To Alanna, becoming a knight is Serious Business. Because she's our main viewpoint character, that colors our perception of the story. When Alanna first puts on her page uniform and prepares to meet the other noble boys, she notices that "her hands were shaking" (2.23). Every time someone comes close to finding out about her gender, she gets nervous and reacts very seriously. Makes sense. If you had to lie about who you were in order to have a shot at achieving your dreams, your hands would probably shake, too.
Because Alanna tells it like she sees it, we get a very direct take on life at the palace. She knows that she's signing up for a life of hardship, and she expresses it in phrases like this: "Training was endless. Even once a knight had his shield—or her shield—he still worked out in the yards. To get out of shape was to ask for death at the hands of a stranger on a lonely road" (2.125). Yep, she's not pulling any punches here.
If you'll join us for a brief chuckle, it's pretty ironic that Alanna's tone is so honest, when (1) she's lying about who she is, and (2) she doesn't always know the truth about things. For instance, when she gets her period, she flips out but still describes honestly what's happening to her: "Hunting frantically, she found some bandage and used it to stop the red flow. Her hands shook. Her whole body was icy with fear" (6.1). It's not until later that she learns about menstruation, but her reaction to it is honest and rings true with what we know about her character.
Exhibit B when it comes to honesty is Alanna's reaction to Duke Roger. She dislikes the man intensely, without having any clue why. Alanna's friend Gary (also one for honest speech) asks what's wrong with her, saying: "He was being friendly, and if you were a dog your hackles would've been up" (5.71). And by the end of the book, we still don't have any confirmation that Duke Roger is a bad, bad dude… but because Alanna believes he is, we can't help believe it too.
Alanna starts out a ten-year-old kid, and winds up learning and accomplishing a bunch. So, like in other works of Young Adult Literature, we see a youthful protagonist finding her place in the world, making friends, defeating evil immortals, and other warm fuzzy things. Not every part of growing up is happy, after all…but at the same time, Alanna's adventures are told in an accessible and fun way, making them suitable for young readers (but fun for adults, too!).
It also counts as fantasy due to the prevalence of magic and the supernatural in what is a made-up fantasy world à la Tolkien's Middle Earth (though a tad less exactingly constructed). Alanna can use her magic to heal and create illusions; she confronts a magic fever that's threatening her friend; and she gets to use a magic sword to kill some bad guys. Granted, there aren't any orcs or unicorns, but we still feel pretty secure calling it fantasy.
The title, Alanna: The First Adventure is one of those straightforward titles that is like, "Guess what? The book is named after the main character!" Subtle, we know.
But it also clues us into a few other things, like there's going to be at least one adventure in this book. Because you totally didn't see that coming. Sorry to spoil it for you.
Also, the whole "First Adventure" bits sets us up to realize that Alanna is pretty new to all this. We follow her progress as she makes friends and allies, and learns how to do her job (which is being a knight-in-training). Because of the visions she has of the Black City with Maude and during the Sweating Fever, we know that something major is gonna go down there, something that will, in fact, be Alanna's first big adventure.
So we get to watch Alanna prepare for this trial without knowing exactly what she's preparing for. It takes her a while to get the hang of being a page, but once she does, and once she kicks some Nameless Ones butt, we know she's going to keep having adventures and being awesome. Plus, if there's a first adventure, we kind of suspect there's going to be a second. Yes, please.
In the very-very end of the book, Alanna agrees to be Jonathan's squire, pledging her life to him. Then she takes a nap. Exciting, huh?
But if we backtrack a bit, we see that Alanna and Jonathan have just defeated the Ysandir (a.k.a. the Nameless Ones) against major odds. Jonathan finds out that Alanna is a girl during the fight, but he's not fazed: all he wants is an explanation of how and why she became a page. When Jonathan formally asks Alanna to be his squire, she swears loyalty to him and kisses "his hand, blinking back tears" (7.270). He responds, "by ruffling her hair" (7.271), reminding us that, even when they're king and page, Jonathan and Alanna are still just buddies.
