More Censorship Subversion: Song of the Lioness Quartet

This post is in continued marking of Banned Books Week, which runs this year from September 24 through October 1. Also, this post may contain book spoilers, but not major ones.

Africa191

You won’t find Alanna on the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books (by year or by decade), nor does her author Tamora Pierce appear as one of the most frequently challenged authors, but that doesn’t mean reader access isn’t restricted. In my case, it means I learned to be sneaky about it.

Which is ironic, given that I completed The Song of the Lioness Quartet several months before I read Deenie. I think the difference is that with Deenie, it never really dawned on me that my teachers would consider this novel objectionable. Whereas with the Alanna books, there was never any doubt in my mind that people in authority in my school and church would consider them the insidious, poisonous, sexy heresy of Satan.

Because, starting in the second book, Alanna has sex. She begins having sex as a teenager, and throughout the course of the quartet, she has three different partners. I had never, ever before read a book where this happened, let alone where it was characterized in an empowering way.

Alanna doesn’t get pregnant, and in fact, contraception is explicitly discussed in a way that’s in line with the reality of the novel. (As in, I don’t think it’s fair to decry magical pregnancy protection as ridiculous in a fantasy novel where there is already magical everything else.)

There is nothing to suggest that she ever acquires a sexually transmitted infection. (Something that’s not explicitly addressed, which is a valid criticism.)

In all cases, Alanna clearly desires the sexual relationships she enters, and she is often the initiating partner. She doesn’t apologize for having a sex drive or for acting on that sex drive in consensual, like-minded relationships.

Finally, having premarital sex with multiple partners does not devastate Alanna either socially or emotionally. At no point does she equate having sex to giving away her virginity, tarnishing her purity, or otherwise sullying her reputation. For the most part, no one judges Alanna for her sex life. True, there is one character who calls Alanna a “slut,” but by that point in the story, it’s pretty clear that said name-calling is a reflection on the other character, rather than meaningful judgment of Alanna’s choices.

In short, these were the first books I ever read that showed:

  1. Women (and girls becoming women) can want sex because they actually want sex, rather than because they are, say, pressured by the concept of wanting a boyfriend.
  2. Sex might not actually ruin our lives.

At age ten, I had already been sufficiently slut-shamed to recognize that this was never going to pass for acceptable — or even frowned upon, grumbled about, but for fuck’s sake it’s a fictional story resigned-to — in my world.

Yet I couldn’t not read them (or re-read them or re-re-read them), and I couldn’t not share them. Fortunately, the multiple readings worked out in my favor. Eventually, I had to repair the bindings of my copies with duct tape because I’d literally read them to the point where they were falling apart. The duct tape obscured the cover art and the titles, and it made each book look pretty generic and interchangeable. In fact, I had a few other — non-objectionable, according to school — duct-taped books I was already sharing. When I discovered this added benefit, it didn’t take me long to nominate additional books for re-binding as well. I soon became caretaker to a small middle school lending library — of mostly conservative-Christian-approved fiction but including the Alanna books and, eventually, Deenie — of novels in silver camouflage.

Of course, I couldn’t or wouldn’t camouflage everything. Some books I’d borrowed from other people or actual libraries. Some I’d received as gifts or had purchased new and felt wrong about covering them in tape. With some, I wanted to keep the exquisite cover art visible. Eventually, I got plain tired of being pressured to hide the “objectionable” material I was reading — though I still worried about being found out anyway.

But I have to give credit where credit is due.

Tamora Pierce and Alanna of Trebond, of course.

But let’s not forget duct tape: Bringing empowering female sexuality to repressive educational institutions since 1992.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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Posted in books, non-asana
15 comments on “More Censorship Subversion: Song of the Lioness Quartet
  1. I’m really glad I discovered your blog because I’m learning about these really great books from you. For a literature prof, nothing is more valuable. :-)

  2. ksoda says:

    I loved those books growing up. The way they treated sex was astounding, but even more so the fact that Alanna doesn’t marry the first guy who proposes to her. She decides that she’s not ready for marriage and that the prince, while not a bad person, just isn’t the right guy for her. After reading a lot of fairy tales, it was great to get a more nuanced view of relationships.

    • Tori says:

      [Folks who haven't read the books: more spoilers.]

      I also liked that.

      Additionally, I was pleased that Alanna was angry when Jon not only assumed she would marry him, but also that they would have children (pretty much right after their marriage). I grew up in a religious community that didn’t just assume women would naturally marry and have children (or, you know, become a missionary); it explicitly taught that it was wrong not to want to have children. The concept that a woman might want some say in if/when she became a mother in relation to all the other aspects of her life… that was new and awesome to me.

      • YES DITTO. Fuck Jon, I was so annoyed with him in that scene. There is still an old review from middle school that I wrote on Amazon when I was 13 critiquing in detail someone else’s review of In the Hand of Goddess where they basically dismissed it as fantasy trash and Alanna as a silly lady/slut. My first feminist act, I think! And I always loved that she ended up with George because George DID always support her choices, and he spent most of his time with the kids while she ran around doing warrior stuff. <3 <3

  3. DanaR says:

    Aw, this makes me happy-sad. Not these, but the Immortals series, were the books that introduced me to my fantasy addiction in intermediate (11yo). For all the issues in my childhood I am so glad for the sex-and-body positivity I was taught. I would never have seen the open and comfortable sexuality of Tamora Pierce’s characters as anything but what it should be.

    I’m so glad you found them powerful; she’s a wonderful author.

    • Tori says:

      Have you read the Trickster books or started the Beka Cooper series? Continued fabulousness. (To the extent that I’m counting down the days until Mastiff is available.)

      • DanaR says:

        “Have you read the Trickster books or started the Beka Cooper series? Continued fabulousness. (To the extent that I’m counting down the days until Mastiff is available.)”

        Oo, no! I’ve actually been reading hardly anything and missing it due to reading out all the authors I know I like… but I haven’t looked for new titles by old favourites for years. Thanks! :D

  4. Quercki says:

    My girls LOVED Tamora Pierce’s books. This explains a lot about the women they became.

  5. Jessica says:

    I just found your blog (by way of Fit and Feminist), and I’m really enjoying it! So thanks for that! I’m a feminist yogi and Tamora Pierce fan, too–it’s really awesome to see someone else make the same observations about the sex positivity of the Alanna series.

    I just picked them up for funsies about a month ago, and it had years since I had re-read them. I had never realized quite how awesome that whole aspect of the storyline was, and was quite grateful I had been lucky enough to have encountered such awesome messages about sexuality growing up (even if I wasn’t consciously aware of them). Rock on, Tamora!

    By the way, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend the Daine quartet as well–officially known as the Immortal series, I think. It’s right up there with the Alanna and Trickster books (in my humble opinion, the Circle of Magic and Keladry stuff just isn’t as good). I’d love to know what you think, should you ever be inspired to share.

    • Tori says:

      I liked the Daine books as well. It’s hard for me to say whether I think the Circle of Magic and Kel books are objectively not up to par with some of her other writing — or whether I’m just so intensely drawn to the Alanna-based storyline.

      But I may well re-read and re-review some of the various series soon.

  6. I may be going to science fiction convention that Tamora Pierce will be at in a few months…

  7. Actually, I’m reminded a lot of this right now.

    (Note: actual link is safe for work, but artist also has a small number of nudes in her gallery, so work/libraries/etc may block it. Caption: Like many girls of my generation, I learned about gay people from reading Mercedes Lackey novels. [“You mean, that’s an option?.)

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