small last summer, and each series just got better than the last)

    4. Jessica says:

      I can lend you the Daine books and the Aly books! And whatever Circle of Magic books I have. I apologize for being a crazy person about the Alanna ones, but.

      I’m really glad you liked them! There is basically no reason for the war. I want to say Thayet is from Scanra and we saw as early as the fourth Alanna book that it’s a pretty wartorn country, but…that’s the only real previous reference to it. Each quartet has a war against an aggressive neighbor while Tortall is virtuous and pure, basically.

      Man, this Shmessica person must talk a lot.

    5. allyndra says:

      By now you may have already read them, but I definitely recommend the Alanna books. I randomly picked up Lioness Rampant in the library when I was in junior high and had to track down the rest of the series. 15 years later, I still buy every book Tamora Pierce writes. I love the way Alanna grows from seeing her gender as a problem to overcome to accepting herself as a woman, and I love that she has sex without being punished or vilified for it, the way female characters so often are.

      One of the criticisms of the way female characters are written (in general) is that so often in an ensemble, there is the smart guy, the strong guy, the clumsy guy, the funny guy … and then there’s the girl. As though being female is a defining characteristic all on its own. I really enjoy the way Pierce writes women as CHARACTERS, never just ‘the girl.’ Despite their professions and training, Alanna and Kel are such different people. It’s wonderful.

      I enjoyed reading your review!

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