Oh, sure she's still worried about Duke Roger possibly being a threat to Jonathan's safety, but that's a problem to deal with another day. Today, nap. As Alanna says, "If there were any more Ysandir about, she was too tired to care" (7.273). Fighting evil immortals sure takes it out of you, eh?
The significance of these ending tidbits is that Alanna has spent the whole book worrying that (1) people at the palace will find out she's a girl and hate her and send her home, (2) she won't be able to fight as well as a boy, and (3) she's unworthy of any honor or really anything good at all because she's a liar. But this ending puts all her fears to rest. Sure, not everyone knows her secret, but Jonathan is one of her best friends, and if he knows the truth and still accepts her, that's super-important to her. We get the sense that Alanna has grown and matured by the end of the book—not to mention that she's learned how to use a magic sword (among other things). She has friends who accept who she is. We'll take that over "and they lived happily ever after" any day.
As you'll observe in many—er, all—fantasy novels, the location is an invented world, meaning that author Tamora Pierce took ideas and bits and pieces from existing cultures and glommed them all together to make up her own setting. Tortall is a kingdom nestled between Scanra to the north, a bunch of other kingdoms to the east, and the sea to the south and west. Sounds plausible enough, right?
But like any good fantasy novel, there are recognizable parts of our own world in Tortall. The idea of hereditary feudalism (the king's oldest son inherits the throne) makes an appearance, as do the notions of knighthood and chivalry, which come complimentary of the Middle Ages in Europe. The very fact that every hereditary station has its own proper way to be addressed means a lot of title-learning for Alanna and her peers. What else can you spot? Any abuses of absolutist power, like we see in Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail.
Related to the whole "your birth is your destiny" aspect of feudalism is the gender stuff. Sure, Tamora Pierce could've written a novel about a boy who wants to become a knight and…does. By making her protagonist a girl, Pierce gives us some insight into what it's like to be born into a society that looks at your genitals and says, "Here's the rest of your life all planned out for you. You're welcome!" Which is totally different from our everyday society…er…right?
So Alanna faces some unique challenges in this setting because she's a girl. Being a highborn girl would've meant a ton of etiquette and magic lessons (and we're not sure which Alanna would hate more), and then getting married off to some noble dude in order to advance her family's property or chivalry or whatever. Blech. Surely Alanna's not the only noble girl to be unhappy with her fate, so we have to wonder what the other noble chicks do. Are they just resigned to a boring life as a trophy wife? Do they rebel in subtle ways? Sadly, we don't find out in this book.
Pierce also gives Tortall a religion made up of bits and pieces from lots of different Earth religions, with plenty of gods to go around. The Dark God embodies death; Mithros and the Great Mother Goddess show up a lot; and there are hundreds of gods beyond, who are worshiped in the City of the Gods. It seems safe to say that Tortall is a polytheistic (many-god-worshiping) society. These gods seems to be a part of Tortall's history, too, although Alanna isn't exactly a history buff. She is interested in what she knows of the ancient past, asking Myles things like, "D'you think it's true, that the gods were afraid the Old Ones would challenge them, so they rained fire on the Eastern Lands?" (6.96). Good question. We don't know either.
And then there are the differences between our world and Alanna's. Multiple deities are worshiped (as in our world), but they can manifest and give advice and help defeat demons (not generally so true in our world). If an individual can practice magic, that magic usually glows with a distinctive color (Alanna and Thom's magic is purple; Maude's is green, and so on). Nonexistent-for-us stuff changes and affects people's lives even in small ways, as when Alanna uses her Gift to speed up her broken arm's healing process, or when Mistress Cooper gives Alanna birth control in the form of a magical pendant. Cool, huh?
What kind of a place spawns the epically stubborn twins Alanna and Thom? Trebond is "heavily overgrown and rocky country" (1.62), so it's maybe not the most welcoming place to outsiders. Turns out Trebond is situated in the "unfriendly forests of the Grimhold Mountains, the great natural border between Tortall and Scanra" (1.62). What kind of a name is Grimhold? Not one that makes us want to visit, that's for sure.
