The Woman Who Rides Like A Man makes me look at the premise of these articles and cringe. Trying to find the evolution of feminism in a book with a hearty dose of racism and sexism is… hard. Very hard. The fact that it reads like Pierce is trying to be sensitive to these issues and is failing makes it worse. To be fair, in 1986 when this book was published, it probably would have seemed more progressive. Pierce including characters of another race and being respectful of them was outstanding for that time period. But, time marches on. Things that were once seen as progressive become backward. So you read about racism and sexism in a mostly feminist series from a consistently feminist author.
Nothing exists in a vacuum and we can’t look at anything outside of our current lens. But, this is the one time Pierce makes this mistake so egregiously. She gets better, and actively addresses these issues again in one of her most recent books.
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and both of the books covered in previous articles. I am also white, so I may miss several more subtle examples of racism in the text or even in my interpretations of it. If I make mistakes because of this, please let me know so that I can fix them.
This is the first book in the series that does not center around Alanna gaining her shield. As such, Pierce breaks the mold a little and then goes on to break it a lot. Woman Who Rides Like a Man starts with Alanna and Coram in the Great Southern Desert. They left the palace after Alanna killed her great enemy, Duke Roger. Alanna’s goal was to become a knight so that she could go and have adventures, so adventure is what they’re looking for. They run into some bandits and defeat them with the help of the local Bazhir tribe.
They eventually join that tribe, although Alanna has some difficulty with the Shaman. Akhnan ibn Nazzir, said Shaman, views Alanna as a witch and demon because of sexism. They quarrel and Alanna winds up killing him in self defense. This means she has to take his place until she can train his replacement. Alanna decides that the replacements will be three young children she befriended who have the magical Gift. Ishak, the one male trainees, overreaches his Gift and dies for it. The other two girls survive and become Shamans in turn.
Jonathan, Myles, and Ali Mukhtab arrive at the tribe’s camp. Jonathan learns from Ali Mukhtab and becomes the religious leader of the Bazhir. Myles adopts Alanna. Jonathan and Alanna quarrel and it ends their romantic entanglement. Alanna goes to visit George in Port Caynn, and the two of them begin a romantic entanglement. George then goes back to Corus and faces rebellion in the Court of the Rogue. Alanna returns to the hill country around the desert and saves documents from a friend of the tribe’s leader.
What this Book did Right:
Alanna’s Character Development
Unfortunately this section is very short. For a book series that is supposed to be centered around Alanna, this does very little to advance her character. Alanna says two things that she has learned, at two points in the story, but I find these hard to believe that these are new to her.
Alanna and Female Friendship
Halef Seif, the leader of the tribe of Bazhir that adopted Alanna talks with her after she returns to the tribe. He says, “you’ve discovered you like your own sex?’ ‘How can I not like other women?’ Alanna inquired. … I don’t feel nearly as odd about being female as I did before I came here.” (265). Alanna, through the positive female interactions that she had during the events of this book, has developed a more positive view of her gender. This is great and ultimately feminist to love and appreciate women for what they do and who they are. Alanna mentions that when she disguised herself as male that she didn’t talk much with other women.
However, I don’t see this as new character development, because we see this happening before in the series. Alanna goes to Eleni Cooper, and Eleni teaches her how to dress in a female manner. The two of them spend a good amount of time together. We also meet Rispah in this book, who is George’s cousin, and well acquainted with Alanna beforehand. Alanna mentions that she’s friends with several sex workers in Corus when discussing whorephobia associated with Bazhir customs of modesty. Because of this we know that Alanna is friends with women, and has been for a while.
There is nothing wrong with Alanna spending time with more female characters. It’s wonderful, having several female characters that can talk to one another and support each other as the women in Woman who Rides Like a Man do. However, when Pierce presents it as something entirely new to the series, that I take issue with.
Alanna and Magic
Another thing that Alanna says she has learned over the course of the year that this book covers, is that she has accepted her magic. She says, shortly before the end. “I was afraid of magic, partly because I was sure it couldn’t be controlled. … I guess I’m not afraid of my Gift anymore. I’m the one who wields it.” (283). Alanna’s Gift, her magic is inborn within her. Being afraid of herself isn’t healthy.
But, as with Alanna’s relationships with other women, this is a beat that has already been covered in the series. In the first book, we see Alanna use her magic after hiding it for a year. She heals Jonathan from the Sweating Sickness, something no other healer has done. Alanna uses her Gift again to heal during the Tusaine war in the second book. Alanna even takes lessons in magic from Duke Roger, uses it to fight in him during their duel. She and Jonathan use magic to be victorious in the Black City at the conclusion of the first book. Alanna learned this lesson years ago.
Yes, Alanna has learned how to use her magic better and more frequently here. But she has conquered these fears before, and it’s a retread of a thread from the first two books, not a revelation as it is made to seem.
When a book series does character development really well it hurts when that strength falters. Compare this book with In the Hand of the Goddess. There we see Alanna conquering three of her deepest fears, Duke Roger, Love, and the Chamber of the Ordeal. It’s fantastic character development wrapped in a coming of age story. But in Woman Who Rides Like a Man Pierce reduces Alanna’s character development to repeating lessons she has already learned.
