A quick summary:
On her first adventure as a knight, Alanna and Coram visit the Great Southern Desert, where she runs into one of the Bazhir tribes called the Bloody Hawk. After a tense meeting, where she was shunned by the Bloody Hawk’s shaman, she and Coram are inducted into the tribe. They call her “Woman Who Rides Like a Man” since she goes unveiled, wear breeches, carry a sword, and literally rides a horse like a man. While residing with the tribe, Alanna and Faithful, her cat, are adopted by three children—Ishak, Kara, and Kourrem—, who were made outcasts of the village by the shaman because they have the Gift (magic). After the shaman dies due to his own stupidity, Alanna begins to train the three children to become shaman of the village.
Prince Jonathan and Myles also visit Alanna while she resides with the tribe. George sent his spies. After winning their acceptance, both Jonathan and Myles were inducted into the tribe. Myles uses the opportunity to adopt Alanna—both magically and legally—as his heir. Jonathan and Alanna rekindle their romance and there is talk of marriage, which leads Alanna to again ponder what it is that she wants. She yearns for adventure but she also loves Jonathan. However, committing to Jonathan carries responsibilities such as marriage and producing an heir for the kingdom as soon as possible. Still, she does enjoy George’s company. She hardly has much time to ponder this since she helps to train her young shamans as well as others who visit the Bloody Hawk, which marks the budding of a new school of magic. Also, she tends to the Voice of the Tribes, a spiritual figurehead, who is frail and sick. The main reason for Jonathan’s visit is to become the new Voice of the Tribes. It’s a controversial move since the Bazhir tribes and the king of Tortall are at odds but the Voice of the Tribes believes that by making the prince the Voice, the rift between the king and the tribes will mend.
It was not a smooth transition but Jonathan successfully becomes the Voice. He soon leaves the desert to return to the throne at Corus but not before having a huge fight with Alanna, which breaks their romance. Alanna soon becomes restless and decides to visit George. Seeing George was therapeutic. They enter into a romantic relationship and Alanna is able to be herself. After an attempt on George’s life, they all part ways: George and his crew return to Corus to find his assassin and Alanna and Coram return to the desert. Since she is still restless, the chief of the tribe sends her on an errand to check on a friend of his. Alanna saves his friend, a woman who was being burnt at the stake by her village, by calling on the goddess’ power. However, the woman dies because she was badly burnt but not before telling Alanna how to mend her sword.
This installment is about defining Alanna. Is she simply a woman, a knight, or both? Can she be both? The novel answers this by focusing on the role of women. Of course, by being a lady-knight Alanna defies the restrictions placed against women in the period that she lives. Her independence is even more striking when she visits the Bazhir tribe and is contrasted with its women. The women of the Bazhir tribes are to be seen and not heard. The men make the decisions and the women are simply to follow. They are amazed when they meet Alanna, a woman who does not hide herself and who speaks her mind. This amazement is not always positive. Some view Alanna as a legend while others, influenced by the tribe’s shaman, think her a demon. I think the tribe refers to her as “Woman Who Rides Like a Man” as a way to offset the imbalance Alanna causes when she visits the tribe. The great title paints her as a legend but, though it acknowledges her sex, it renders her sexless. The title is so great, it overshadows who Alanna really is, a woman. So to the men of the Bloody Hawks, Alanna is seen and respected not as a woman but as a knight and a legend.
Though this is not the same with Jonathan, he too does not see Alanna for who she really is, which is what strains their relationship until it breaks. He either sees her as a woman and lover or as a knight and comrade. He doesn’t see her as both. While they are romantic, he sees Alanna as a woman who must do as he says and allow him to make her every decision. This drives Alanna crazy because she is an independent being who does not like to be reined in and controlled. She is fierce and free like her emblem, the lioness. When Jonathan asks her to marry him, he assumes that she will say yes. Being a prince, he is used to getting his way. It never crosses his mind that Alanna would dare say no. However, Alanna refuses him because she realizes that a controlled life is not one that she wants to live. She wants the unpredictability of adventure, at least for now.
Apart from Coram, Myles, and her brother Thom, only George accepts and respects Alanna for who she truly is—a lady-knight. This is why Alanna finds it easy to be around George. She can be herself with him and there is no strain to be something she is not. He allows her to be as free as she wants. His only request is that she comes back to him.
I enjoyed this installment though a few things nagged at me. The first is Ishak. He dies but I think we could have done without him. I think his only purpose was to show how reluctant the girls—Kara and Kourrem—were to be confident in themselves and their power and accept the offer to become a shaman of the tribe. The second is the random lady that Alanna saves in the end. It seems that that snippet was tacked on only to let us know that Alanna will figure out a way to mend her sword, which she broke at the beginning of the book and painstakingly tries to mend for the entire story. I think the tip should have come to her another way because the random woman served no purpose other than to give Alanna the tip. She doesn’t even get a name and she dies as soon as she appears.
I like how the series progresses. The first book introduced us to Alanna and focused on obstacles. It highlights Alanna’s tenacity. The second book is about exploration. Alanna dresses in women’s clothes, trying on her femininity and growing comfortable with her sexuality. This book focuses on definition. How does Alanna define herself and how do others define her. The fourth book features a fully-realized Alanna, the composite of all the previous books: a stubborn, determined, feminine, lady-knight.
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