Thanks to its locations, citizens of Trebond have to be tough. This actually helps Alanna prepare for knighthood: "As the daughter of a border lord, Alanna knew exactly how important the fighting arts were. Every year Trebond fought off bandits. Occasionally Scanra to the north tried to invade through the Grimhold mountains, and Trebond was Tortall's first line of defense" (2.125).
We can see where someone like Alanna would thrive in Tortall, hiking in the mountains and learning to hunt in the forests. But we can also understand why she wants to come to the palace to train to become a knight; a small region like Trebond would only have so many opportunities for a voraciously curious kid.
Corus is Tortall's capital city, about a four-day ride from Trebond. In case you're not used to calculating distances in terms of horse-riding days, we calculate that puts it between 80 and 160 miles away from Trebond, or about an hour and a half by car. Gee, things sure were different back then. Er, wait. This is all made up, right?
Anyway, since Alanna grew up in the country, she's blown away by her first impression of Corus:
Never in her life had she encountered so many people! She saw merchants, slaves, priests, nobles. She could tell the Bazhir—desert tribesmen—by their heavy white burnooses, just as she spotted seamen by their braided pigtails … Alanna blinked her eyes at the bright colors—piles of orange and yellow fruits, hangings of bright blue and green, ropes of gold and silver chains. Some people were staring as openly as she was. Others shoved their goods under people's noses, shouting for them to buy. (1.106)
In other words, we're seeing a dense and diverse population and a sense and diverse marketplace. We're betting that—for a price—you could find pretty much anything or anyone you want on a market day in Corus.
The layout of Corus reflects the functions of the city: the marketplace gives way to the Temple District, which houses hundreds of gods (and their devotees). On top of a hill sits the royal palace, no doubt situated there to improve its defensibility—but it also makes the royal family feel a little distant. Speaking of getting whatever you want, there's a sizeable population of thieves inhabiting the lower city and answering to the King of the Thieves (who happens to be Alanna's friend George).
At one point, Alanna comments on how his people call him "Majesty," and he responds: "Why not? I'm king here—more king than the man who sits atop the big hill. My people wouldn't give him a word in passing, but they follow my slightest wish" (3.181). So yeah, it looks like there may be more than one king in Corus. That could get complicated—and, to a newb like Alanna, just as intimidating as the massive city and royal palace.
Olau, the home of Sir Myles, is about a day's ride from Corus. Alanna notices right away how different is it from her home, Trebond:
Unlike Trebond, Barony Olau was no fortress built to fight off mountain bandits and raiders from Scanra. Myles's home was set in a long valley and surrounded by acres covered with brown stubble. Toward the hills Alanna could see rows of trees. (6.124)
Myles explains the rows and rows and trees: turns out, the people of Olau are farmers (one perk is that their apples are apparently pretty tasty). Another fun thing about Olau is that it houses some of the ruins left by the Old Ones, the mysterious people who inhabited Tortall in the distant past. The peasants think the ruins are haunted, but Myles wants to explore them for his scholarly research.
The ruins are pretty astonishing to Alanna: "In some places the walls were taller than she was. They were built with marble, and the stone gleamed as if it had been carved the day before. A gate made of heavy black wood dangled half off its bronze hinges" (6.144). Hm. Sounds like, as fantastical as Tortall might seem to us, there was another, earlier civilization that was even more fantastical. Maybe Tortall's writers pen fantasy novels about them.
The Great Southern Desert is—you guessed it—south of Corus and most of the rest of Tortall. Alanna notices that the landscape is totally different: "The hills were rockier. The trees were shrunken and twisted, and the ground plants seemed to fight for each drop of water they took from the earth. The ground itself was brown and dry, torn with cracks" (7.1). Yep, sounds like a pretty standard desert.
Persopolis is the one city that the Bazhir (who are normally nomads) built in the Great Southern Desert. It's a fortress town, built over five springs, but there's more to the city than meets the eye. As Ali Mukhtab, governor of Persopolis, explains to Alanna, "we built Persopolis, so that we might watch the City, always" (7.50). And indeed, the view of the Black City from the west-facing Sunset Room of Persopolis is pretty sweet. Bazhir folklore says that the Nameless Ones of ancient history enslaved the Bazhir, who rebelled and burned their city, and then built Persopolis to always keep an eye on it. Supposedly, Bazhir youth vanish within the Black City's walls and never are seen again.
