Monday, July 15, 2024

Society as Antagonist in First Test

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Here we are again, starting a new set of Tamora Pierce books. Pierce published First Test in 1999, and both the Protector of the Small quartet in general and First Test in particular feel like a coming home for the series. This story focuses on Keladry of Mindelan, and her journey to become a knight. With a special focus on how she both fits into and fights the restrains Tortallan society puts on her. In many ways, it is a retelling of Alanna’s story. The girl who wants to become a knight and fights bullies in the process. But with First Test Pierce does something really special and really unique.  It’s the smallest and shortest book of the quartet, but it sets up the moral and feminist backbone of the entire series.

Spoilers for all of First Test and Tamora Pierce’s other works, especially Song of the Lioness.

So, What Happened?

The book begins with Alanna’s point of view. She meets with Jonathan and the new training master, Wyldon. Wyldon initially protests at having to train Kel, but Jonathan over-rules him. However, Wyldon wrings two concessions from the king. Kel has to go through a year of probation, and Alanna can’t speak with her. Alanna leaves the palace in protest.

Kel has just returned to Tortall from the Yamani Islands. She lived there for six years with her diplomat parents, and is having trouble adjusting to Tortallan society. After receiving the letter from Corus that she can train, but with a probation period, Kel goes on a walk. She runs into local bullies and a spidren. Then she decides to train. Even in Wyldon dismisses her after a year, then she’ll still be better able to protect herself and others.

Once at the palace, Kel befriends Neal, Prince Roald, and various others. She feeds a group of sparrows, and rides an ornery horse that would otherwise be killed. A mysterious benefactor gives her gifts. But all through the year, the other pages play tricks on her and make her feel like she doesn’t belong.

The other issue that Kel faces is the custom of hazing. It means that older pages can ask first year pages to run errands for them. Kel notices Joren, Zahir, Vinsen, and others misusing the custom to bully the other pages. After briefly hesitating, Kel fights back. Initially she does so on her own, and then after a brief speech about why she fights them, her friends join in.

At their summer training camp, the pages help the King’s Own and Raoul fight a nest of spidrens. The book ends with Kel being allowed to stay and complete her training by a reluctant Wyldon.

Kel’s Story versus Alanna’s Story

Alanna’s Story and Why it’s Different

On a cursory look at Kel’s Story and Alanna’s story, it’s easy to mistake it as Pierce recycling her plots. Girl goes to palace, befriends the crown prince, fights with bullies. (Ralon in Alanna’s case, Joren, Zahir, and Vinsen in Kel’s.) But, there are a bunch of overall differences between Kel’s study at the palace, and Alanna’s.

Alanna’s story never dealt directly with the impact of society on Alanna. She faces problems, yes but by and large Alanna’s story is the story of one protagonist and one antagonist. Ralon was a minor antagonist in the first book, but for the entirety of Alanna’s series, her foe was Duke Roger. She discovered he was an enemy, she fought him, killed him. Women who Rides Like A Man, as problematic as I find it, she reflects on what it was to kill her great enemy. It’s also the only book in Alanna’s story that deals, albeit tangentially with societal concerns. Thom resurrects Roger and she kills him again.

Alanna’s only problems in her training as a knight dealt with keeping her gender hidden, rather than the effects her gender had on those around her. It’s only after Alanna’s story ends that Alanna intersects with society and it’s concerns. “The examinations at the end of April had existed for only fourteen years. King Jonathan’s father had introduced them only after the discover that a girl — Alanna the Lioness — had concealed her sex to become a knight. The suspicion that trickery was involved had led King Roald to create public tests.” (181). King Roald changed the system for training pages because of Alanna’s actions, but it’s never mentioned in her books, or in the Immortals Quartet.

Kel’s Story and Why it’s Important

By contrast, Kel’s story exists solely with Tortall’s society serving as an antagonist. While Joren, Zahir, and Vinsen are individuals that Kel squares off against, again and again, they represent more. Joren, Zahir, and Vinsen serve Pierce’s story because they are examples of how society and societal prejudice shapes people. As Kel says, “[The system of hazing]’s bad enough. But what Joren does, and his friends — they take it way too far. They use it to bully first-years, and that’s just plain wrong.” (165). Society set up a system that was wrong, and then looked away when people abused that system.

It isn’t just bullying either, it’s also misogyny. Kel faces so much bullying because she’s a girl openly training to be a knight. But she wears dresses to dinner every night, just to remind them of that. Kel wants so badly to prove that all women, not just Alanna the gods touched, can be knights, can follow their dreams. But Tortallan society isn’t quite ready to change yet, and their children take out misogyny they learned on Kel.