Alanna and Jonathan
As has been covered before, I did not enjoy the relationship between Alanna and Jonathan. I felt the power dynamics that existed between them made the romance unhealthy. This book informed part of that reading of the text. Jonathan asks Alanna to marry him, and Alanna hesitates. There are several chapters where she ponders the responsibilities that would be hers if she accepted and the freedoms she would lose. Quite reasonably she demands time to think about it, which Jonathan grants.
Alanna’s problem with Jonathan’s proposal is that she cannot separate his proposal to her with his desire to rebel against his family. Or from his desire to rebel against the cultural norms of Tortall. She’s concerned it’s not sincere that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and just marrying her as something selfish.
Jonathan proves that fear right after he becomes the Voice of the Tribes. He orders Alanna’s things packed before he gets a solid yes from her. “How dare you take my acceptance for granted?” (202). Jonathan says Alanna kept sleeping with him, so her answer was yes. Alanna brings up affairs he had with other Court Ladies. It ends with, “And they know how to act like women!’ … ‘I refuse to marry you.’ … ‘I think I’m well out of a potential disaster!’ … ‘Find yourself someone more feminine, Jonathan of Conte!” (203-4). This ends the relationship between the two of them.
Jonathan’s romantic relationships in this book are reactive rather than intelligent. He wants to marry Alanna to rebel against his heritage. He then goes on to court Princess Josiane, in a scene from his POV reacting against, “that – female in the south.” (206). This is not a healthy way to court anyone, and Pierce shows that toxicity in the text.
What This Does Wrong
Character Development Ratios
The List of Male Character Development
- Becomes a member of the Bazhir tribes
- Enters into a romantic relationship with Rispah
- Officially adopts Alanna
- Has a ‘merchant-like’ interest in finance
- His barony is wealthier than typical
- Morals more carefully developed as he steals Alanna’s Gift for a major working
- Enjoys court life an excessive amount and is socializing with Roger’s friends
- Has been challenged to raise the dead by said associates of Rogers.
- Duke Roger
- Made magical weapons in his youth which are scattered all over Tortall
- Ali Mukhtab
- In addition to being the Governor of Persopolis, is the Voice of the Tribes, the central Bazhir religious figure
- Has visions of the future which make him turn that title over to Jonathan
- Has a terminal illness that means he will die within months
- Halef Sief
- Had a past friendship with a Bazhir woman with the Gift, which meant she had to leave the tribe
- Learns to accept women as shamans
- Akhnan ibn Nazzir
- He advocates for Alanna’s death so that he will get a third of her belongings showing his interest in money
- Selfish and protective of his role to the point where he will not train successors because he does not want any challengers
- Incredibly sexist
- Learns to respect Kara and Kourrem as his fellow shaman trainees and women’s work as important
- Is conceited about his powers and the fact he had a minor amount of training before Alanna
- Overreaches himself with his Gift, leading to his death
- Enters a romantic relationship with Alanna
- Learn more about the structure of the Court of the Rogue
- Learn more about his relationship with his mother, Eleni
- Ends his romantic relationship with Alanna
- Enters a romantic entanglement with Princess Josiane
- Becomes Voice of the Tribes and views that as freeing
What Does This Mean?
As I mentioned above, Alanna doesn’t get much new character development in this book. In comparison, every single male character present for a decent period gets at least one new moment of development or meaningful experience.
In addition, Kara and Kourrem are the only other two female characters that get significant development. But their development is both the same, they learn to become shamans and take that place in the tribe. Pierce differentiates their characters, but they are on parallel journeys, as no other characters are. This blends their development together, making them more one development rather than many.
There are several female characters mentioned that do not get development at all. Our view of Eleni doesn’t change, and we don’t even meet Rispah before now. The other Bazhir women serve mostly as a gestalt entity described by Alanna, with one exception. Mari Fahrar is the first Bazhir woman who accepts Alanna, Kara, and Kourrem as shaman and shamans to be. This ‘change’ is facilitated simply by one conversation with them, and there is nothing in the text that suggests she was particularly prejudiced before. Admittedly, after Mari is convinced, she convinces the other Bazhir women to give them a chance, which allows for some development of the Bazhir women as a whole.
However, four female characters that all get minor development in contrast to several major developments to numerous male characters is dodgy. This ratio is difficult to see and not think of sexism. It’s not wrong for an author to develop her characters. But balance, especially in feminist works, is something you should strive for.
Racism, Colonialism and the Coding of the Bazhir
The Bazhir are a group of people loosely organized in tribes with only one major city. They live in the desert south of Tortall and the other civilized lands. Tortall conquered them two generations ago. There are tribes that are at peace with the Tortallans and those that are not. They are notably darker skinned than the civilized people, and the women wear veils that hide their faces. Their religion that loosely ties into that of the civilized nations but which they’ve added on other beliefs to. They have one person that serves as the center of their religion. What does that sound like?