If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like our Middle East, we think you're right. So tell us: does this have some weird implications—like why the white European-style folk ruling over the brown desert people? Is Pierce using her fantasy setting to say something about our world?
Nah. That would just be crazy. (Or would it?)
We're talking youth literature here, so Alanna isn't mind-bogglingly difficult to read and understand. We spend a lot of time in Alanna's head, and since she's only ten or eleven years old throughout much of the book, her thoughts aren't often over our heads. Sure, the story tackles some complex issues—identity and acceptance, lies and loyalty—but Alanna's youthful perspective makes them accessible.
So, yeah, the book is for kids. (In fact, we highly recommend harnessing the closest 9-year-old and giving her this book.) But it's not just for kids. It's enjoyable and easy to read no matter what your age: nine, 19, or—we'll say it—90.
Alanna experiences most of the action in the book, so even though she's not technically the narrator (check out our "Narrator Point-of-View" section for more on this), we're going to talk a lot about how the world looks through her eyes.
Unlike some of the other kids her age, Alanna can read and write—but that doesn't mean she's poetic and artistically expressive. She tends to be simple and to the point with the way she describes things, such as when she first meets her sponsor:
Duke Gareth of Naxen was tall and thin, with dull brown hair that fell into his muddy brown eyes. Though he was plain looking, there was something commanding about him all the same. (2.1)
Sure, it's not the most exciting writing style ever, but it gets the job done: we have a mental image of Duke Gareth. We get these little pictures a lot. Alanna takes an interest in the world around her, so whenever she goes somewhere new or meets someone new, we tend to get a description. Plus, she's observant enough to give us a decent level of detail. For example, when Alanna goes to Mistress Cooper with her lady-business problems, she enters a small, clean room: "Healing plants of all kinds hung from the rafters, giving the room a fragrant smell. A small wooden table covered with a clean sheet sat in the room's center" (6.30). Thanks to Alanna's description, we have a good sense of where she is and what kind of care she'll receive.
The simple, direct style in which the story is told makes it easy for us to tag along and form a mental image of Alanna's various adventures and trials. Which is pretty neat, since we don't get to train to become knights or use magic swords on a daily basis.
What's in a name? In Alanna, names are like a portal into how this world works. They can tell us about who you are or what you can do. Even the absence of a name can be powerful, as with the Nameless Ones who are just so ancient and scary that the world has forgotten their names.
Check out how Jonathan and his friends don't call Ralon of Malven by his first name, though friends in the in-group do get called by their first names (Gary, Raoul, "Alan," and so on). When Jonathan explains that they're about to beat up Ralon for beating up Alanna, he says: "You were warned, Malven. You are no gentleman. You are a dog, and you shall be thrashed like one" (3.146). Talk about dehumanizing—Jonathan calls Ralon a dog, and also doesn't use his first name, but rather his family name! Using Ralon's family name is a distancing technique in that sense. It's like saying his individual identity doesn't matter to them. Harsh? Sure. But if you think about Ralon's personality, well, he kind of deserves it.
And then think about Alanna gives powerful, nature-related names to her sword and her horse, Lightning and Moonlight respectively. Lightning, true to its name, is a sword that you don't want to get struck with if you can avoid it. It's almost as though she's calling on these natural forces to help her, kind of like you'd name your kid "Grace" if you want her to be a ballet dancer and "King" if you want him to be, well, powerful. (Although, sad to say, we're pretty sure that one doesn't actually work.)
Speaking of kings, titles matter, too. George is called "Majesty" in the lower city even though, as a commoner and a thief, he can't technically lay claim to such a title. This disturbs Jonathan, as he's someone who has been born into royalty—legitimately. This parallelism almost makes us want to ask what the difference is between the King way up in the castle and the king of the thieves, anyway … but this is a Young Adult book, so we don't get too crazy with the social revolution. Plus, the two of them end up getting along, saving us from having to ask any really hard questions.
