The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce

Several years have passed since I read Book 2 of Song of the Lioness. I didn’t remember putting in a hold for the next one, but the library just informed me it was available, so I started reading. Tamora Pierce’s characterization and storytelling show in how I recognized the characters and remembered what had come before with the help of small reminders in the text. Book 3, however, is odd. Where the previous two had a main plot plus an overall series plot to drive them, this story deals with the lingering effects of the earlier events. It gives the main character, Alanna, the chance to come into her own. We also see hints of what the next book will involve.

This is a middle novel, but don’t think that means nothing happens. Alanna goes seeking adventure and finds a different type than she expects, or even recognizes at first. A simple hillman attack in the desert turns deadly because the leader carries a magical sword. It’s only with the intervention of the Bazhir that she and Coram survive. The rescue is more from pot to fire as the Bloody Hawk desert tribe decides whether she should die for the crime of masquerading as a man.

Nor is this judgment the first challenge she faces. Alanna’s placed in reacting positions to several events rather than driving the narrative, though her reactions are true to her character. The one major decision she must make is something she avoids, even when given no choice. Her reactions give the book story, teaching the reader, along with Alanna, about the desert tribes and its traditions. We also learn more about the overall political situation between the northerners and the Bazhir among others, along with inspired solutions.

Alanna is very much a wish fulfillment main character in some ways. She seems able to rise to any challenge and has the special training or skill to succeed. This could have become annoying but doesn’t thanks to bringing the reader along. We see both her process and her struggles. The way Alanna doesn’t assume she will succeed helps, too. Nor does everything go smoothly for her with sometimes severe consequences, something that surprised me because I’d bought into her perfection. And, of course, her cat Faithful is around to keep her humble with sharp observations and a helping hand. Alanna is never long without friends either, showing another of her strengths.

Which brings me to the portrayal of the desert tribes and their customs.

There were places where I worried the northerners were coming in to fix things for the Bazhir, and to some degree that’s true. But rather than change imposed from outside, key northerners join with the tribe through their actions and as a result of Bazhir traditions. While Alanna challenges the gender roles, apart from a few outliers, her acceptance comes not from her actions as much from the tribe’s philosophies. I enjoyed how they absorb the desert’s nature into their culture. Which brings me to another reason I appreciate Alanna. She’s willing to learn and change as well rather than blindly forcing her views on the Bazhir. I loved the portrayal of the desert tribes, united in their connections to each other and the desert, but also individual in their opinions.

This novel holds an odd, but necessary, space in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna has done the impossible and vanquished her mortal enemy, but she doesn’t celebrate that victory. She both doubts her actions and struggles with the lack of a goal. For a book where there isn’t a clear main plot, the character growth kept me reading, and the connections made, broken, and remade were lovely.

Alanna is a different person by the last page, with a better understanding of herself and the desert people. The Bazhir culture is complex and nuanced, even when addressing tradition and gender roles. Alanna learns to respect their culture even when it conflicts with her views by looking deeper than the surface.

I’m happy to have reconnected with familiar characters and met new ones. This book stands on the shoulders of the previous two, building on earlier events in unexpected ways. A fitting continuation to the series.

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