I was looking at the cover of my library copy of this book before I started it, and saw that on my edition, Alanna is pictured with a black cat on her shoulder. Remembering how delightfully full of wish fulfillment the first book was, I thought to myself, “Oh, she gets a cat in this one. I bet it’s a magic cat. I bet it talks.” I was joking. But I was totally right. Alanna not only acquires a talking cat (who also has purple eyes, natch), a deity swoops down to personally give Alanna a magic necklace. At this point, girlfriend is getting really weighted down with magical swag. She’s going to have to start carrying trunks around with her, and I love it.
The first book in the series moved quickly; In the Hand of the Goddess moves even faster, flying right through the rest of Alanna’s training and ending soon after she graduates. This means that sometimes an entire year takes up only a few chapters, and the lengthy timeline means that the book can sometimes feel like just a string of separate events instead of a cohesive story. Halfway through the book, we get introduced to a neighboring country, Tusaine, and before we can even catch our breath, Alanna and her friends are being moved to the front lines because suddenly there’s a war happening. I expected the war to take up a significant chunk of the story, because apparently I haven’t grasped how this works yet, but instead the entire Tusaine conflict lasts about fifty pages before it’s wrapped up and never really mentioned again. I had to finish the book and think back over the entire plot before I realized that the central story of this book is Alanna’s continued struggle with Duke Roger, the evil sorcerer from Book One. The theme of this book is magic: not only do we have Alanna versus the evil sorcerer, but there’s also a lot more about her own personal magic, and, as the title suggests, how the Goddess has specific plans for our heroine. Still not sure where we’re going with all of this, but I’m confident that it will be awesome.
The other important aspect of this book: in this installment, Alanna becomes sexually active, and I do not have enough space to fully explain how perfectly Tamora Pierce presents sex to her readers – the intended age group for these books, remember, is ten-to-twelve year olds. So there’s this scene where Alanna decides that for fun she’s going to put on a dress and walk around looking like a girl (there’s a very subtle subplot in this book about Alanna learning that she can be a warrior and look like a girl, and that femininity does not equal weakness, and gaaaaahhhh I love it so much). For spoiler purposes I won’t say which boy ends up putting the moves on her while she’s in the dress, but for a minute it’s kind of icky, because he’s like, “You’re fighting what has to be” and “Surely you’ve realized all along this had to happen” and I was thinking oh god, Tamora, please don’t let our protagonist’s first time happen after some boy emotionally coerces her into sex, but Alanna sticks to her guns and walks away. And THEN this crucial scene happens: Alanna is back in her room, and decides, on her own, that she’s ready, and that she wants this, so she goes to his room and they have sex. It’s so important that the sex is presented in exactly this way – as a choice that the girl makes because she wants it, not because anyone is pressuring her into it – and it’s so subtly done that most girls in the target age group who read that scene won’t even realize how important it is. And greatest of all, the sex isn’t some great turning point in the story – it’s just another part of growing up for Alanna, and isn’t made out to be any more important than anything else that happens in the book. Little girls get so many messed up messages about sex growing up, and it’s so great that Pierce’s books tackle the subject so well, and this book gets an extra star because of it.
In fact (and this relates to the previous point) the only place where this series still needs to improve is the way it treats female characters who are not Alanna. So far, Mistress Cooper is the only other female of substance, and in this book, we meet the first girl who is Alanna’s age. Her name is Delia, she flirts with the boys and is generally the classic ultra-femme useless girl, and Alanna hates her. This is not great. At this point in the series Alanna is totally that girl who says that she’s “not like most girls” and only hangs out with guys because girls are so bitchy, and I do not like it. My hope for the next book: Alanna gets a female friend. And more magical swag. Maybe she’ll get a dragon next.
Verdict: four out of five stars