The fact that names come up again and again tells us that this is a world where names convey meanings and value. In some cases, it's a literal thing: the Nameless Ones are actually too terrible to name, and the fact that they're magical soul-suckers is related to this fact. In other cases, names reflect the social dynamics of the world—which is why it's insulting for Jonathan and his friends to not call Ralon by his given name. Neat, right?
Clothes make the man, right? We don't see Alanna in a dress, like, for the whole book, so there's something to that in her case.
When Alanna first arrives at the palace and is totally freaked out that someone might discover her identity and send her home in shame, one of the things that calms her down is her new page's uniform: "She had never looked so fine…There was one thing to be said for such a bright red and brighter gold: the royal uniform gave her the courage to unbolt the door and step into the hall. She couldn't have done it in her battered old clothes" (2.34-35). To recap: clothing = confidence-booster. Yep, we hear that.
At the same time, simply dressing nicely doesn't necessarily make you a nice person. Take Duke Roger: snappy dresser, but he's almost certainly plotting to kill his cousin and assume the throne. When he interrogates, er, politely questions Alanna about having the Gift, he "glimmered in a many-colored tunic and red-purple hose" (5.77). That is quite a fashion statement, sir. Too bad you don't have any morals that match that outfit. Oh snap!
The take-home lesson is this: people can use clothing to send a message about themselves, but the truthiness of that message depends on the honesty of the person sending it. Alanna is super earnest and honest with how she represents herself (with the one exception of hiding her gender), so we can generally look to her clothing for some indication of who she is. Duke Roger, on the other hand, is a mysterious dude who is most likely intentionally trying to convey that he is likeable and wonderful—in order to hide the fact that he might not be those things. Tricky.
For a book about knights and swords and stuff, there's an awful lot of healing going on. (Okay, maybe that's not so surprising.) Some of this healing is essential to the plot, such as when Alanna boots the Sweating Fever that almost takes Jonathan's life. Some of it is tangential to the plot, like when Alanna uses her Gift to speed up the healing of her broken arm so she can resume learning to fight in order to kick Ralon's butt. But put it all together, and you've got one major symbol.
Healing first appears on our radar when Maude is cutting Alanna's hair so that the twins can perform their great switcheroo. Maude tells Alanna: "if you want to pay for those lives you do take, use your healing magic. Use it all you can, or you won't cleanse your soul of death for centuries. It's harder to heal than it is to kill. The mother knows why, but you've a gift for both" (1.57).
Clearly, it's kind of anomalous that Alanna has the capability to both kill and heal. And the idea that Alanna has to heal in order to sort of repair her karma is pretty interesting. In other words, the book is kind of asking us: "Hey, what are you doing to repair the damage you do to those around you?"
Maybe you haven't chosen a profession that involves killing people, but it's still an uncomfortable question, right?
Old stuff is cool, especially if you're a hipster who was into it before it was cool. Like Hipster Kitty. In this book, we get glimpses of two old cities that are both different from each other and both important to Alanna's development as a character.
First, Sir Myles brings Alanna to the ruins of a settlement inhabited by the Old Ones, a (you guessed it) really old civilization. Here's how it looks: "The remains of stone walls stretched before them in neat rows, forming buildings and rooms inside the buildings" (6.145).
Since Myles is a scholar, he's IDed some of the buildings (the main house, the armory, etc.). But it's Alanna who makes the most important discovery: how to open the armory door. Inside that passageway, she finds a magical sword that saves her life more than once. So this visit to an ancient city is clearly a win for Alanna.
The Black City, by contrast, is not a good place for Alanna, or any mortal, really. Unlike the ruins of the Old Ones, it hasn't aged one bit: "There was no sand in the Black City, no dust—nothing to show that centuries had passed since people lived there. The alien buildings—beautifully and carefully carved—rose without break from the rocks of the streets." (7.78)
And while Alanna found a helpful magical item in the Old Ones' city, she finds magical enemies in the Black City: the Nameless Ones or Ysandir, who like to eat children's souls. (Intrigued? Check out their "Character Analysis for more on these delightful immortals.) Since Alanna has been training and becoming more awesome over the course of the book, she can team up with Jonathan to take them down—with the help of her magic sword helps, too. Interesting to note that the artifact from one ancient city helps destroy evil beings in another ancient city, hm?
