By norahaddad |
First Test: Protector of the Small, #1

Main characters:

Keladry of Mindelan (MC)

Lord Wyldon (training instructor)

Neal of Queenscove (Kel's sponsor/friend)

Joren of Stone Mountain (Kel's enemy) 

First Test is a fantasy fiction novel set in the Tortallan world, in which it's ten years after King Jonathan has decreed that women are allowed to become knights. Keladry of Mindelan, a ten year old girl, is the first to come forward to try and earn a place as a page. The book starts out with a conversation between King Jonathan, Lady Alanna the Lioness (the first lady knight, who achieved her rank by disguising herself as a man then revealing her true gender), and Lord Wyldon, the training master. It quickly grows heated as Lord Wyldon requests that Kel be put on a probation year and the king accepts, much to Alanna's dismay. 

Keladry is wounded by the king's decision, and is about to turn down the probationary year, but a close shave with a spidren changes her mind. (A spidren is a kind of evil Immortal that has a spider body and a human head.) That makes her set on going to train as a knight and prove King Jonathan wrong.

Unsurprisingly, her reception upon arrival isn't exactly warm. Lord Wyldon is a strict man who expects even more from her than the others. He does not seem enthusiastic about training a girl as a knight. He even prays about it at the first dinner...out loud. And ironically, his prayer is addressed to a goddess.

And she apparently has to be chosen by a sponsor. Without a sponsor, she will not be able to begin training. She fortunately gets chosen, but by someone she was never expecting in the first place- a stranger, Nealan of Queenscove, who's also quite old for a page- fifteen years old. He's sarcastic, a smart-alec, and shows a frequent disrespect towards authority, making him the perfect comic relief of the story.

Her training is especially grueling due to Lord Wyldon's rigid dislike of her and her almost daily fights with Joren and his "pack." Since no one else bothers to step in and stop the hazing and beating up that they do to the younger pages, she decides that she has to interfere and put an end to it. This is challenging in two ways: it puts her in trouble with the bullies, and with the teachers for constantly making up excuses. Kel is also left with the most difficult, stubborn, large mount in her tilting (a different word for jesting) lessons-. He's a gelding named Peachblossom and he gradually warms up to her. A visit from Daine (the Wildmage at the castle) quickly gets rid of a lot of his bad temper.

Finally, after a stressful year, and after receiving mysterious gifts from an unknown well-wisher, Lord Wyldon allows her to pass, much to everyone's shock. And she receives ANOTHER present that contains powerful healing, a bruise balm that instantly removes any of her bruises. It's said that it comes from someone in a higher class, which I believe is the Lioness. The book closes with a note from her benefactor that reads, "Goddess bless, lady page."

To wrap it up, I loved the characters and setting. Kel is competitive, skilled at masking her emotions (thanks to her years spent on the Yamani Islands, which also taught her that women can be warriors), yet she experiences emotions very strongly under her Yamani-mask. She has a firm sense of defending what she believes is right- and this trait in her personality is what makes her stand up to Joren and his cronies. She's cool headed and physically strong so it seems like she's in the right place.

Definitely a theme that was prevalent was gender roles, and challenging them, since normally when you think of a knight the image that comes to mind is probably a guy in shining armor riding a white horse. First Test challenges that idea by showing examples of women being knights, performing and leading just as well as men, and by creating a powerful female character despite her age (ten years old, so quite young.)

The second theme I noticed is the importance of perseverance. Keladry kept working at her goal to get through that probationary year, she doggedly persevered through black eyes and bruises and constant physical exercise, she was stared at and embarrassed in front of her peers, but nothing slowed her down. And in the end, she did succeed.