Spoilers for Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small. I’m assuming knowledge of the series, so apologies to those who aren’t familiar.
It’s no secret to people who read this blog that I really like Tamora Pierce’s books, and that Song of the Lioness was a pretty huge influence on my childhood. I’ve written some criticisms of the books before, but I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the problematic behaviors of the two romantic interests in the series. A commenter pointed out today that she has reservations about recommending the series for this reason, and I’ve also been lurking at Mark Reads, reading the commentariat’s thorough critique of Jonathan and George. I’d recommend reading it, if only to witness that most rare of beasts–a comments section that strengthens your faith in humanity.
I have to admit that my mind has a tendency to edit out the parts of the books I don’t like, because I just love Alanna so much, and there’s really fantastic aspects to the series. This also means that I basically edit out all of Liam. (Just leave, dude. I don’t like you.) So all I’ll say about Liam is that he doesn’t like feeling out of control, and he can’t put Alanna into a neat little box like he wants. He freaks out when she wears a dress and tries to forbid her from doing things, which she ignores, obviously. And he calls her Kitten. I don’t like Liam.
Jonathan and George are more complicated, because I do like them, a lot of the time. I think most of Jon’s problems stem from being the Crown Prince, since he’s had his position in the world constantly affirmed since childhood. So he gets arrogant, and assumes that of course Alanna wants to be with him, she just doesn’t know it yet. Stop telling people how they should feel, Jonathan! You might be a handsome prince, but stop acting like everyone wants to have sex with you! At one point he says something like, “You’re fighting what has to be,” which just drives me up the wall. I would be extremely displeased if someone tried that line on me. Alanna does get angry with Jon, but I really wish that the book called him out on this behavior more than it does.
Then Jon pitches a royal hissy fit when Alanna declines to marry him. I think he does love her, but he’s also basically going through a rebellious phase, and marrying the lady knight would really piss off his parents. I can understand this plot point, because I think Jon is legitimately scared about the prospect of becoming king. So I can accept that Jonathan can be a flawed but basically good character who makes some bad mistakes and says some really terrible things and hurts someone he loves. I’m actually glad that his character gets redeemed from that point. I think his parents’ deaths really sober him up, and he knows that what he did and said was wrong.
On to George. Oh, George. You have so many good qualities, notwithstanding your collection of ears. Where Liam tries to put Alanna in a box, and Jonathan has unreasonable expectations for her behavior (how is she supposed to navigate between squire and lover, knight and queen?), George accepts Alanna as she is, whether she’s passing as a boy or wearing a pretty dress. I also appreciate that the “love triangle” plot line doesn’t become insufferable mostly because George refuses to make it into a love triangle. The two men never fight over Alanna, thank goodness, and George remains a friend to both Alanna and Jonathan. He shows disappointment, but I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) that he demonstrates jealousy (not even with Liam) and he doesn’t think he’s entitled to Alanna.
Bad points: he absolutely engages in behavior that would accurately be termed stalking. I realize that contradicts my previous statement about not feeling entitled to Alanna, but the justification for his spies keeping an eye on her is that there’s danger afoot and he keeps an eye on everything. Which is true; he’s the King of Thieves. That’s how he survives. But I think he crosses a line when he disregards Alanna’s desire that she travel to visit her brother alone, and shows up anyway to accompany her. She said no, George.
I said in my first review that their age difference (7 years) doesn’t bother me that much, which is still true, because they don’t start a sexual relationship until she’s a real adult. But he does start flirting with her when she’s around 15, pointing out that girls in the city marry that young. Which might be true (and I know Tamora Pierce considers that part of the realism of the world she created) but I still don’t like it. Also, that line when he says he’s “taking advantage” of her to kiss her because she’s carrying stuff and otherwise she’d probably stab him? George, if you have to “take advantage” of someone to kiss them because you think they’d stab you otherwise, that’s a really good sign that they don’t want to be kissed and you shouldn’t do it.
[Side note: Gary kisses an older Lady as a prank--for which he is grounded--but it is still treated in a rather lighthearted manner, which reinforces the idea that it's no big deal to kiss someone without their consent. It is a big deal to kiss someone without their consent, and you shouldn't do it. It's also turned into a joke about the Lady not being very attractive, which is just plain mean.]
I think the most egregious violation George commits, however, is drugging Alanna’s drink so that she sleeps before the Ordeal. And Faithful is totally in on it! I know you think you’re taking care of her, but she gets to make decisions about what happens to her own body, dammit! Drugging someone isn’t loving or romantic, kids.
I do think that Protector of the Small deals with romantic relationships and sexuality in a more realistic and positive manner. Kel has an unrequited crush on her older friend Neal, which naturally fades over time. Then she has a relationship with her fellow squire Cleon, which doesn’t progress much past kissing. They talk about sex, and I like that Cleon feels hesitant about it as well, although that’s partly because he feels like he’s supposed to marry Kel. The relationship actually ends when Cleon decides he has to fulfill his arranged marriage, which is sad for them but also largely okay. They have a good conversation about it, and Cleon says that his future wife is kind, and I’m glad they don’t denigrate her. It’s not fair for anyone, but it’s the reality of their world and no one is at fault. Kel also has a good talk with her mother about sex, and an adorably awkward talk with Raoul about sexual double standards and how life isn’t fair. (For people who’ve read SOTL but not Protector of the Small, Raoul becomes a major character and is really great all the time.) By the end of the series, there’s hints that Kel is interested in someone else (and he’s interested in her), but I really like that the book ends with her single. Too many books end with everyone getting paired off, so it’s refreshing for the protagonist to be single and totally fine. I think that’s something teenagers need to hear.
I have read that Tamora Pierce would write some things differently in SOTL if she got a do-over (it was published in the ’80s) and I think her later novels are evidence that she’s become much more conscious about these problems.
So I would recommend Song of the Lioness, because there’s still a lot to recommend in it, but I think these issues need to be discussed. In fact, it could even be a good starting point for a conversation about the romanticization of problematic behaviors in relationships.
Full disclosure: I get a very small percentage of the sale if you use this link to buy the book on Amazon. If you’d like to buy the books, I’d be most grateful if you did it from here!