So, there's an obvious thematic contrast between the two cities, but let's dig down a little deeper. When Sir Myles and Alanna are exploring the ruins at Olau, Alanna is asking questions like what is this stuff made of? He answers: "It looks like bronze or copper, but it polishes to a higher shine than new metal. I think it's the coating they were dipped in. The Old Ones treated everything with it—metal, wood, paper. Anything that might show age. They were terrified of aging" (6.148).
So…let's get this straight. One city, now in ruins, was populated by the mysterious Old Ones who were afraid of aging. The other city, totally still intact, is populated by the also-mysterious Nameless Ones, who keep themselves going by killing and consuming innocent children. The fact that a sword that came from a dead civilization is able to defeat a deathless terror suggests to us that there is far more power to be had in nature and the natural life cycle. The Nameless Ones removed themselves from nature by attempting to become immortal and preserve their city forever—but eventually, kids come along and destroy them. One generation gives way to the next.
This being a book about knights, we figured swords would get mentioned somewhere. And we were right! As in, mentioned on practically everywhere. In page school, swords are a pretty big deal. Alanna's not even allowed to begin training with a sword until her second year, and even then, she doesn't begin to learn how to use a sword until she can make one herself. Talk about being thorough.
Having to make your own sword seems like a good way to impress upon the elite warriors of Tortall that they need to understand where their power comes from before they wield it—and you're probably going to treat your weapon a little better if you had to make it yourself. (Plus, we bet wielding a blacksmith's hammer gives you some pretty sweet muscles.)
Even after that whole rigmarole, Alanna freaks out about learning to fight with a sword:
It was like taking any other test, only ten times worse. A knight lived or died by his swordsmanship. Without a mastery of swordplay, she would be no knight, have no adventures. (5.191)
Just she fears, Alanna is defeated pretty quickly at her first swordfight. But does she give up? Not our girl. Instead, she borrows Coram's sword in order to practice with it at night, reasoning that if she can learn to yield a sword that almost outweighs her, she'll be able to wield anything. Here, the borrowed sword symbolizes Alanna's stubbornness and ambition: large and perhaps a bit unwieldy.
But when Alanna retrieves a magical sword from Sir Myles of Olau's ruins—on that almost kills her—it takes on a new meaning: as soon as she accepts that she's powerless to stop her own death, the jewel in the sword's hilt flashes to life and she's released from the death-spell.
Back at the capital, Lightning serves as a stand-in for Alanna's own magic, which she's been trying to conceal from Duke Roger. When he sees the sword, he kind of freaks out: "Duke Roger's voice was quivering with—what? Rage? Impatience? Fear? Alanna wasn't sure" (6.230). He acts twitchy and threatened around the blade, and then tries to cover up when he notices the other boys in the room noticing him acting odd. Once again, Alanna plays dumb and insists that she doesn't know what the sword is really capable of, a clear parallel for the way Alanna is trying to get Duke Roger to think of her and her own magic abilities.
To sum up, swords are Serious Business for knights and knights-to-be. As Alanna learns to use a sword, she's also learning about herself—what she's capable of, as well as how it's important to protect herself from unwanted attention.
We see things through Alanna's eyes for most of the story, which is great because we empathize with her and feel her pain. Not literally, thank goodness, since she gets way more beatings that we're comfortable with. But limited perspective does give us good insight into where she's coming from, like how she's so driven to become a knight, and why she's so afraid of being found out as a girl.
For instance, we see Alanna's fear at being caught when she first visits the palace tailors:
Realizing they would measure her for her page's uniform, Alanna felt sick. Her mind whirled with visions of being forced to strip, of being caught and sent home in disgrace before she had even had a chance to start. (2.17)
Sounds icky—and if you don't feel a little queasy reading that, then you might want to increase your diet of literary fiction to build up your empathy.
