First Test by Tamora Pierce (Protector of the Small #1)
Keladry of Mindelan is the first girl who dares to take advantage of a new rule in Tortall—one that allows females to train for knighthood. After years in the Yamani Islands, she knows that women can be warriors, and now that she’s returned home, Kel is determined to achieve her goal. She believes she is ready for the traditional hazing and grueling schedule of a page. But standing in Kel’s way is Lord Wyldon. The training master is dead set against girls becoming knights. He says she must pass a one-year trial that no male page has ever had to endure. It’s just one more way to separate Kel from her fellow trainees. But she is not to be underestimated. She will fight to succeed, even when the test is unfair.
TITLE: First Test
AUTHOR: Tamora Pierce
PUBLISHER: Random House Books for Young Readers
LENGTH: 240 pages
AGE: Young Adult
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.
Kel is the first girl to train as a page in living memory who is known as a girl during her training. Alanna’s previous example is wielded against her, as it’s assumed by unhappy sexists that Alanna only made it through with help. This provides narrative opportunities for challenges that Alanna didn’t face, or at least new angles on familiar topics (such as bullying). Kel feels older than ten, not enough to be jarring, but enough that I had to keep remembering how young she is. She's handling a lot of stress very well, partly because of coping mechanisms she learned while living in an unfamiliar country with her parents.
Nealan is Kel's sponsor and quickly becomes her friend. Gradually she gets more of a social circle, but it's difficult to be the only girl surrounded by boys when many of the adults in charge are also treating her gender as somewhere between an annoyance and an issue. The plot focuses on Kel's first year as a page, specifically the fact of her probation and the bullying amongst the pages. She also has a fear of heights, something which one of her instructors makes her work to mitigate.
This is technically not a sequel, but it’s set in Tortall one year after the conclusion of the Immortals Quartet. It's notable for sneaking in a bit of Daine and Numair while Daine is barely under eighteen and Numair is thirty or so. Jonathan is king and the land is filled with the immortals who remain, of which Spidrens are a constant danger for even wary travelers. Raoul leads the King's Own, and Alanna has been ordered to stay away from Kel, lest her involvement taint the public perception of Kel's success or failure.
The worldbuilding is continued from the previous quartets, rarely pausing to explain things which were given more thorough treatment earlier. This has the effect of subtly updating continuing readers on what previously-met characters are up to now, while keeping the main focus on Keladry’s current problems. The one place this was a bit jarring is there are a lot of changes from Alanna’s time as a page, and the characters often not-so-subtly comment on them. Kel obviously doesn’t have Alanna’s experiences in her head, but she knows what her brothers said of their time in the palace and (conveniently) most of the notable changes stem from sometime after their tenure.
Prior Tortall books have mentioned the Yamani Islands, but this is main introduction to any specifics about them. Kel’s parents were the Tortallan ambassadors to the Yamanis, and when FIRST TEST begins, Kel had spent more of her life there than in Tortall. Most of the details about the Islands seem meant to invoke real-world Western ideas of East Asia (specifically but not only Japan). This shows up in bowing styles, lucky/waving cats, clothing, and (most notably) outward impassiveness and control of emotions.
I've read this many times before as a teenager, but it's been a while, and I was surprised by how much of the plot is Kel dealing with bullying in various ways.
Graphic/Explicit CW for sexism, misogyny, bullying, blood, violence.
Moderate CW for emotional abuse, fire/fire injury, vomit, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, animal death, death.
Minor CW for adult/minor relationship (Daine and Numair), excrement, animal cruelty, war, suicide.