I am too old to have read Tamora Pierce as a girl, although I was fortunate enough to discover her books when my daughter was a child and I passed them on to her. Rereading this series over the last weekend, I rediscovered why I had enjoyed them, and, even more importantly, why I wanted to pass them on to my girl.
This was Pierce's first book, and it was published in 1983, long before Harry Potter was a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye. It is the first appearance of her fictional world of Tortall, a vaguely medieval world, where noble boys are trained as knights and noble girls are trained as ladies. Alanna is one of a pair of magically gifted twins, and when the book begins, she is on her way to a monastery to be trained in various disciplines that will make her marriageable. Her brother, Thom, is headed to court to be trained as a warrior. Her father is a scholar, who pays little mind to his children. Both of the children are square pegs in round holes - Thom doesn't want to be a warrior any more than Alanna wants to be a lady. So, they do a twin flip. Thom goes to the monastery as a boy, to learn to use his magic gifts. Alanna goes to court as a boy - Lord Alan - to become a warrior. The first book in the quartet covers the first part of her training, during the time that she is a page, before she is chosen as a squire.
There are some complaints about the book. Alanna is a bit of a Mary Sue, right down to her purple eyes. I am not sure that purple eyes were quite so much of an obvious clue to the existence of a Mary Sue character in 1983 when this book was published, but the eyes were clearly unnecessary. They do tie into Alanna's gift, but there is really no reason that Pierce couldn't have made her eyes blue, or green, or some other color actually found in nature. The purple eyes are silly, although I can see that they might appeal to young readers. In addition, Alanna is awfully good.
But, in spite of this, Pierce makes it clear that Alanna is not merely gifted, she is also hardworking. She has chosen a difficult path for herself - in all honestly, she likely did not know how difficult it would turn out to be when she chose it - and she walks that path largely on her own. She works hard to master skills that are not second nature to her, and when she is targeted by a bully, she doesn't seek assistance from her friends, she deals privately with the bullying while learning the skills that she needs to defend herself. She is physically smaller, and weaker, than most of her peers, a fact which does not change throughout the course of this book. Her magical gifts are helpful to her, but she doesn't rely on them. She relies on training her body and her mind so that she can physically and mentally meet the challenges that she faces.
There are precious few friends who are taken into her confidence. The thief lord, George Cooper, is one. He learns early that Alanna is a girl, along with his mother. The difficulties that would arise from Alanna's physical changes and her menstruation are glossed over, but still minimally addressed. It isn't until the end of the book that one of her court friends - Jonathan, who is to be king - learns that Alan is actually Alanna. He handles it with much more grace than is probably realistic, although his reaction is refreshingly nonjudgmental, and his recognition that she has met all of the challenges set for her is quite endearing, actually. Alanna does not become sexually active in this book - that comes in book 2 - but George's mother handles the problem of pregnancy quite neatly when Alanna reaches puberty by giving her a magical contraceptive (in addition, if only such a thing existed!), which allows her to take control of her own reproductive future.
The writing in this book isn't up to the standards of Pierce's later books. Like the first book in the Harry Potter series, Alanna, The First Adventure, is written in a simplistic style to appeal to younger children. Some of this style is incompatible with the more adult themes woven into the book. The later books in the quartet adopt a more mature writing style that is, to this adult reader at least, more engaging.
Overall, though, this is a wonderful introduction to Tortall, and to Pierce in general, and Alanna is a kick ass girl who pursues her own objectives and desires with energy and integrity. Lying to her friends doesn't come easily to her, but she believes in the justice of her cause in a society that treats girls and women unfairly. And from my perspective, I agree with her.