The point of view stays in the third person, though, meaning that we get "he" and "she" descriptions, never "I" or "you." Most of the time, we're hovering inside Alanna's viewpoint, though there are occasional exceptions. We see Sir Myles sitting alone and thinking about some quirk of "Alan's" as though he's on the brink of figuring out Alanna's secret. We see Jonathan and the other pages talking about what to do about Ralon since he's beating on Alanna. But these snippets don't occur very often, and, when they do, Alanna remains central to the action: other characters are talking or thinking about her, shoring up her position as the main character of the story.
Alanna and her twin brother Thom are in the not-so-hot position of being sent to the medieval-fantasy equivalent of boarding school. They decide to switch places so that each can do what he or she truly wants: train to become a knight in Alanna's case (no girls allowed) and train to become a sorcerer in Thom's case (practically no boys allowed). They enlist the help of long-time servant Maude and Coram, make the switch, and off they go!
Since this beginning section sets the stage for the story by giving us so much info about who the twins are and what they want—as well as what they'll do to get it—we're calling this one: it's totally exposition.
Since prepubescent kids all look alike, Alanna manages to masquerade as a boy when she arrives at the palace and becomes a page. She befriends the crown prince, Jonathan, and his buddies, but also attracts the attention of a nasty bully, Ralon. Enlisting the help of her friend on the wrong side of the law, George, Alanna learns to fight dirty and gets Ralon off her back.
That doesn't mean her life is all rainbows and sparkly unicorn poop, however: training to become a knight is super-difficult, and Alanna is constantly exhausted and beat up. Alanna's drive to become a knight even while facing great odds (like getting beat on) sets her up for all kinds of conflicts—and that's why we're thinking that the bulk of Alanna's early days at the palace count as the rising action of the plot.
Alanna's mentor, Sir Myles, is compelled to bring her to his estate, where she unearths a magical sword. Jonathan's sinister cousin, Duke Roger, practically dares Jonathan to visit the Black City, an ancient evil place that Jonathan and his buddies will be nearby on a field trip. Alanna tags along when Jonathan takes an ill-advised jaunt to check out the Black City—where they face an old, nameless evil that devours people's souls. Boy, a magic sword sure would come in handy now, right?
Despite her insecurities about her ladyhood, Alanna manages to team up with Jonathan to kick some supernatural butt. Which is ten kinds of awesome, because it shows her coming to terms with her identity and using her skills to rock out—which is exactly what a climax is about. The rocking out part, that is.
Exhausted but alive, Alanna and Jonathan high tail it out of Evil Central (the Black City) and find an oasis to collapse in. The big bad supernatural guys have revealed that Alanna is really a girl, so Jonathan has a few questions about that—although ultimately he's cool with it. The fact that she was a girl this whole time kind of blows his mind. Alanna hesitantly brings up the fact that it sorta looks like Jonathan's cousin tried to send him to his death, but Jonathan isn't too into hearing that. (Sequel alert!)
On a happier note, Jonathan says that he'll keep Alanna's secret. As far as he's concerned, she's proven her worth as a knight-in-training…and a friend. All together now: awwww. There's not a whole lot of excitement here, but that's okay, because the falling action portion of the plot is more about what happens after the main action of the climax.
As they settle in to wait for their friends to come find them, Jonathan asks Alanna who he should choose for his squire when he gets knighted. Hey, how about Alanna? Turns out, Jonathan already had her in mind. Alanna pledges her life and her sword to her friend, and he accepts her pledge. There are still plenty of adventures ahead—such as figuring out what to do about Duke Roger—but Alanna is content to rest with Jonathan and face all that stuff later. As a squire!
Sure, there may still be some loose ends, but it's definitely a resolution: a lot of Alanna's fears and goals are reconciled in this section. Seems like she finished off the year in style.
Turns out that since Tortall is a made-up fantasyland, the book doesn't contain a lot of references to stuff in our world. Imagine that! There are some general crossovers, like ideas associated with feudalism (kings, knights, and so on), but no references to specific things like novels or philosophers. Some of the names, like Mithros and Persopolis, are based on stuff here, but that's about it. (Though we wouldn't be surprised to find out that Duke Roger used magic to get on the Internet and make captions for Grumpy Cat)