Monday, June 16, 2008

First Test (audio book) by Tamora Pierce

Now that the rules have been changed so that girls are allowed to train to become knights, ten-year-old Keladry of Mindelan is determined to be the first girl to officially become a page - Alanna, the first Lady Knight, had to pretend to be a boy in order to be allowed to train to be a knight. Unfortunately, the situation hasn't become as fair as Kel had hoped. She is only allowed to be a page on a probationary basis, and it becomes apparent that she'll have to work harder than any of the boys in order to get through her time as a page and eventually become a knight. She has to face the prejudices of the other pages and several of the adults around her, including the man whose judgment decides whether she will be allowed to continue as a page. She also has to face bullying and hazing. Fortunately, Kel is strong, hard-working, and determined; she also has the support of the friends, both animal and human, that she makes along the way.

I had read the print version of this book several times before I listened to the audio version, and I've decided that I actually prefer reading it to listening to it. Although I didn't think Bernadette Dunne, the reader of the audio edition I listened to, did a bad job (in fact, I think she mostly did quite well when it came to expressing the proper emotions for different scenes), I didn't like the slight nasal quality that she gave Kel's voice. This was probably part of her attempt to make Kel sound young, but I found it a little annoying, not a nice thing to feel about a main character.

Readers who enjoy fantasy stories about strong female characters will probably enjoy this book. It's rare for Kel to express any kind of negative emotion, whether it's whining, pouting, crying, or complaining. Although some readers may find her to be unrealistically mature for a ten-year-old (or, eventually, an eleven-year-old), I enjoyed it. It's easy to get tired of whiny, immature characters, even if whiny, immature reactions might be considered more realistic under certain circumstances. In fact, there were quite a few situations where Kel could've felt entitled to some "why me?" complaining (such as the bit where Kel discovers that one of the boys has peed upon the door to her room), which made it even more refreshing that Pierce limited the amount of time her readers were subjected to such reactions. Although, as I've said, some readers may find Kel's maturity to be unrealistic, Pierce does provide justification for the way she behaves. Kel has spent several years as the daughter of an ambassador among the Yamani (I think the Yamani Islands were probably based upon Japan), people who stress not showing one's emotions.

Kel is unable to use magic, although Pierce still manages to introduce magic into the story in the form of foes, such as the frightening spidrens Kel faces twice in this book, and animal friends who've been changed by their proximity to Daine, a woman who can communicate with animals. Much of the story focuses on Kel's time in class, doing her coursework, and training, although there are a few action scenes to keep this fast-paced book exciting.

Read-alikes:
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J. K. Rowling - After Harry discovers on his eleventh birthday that he's a wizard, he leaves his horrible Muggle (non-magical) family to go to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Since Harry miraculously survived an attack by the powerful evil wizard Lord Voldemort when he was just a baby, he's something of a celebrity in the world of wizards and witches. This means that, although he makes a few good friends, he's also got a few automatic enemies. Readers who enjoyed Pierce's detailed descriptions of Kel's experience in a fantasy world's school might enjoy this book. Like Kel, Harry has to deal with bullies, the occasional adult who doesn't like him, and accomplishing a task that even an adult might find frightening. Although Kel's greatest action-oriented difficulties tend to involve armed battle with horrific monsters, Harry finds himself fighting against an evil wizard and his minions who threaten the lives of all wizards and witches in the world. Still, both books have action, well-developed worlds, interesting characters, and strong friendships.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is the first book in Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series, which is part of a larger collection of books all set in the same universe, much like Pierce's Tortall books. This book introduces Talia, a thirteen-year-old girl who dreams of leaving her conservative society to go be with Heralds and their magical Companions (beings that look like horses, but which are magical and at least as intelligent as humans). Just when things are looking really bad for Talia, she is found by a Companion, who takes her to Haven, the city where the Herald Collegium is located. It is there that Talia discovers that the Companion has Chosen her to be a Herald. Being bonded to this particular Companion means that Talia is now the Queen's Own (the queen's confidant and advisor). Unfortunately, Talia's new position puts her in danger, so she must learn all she can as quickly as she can. Readers who enjoyed First Test's semi-medieval world, magical elements, and detailed description of Kel's experiences in her classes and boarding school-like environment might enjoy this book. Although Talia eventually discovers her own personal strength, she starts off as a much meeker character than Kel.
  • Dragonsinger (book) by Anne McCaffrey - This is actually the second book in McCaffrey's Harper Hall Trilogy, so it can be mildly confusing to begin with this book - however, its environment matches First Test better than the trilogy's first book, Dragonsong. In Dragonsinger, Menolly has recently been accepted as an apprentice at Harper Hall, something she's always dreamed of. Unfortunately, she is sometimes the object of ridicule, because she's pretty much the only serious female student in the entire Hall. Her nine fire lizards (tiny dragon-like creatures) also make her the envy of others. Despite her uncomfortable position, Menolly makes a few friends and learns a great deal about music from her teachers. In time, it becomes apparent that Menolly's experience with fire lizards gives her some important and useful knowledge. Readers who enjoyed First Test's school/classroom aspects, Kel's bird friends (the fire lizards are very similar to them in some of the ways they behave), and magical elements may enjoy this book. Menolly, like Kel, is a determined and mature young girl.
  • Crimson Hero (manga) by Mitsuba Takanashi - Readers who are interested in another story where a girl decides to do something that everyone around her tells her she can't do might like this sports manga. All Nobara has ever wanted to do was to play volleyball, but, since she's the eldest daughter, her family wants her to become the next hostess for the family's ryotei (old-fashioned Japanese restaurant). Although Nobara's mother makes it as hard as possible for her to pursue her love of volleyball, Nobara still has the aid of her aunt and ends up living with the members of the Crimson Field High School's boys' volleyball team as their dorm mother. Although, due to lack of interest, this high school has no girls' volleyball team, Nobara is determined to pursue her dreams and gets the team reinstated after challenging the boys' team. As far as I know, Nobara doesn't have to deal with the kind of bullying and hazing that Kel does, but she does have to overcome a lot of negativity from her family, other girls, and the guys on the boys' team. Also, Nobara's a bit older than Kel (she's 15 to Kel's 10), so Takanashi occasionally brings a little romance into the story. However, for Nobara, romance usually makes her life as an athlete even more complicated and messy, so she doesn't necessarily consider romance a good thing.
  • Alanna: The First Adventure (book) by Tamora Pierce - First Test is not the only book set in this world, and Alanna: The First Adventure begins the story of Alanna, the Lady Knight Kel looks up to. In this first book of The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Alanna, a young noble girl, is determined to become a knight rather than go to a convent, as is traditional for girls of her status. Alanna disguises herself as a boy and becomes a page in her twin brother Thom's stead, while Thom goes off to study magic.
  • Wild Magic (book) by Tamora Pierce - If you liked what little you got to see of Daine and Numair in First Test, you might enjoy this book, the first in Pierce's The Immortals Quartet. In this first book, Daine, a thirteen-year-old girl, discovers that her skill with animals is actually a rare and powerful form of magic. She learns to control her abilities with the help of a mage named Numair Salmalin.

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