Tamora Pierce was one of my favorite authors growing up. The first book of hers was actually the second one of this particular series, Page, which I got in a stack of books one of my mother's coworkers gave to me, because someone had given them to her niece, who wasn't a reader. I didn't even realize it was a series until a couple of years later, when I found this one at a book store! Pierce has written a lot of books, most of them middle-grade but some of them trending into the young adult category, and all of them about awesome girls and women doing awesome things. She has a few male main characters, but overall she is very much a girl power author. This particular book is one of my favorites of hers, and I'd decided to read it for the "A book you loved as a child" category of my 2017 reading challenge. And since I've been horribly sick the past few days, and being sick always makes me nostalgic for things from when I was sick when I was little (Campbell's chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, anyone?) this seemed like a great time to read it.
The main character in the Protector of the Small series is Keladry of Mindelan, a young woman training to be the second female knight in over a century, and the first to actually train openly as female. In this third book, Kel has passed out of her time as a page and into the status of a squire, needing to train directly under a knight, though she suspects that no one will choose her because she's "The Girl." Luckily for her, someone does pick her--Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, the commander of the King's Own (kind of like a mini-army/National Guard sort of thing) and a legend in his own right. Though Kel dreamed of being the squire of Alanna the Lioness, she knows it's not possible and is thrilled to be Raoul's squire, travelling with the Own and helping those across Tortall. Along the way, she fights a centaur, rescues a baby griffin that she ends up stuck with, and encounters many characters that appeared in the series preceding this one, such as Alanna herself, Raoul himself, Daine the Wildmage, Numair Salmalin, and so on. Those slightly-more-than-cameos are one of the reasons I find this particular book to be so enjoyable. Raoul is an amazing character, a knight who respects Kel for her own worth but doesn't force it upon others and instead helps her to earn respect, though it's often hard-won.
In this series, Kel faces the many challenges of being a girl in what is essentially a man's world. When Alanna won her shield, she did it disguised as a boy. Kel, being openly female, faces harassment, gossip, destruction of her property, even the kidnapping of one of her servants in an attempt to make her quit her training. Kel faces all of this with a cool exterior, even when it enrages her on the inside. She fights for respect both for herself and for those who are unable to fight for it themselves--hence the "Protector of the Small" name of the series. Kel is such a great character, being an outsider in so many ways but being unwilling to give up on her dreams or her duties. When I was little, I wanted to be Kel. She fights with a glaive, which inspired me to give one of my own main characters a glaive as a weapon. She knows how to fight with a normal staff as well; I distinctly remember swinging around a broom handle in the front yard, many times, practicing what I imagined to be Kel's staff fighting. I desperately wanted to be as awesome as Kel is. I still do, and the very battered, much-read condition of the book shows it.
That said, I haven't read this is in years, and it's definitely a little rougher than I remember. It was Pierce's third series, and one thing that's cool about her writing is that you can see how she grows as a writer over the course of them. This book is a little less than four hundred pages long, and it covers four years of Kel's life and her entire time as a squire--that's a lot of ground to cover in a small amount of pages. As such, she has to do a good amount of exposition and skipping over things, and that isn't always done in the smoothest manner. She also does a lot of re-hashing of things that happened in the previous books, which I don't really think is necessary in a series. Additionally, this isn't a book that has a strong central plot. It's about Kel's time as a squire, but there's not really a single compelling motive here beyond that. That's something that's pretty prevalent throughout this particular series, thought the fourth book does have a central plot revolving around more than just Kel's general struggles. This one does set up well for the fourth book, though, with the escalation of hostilities with Scanra and the introduction of the enchanted metal killing machines.
This was such a fast, nostalgic read, and I really enjoyed it once again. As much as when I was younger? Maybe not quite that much, but I still think it's an excellent book and compensates well for its weaknesses, and is such a great book for girls in need of a role model who does something other than think about boys. (Kel does think about boys, but her life far from revolves around them. Pierce's attitudes towards her heroines and sex, that they engage in it but do so of their own free will and while taking proper precautions, is something that I think is very important to include in books for this age group.)
4 stars out of 5.