That’s the issue that Pierce addresses in this book and the rest of the Protector of the Small Quartet. What does society do, and how to it’s prejudices limit people and hurt people. Alanna’s story was about the fight between her and Roger. Daine’s story was about empathy  and environmentalism. Kel’s story is about learning to understand society’s prejudices and how to fight against them. You can see how Pierce’s feminism changed in the seventeen years since Alanna: The First Adventure was published.

There’s a reason that Alanna can’t contact Kel directly. Pierce uses that to teach us Wyldon’s prejudices yes, but she also did it to differentiate between these two series. They’re fighting different enemies, and Pierce uses Alanna’s absence to show that.

Kel versus Society

Kel and Bullying

From the very first, Kel is depicted as a person who hates bullying and despises bullies. The first time we see her, she runs into a group of local boys who wanted to drown kittens and drives them off. She thinks later, “I want to protect people. … I’ll be a hero one day, just like Mama. Just like the Lioness. Nobody will kill two kittens in front of me then.” (25). Kel, like Daine, is deeply empathetic, and her deepest desire is to protect people from getting hurt.

That’s why she wants to stop bullying, because it’s just meant to hurt people. There’s a reason her series is called Protector of the Small. It’s why she has such a terrible time after not helping Merric when she first finds Joren and Vinsen bullying him. “Giving way to superior force was how their world worked.  … You saw a bad thing done and you didn’t raise a hand or speak out, argued her better self. Could you swear a knight’s oath, knowing that you once let bullies get away with it?” (103). She wants so badly to help others that the one time she turned and ran weighs on her mind so much. She’s a mess for the week following it, until she finally acts against Joren, and Vinsen.

After this initial distress, Kel decides to fight back against the bullies using the custom to hide their intent. She patrols the corridors and gets in fight to the point where Neal is concerned about her health. Neal asks why she wouldn’t ask them for help and she replies, “Because I had no reason to think I would get it! … If we take this as pages, what about when we are knights? Do we say, Oh, now I’m going to be nice to the weak and the small? Or do we do as we learned when we were pages?” (165-7). University educated Neal said it was the best lecture on ethic’s he’d ever gotten.

Kel and Misogyny

In addition to the blatantly sexist probationary period that Kel has to under go, she faces many more moments of misogyny against her.

The most important event surround’s Kel’s practice lance. When the pages first started learning the lance, Joren gave Kel one, and she struggled and couldn’t keep it up. After meeting with Eda Bell, the Shang wildcat and the page’s instructor in hand-to-hand, to learn how to strengthen her arms, she slowly gets better at managing the lance. But eventually, Kel learns that someone weighted her lance. “Kel lifted the other page’s lances. All weighed much less than her own.”(128-9). This example shows the systems of inequality that keep a marginalized person from succeeding.

It’s easy to argue that other people can do it, it’s just that the marginalized person is smaller, stupider, that they need to work harder. But sometimes, as with the Racially Biased SAT test, it’s the system that is wrong, not the person that gets shafted by the system.

In addition to that excellent parallel, Pierce also shows how Kel’s isolation in a male dominated field affects her. This article about the prejudice women face in STEM fields matches, point for point the difficulties Kel faces. She’s the only woman that openly went through page training, and if she failed, it would be assumed that all women would fail. Wyldon and Sergeant Ezeko ignore her during training. She has to work with Eda Bell to be strong enough to lift the weighted lance. Wyldon makes several comments about women’s sexuality and says that she has to keep her door open when any male is in there, even though Kel’s eleven.

He also makes a speech at the end where he paternalistically lays out the challenges that she will face in training. Wyldon then assumes that she will want to quit training. Her peers constantly harass her, and her teachers all call her probationary page.


Everything laid out earlier shows the backbone of Pierce’s message. Society is the problem, and the biased systems it creates cause great harm. Kel’s story is important because it shows how we can affect change. After Kel’s speech to Neal and the rest of her friends about the effects of bullying, things change. They join her on her patrols. They stand up for her when Joren, Vinsen, and Zahir attempt to drive her out. Eventually, the three of them stop bullying others, because there are so many of Kel’s friends there to force them to stop. They commiserate with her about the additional trials Wyldon forces her to undergo.

Alanna’s story didn’t address many broader issues, and Daine’s story talks about empathy and morality. But through Kel, we learn how we can teach others to be better, as she does, and that’s important.


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