If you answered Islam, the Middle East, or the Colonization of Indigenous people, then you can see the problems inherent with the culture that Pierce has created here.
There are many pieces that need to be addressed here, and it may very well be that I will miss some or misinterpret some. I will not be addressing everything that I caught in the book, only the most egregious things. I know that it will be impossible for some people to see the series as feminist because of the issues endorsed here. The fact that I can see this series as feminist overall despite this book is in some ways an expression of privilege. I hope this discussion will be educational for those who missed things, as I did when I first read this book at 12.
Racism and Colonialism
One of the major events in this book is chronicling Jonathan’s journey to become the Voice of the Tribes. The Voice of the Tribes is the central religious figure of the Bazhir. He gains several magical powers because of this position. The ability to commune with all of his people, to see the past lives of other Voices, and to know the date of his own death are some of them. The Bazhir are a people who are largely fractured into tribes, and the Voice is the one who binds them all as one people despite their division.
Ali Mukhtab knows that he is dying, has known when he would die since he became the Voice. He knows the day is nigh. He also knows that,
“[the northern] king will win if we continue to fight …
[the renegade tribes] will make peace and the Voice will bring
them into Tortall without a fight. We must accept the
King in the North; there is no other way. But we can do it
so that we never forget who we are. Prince Jonathan is the key.” (57).
It is understandable that Ali Mukhtab wants to keep his people safe and whole from a Watsonian perspective. He has future sight, he knows exactly what will happen, what destruction that will be meted out to his people if they fight.
However, a Doylist perspective reveals problems with this situation and this method of resolution. That the only way to save an Indigenous culture is to have a white man take the place as their leader is bad. That said white man will bring their culture in line with his own rather then respecting them is worse.
After Jonathan becomes the Voice he says to Alanna, “for the first time since I was named, I am free.” (197). He complains about his life as a prince being confining with too many responsibilities. Then he takes on responsibility for the saving of an entire other culture and views it as freedom.
It relies on so many racist and colonialist tropes, the White Savior, the idea of the ‘good oppressed person’ who just rolls over and accedes their agency to their oppressor, the idea that colonialism is inevitable.
Jonathan could have helped the Bazhir in a different way. He could have reversed the conquest. He could have brokered a peace treaty so that their peoples wouldn’t fight. Tortall receives next to no resources from the Bazhir anyway. The only thing Tortall gets from having conquered the Bazhir is bragging rights. Tortall just won a war against Tusaine, so giving the desert back to the Bazhir wouldn’t loose Tortall their strong image. Pierce chose to have Jonathan become the new leader of the Bazhir rather than any other options in endorsement of colonizing people of a different race.
Racism, Feminism, and Islamophobia
The Bazhir women wear veils, which codes their society is Islamic. Hijab is an issue that is hotly debated in feminist circles. There are many, many arguments about the nature of it. Is it feminist to wear it of your own free will? Is it just submitting to the will of a patriarchal society? There are a thousand questions and no concrete answers. The best discussion of Western feminism and feminism in the Islamic framework is Saba Mahmoods The Politics of Piety. For general questions about hijab and feminism I suggest you go there, as I cannot cover all the different facets of this question.
In the fictional universe that Pierce presents, we see these issues come up as well. Alanna becomes the first female shaman of the Bazhir, and forces the Bazhir to accept her apprentices into the tribal meetings. In doing this she maps her own notions of feminism onto a different culture. It is not bad that Alanna wants to emancipate other women, to allow them the same freedoms she has. Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a title that the Bazhir give Alanna, which shows that she exerts power amidst them in a masculine coded way.
Alanna refuses to follow the gender norms of the Bazhir, which makes sense because she does not follow all the norms of her own culture. However, the problem with Alanna is how she expects other women to behave. She mentions at several points in the novel that she wants Kara and Kourrem to stop wearing their face veils. The girls are mentioned as crying whenever Alanna brings it up, so she grudgingly stops. Feminism is about allowing women agency and choices of their own. They can choose to act in a traditionally feminine manner or to not. Kara and Kourrem have made their choices, and Alanna and the narrative do not respect that. The reason that they don’t is because feminism, especially second wave feminism, is not always immune to racism and Islamophobia.
Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a book that ultimately makes many mistakes. The balance of character development is askew, focusing overwhelmingly on the men rather than on the main character. There is racism, Islamophobia, and colonialism inherent in every thread of the world-building surrounding the Bazhir. However, there are some of my favorite payoffs in the series. Jonathan and Alanna breaking up, George and Alanna getting together, and Myles adopting her are some of my favorite moments in the series. But they are located in a book that has many problems.
The one comfort that I take from this novel is that after this, when Pierce returns to these issues, she does it right. It takes her almost twenty years, but she fixes her mistakes. So, in some ways I can place this novel as a product of it’s time, and use it as a reminder that change can occur. That feminism has become inter-sectional and more accepting of different viewpoints. That people can get better, because if Pierce was writing this now, I know she’d be looking at it from a different more compassionate perspective. But I also probably won’t re-read this book as often as I do the others in this series and all of Pierce’s other writing.