I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
I almost burst into tears when I finished this book. My reaction took me by surprise because I've read First Test at least four or five times. It shouldn't still affect me like this, but it does. It's a fairly simple story, but I love it so very much, and I adore Kel.
The only thing I can recall being interested in when I was younger that was "for boys only" was comics. There was this comic shop right near my high school that I used to go to during my lunch period. It had a fabulous bargain section, perfect for someone just starting out and still trying to figure out their tastes. I'd buy something every week or two and put up with the grumpy guy who owned the place. Except I eventually figured out he wasn't grumpy with everyone, just me. He was nice and helpful towards adults and teenage boys, while I got lectured about the way I touched the comics, or about being in the store too long without buying something. After a while, I stopped buying individual comics and just read graphic novels, which I could get at bookstores or libraries. No more grumpy comic shop guy.
Kel dealt with a lot more than just lectures. After Alanna the Lioness became the first female knight (by spending several years pretending to be a boy), it was proclaimed that girls could become pages. Ten years later, Keladry of Mindelan became the first girl to request to become a page. Her request was granted, but, to satisfy Lord Wyldon, the hidebound training master, she was put on probation for a year.
Like I said, this story was pretty simple. There were no “dark political intrigue” subplots, just “can Kel make it through her training and be accepted back next year?” She had an uphill battle. The boys wrecked her room, hardly anyone wanted to be her sponsor, and bullies picked on her whenever the teachers weren't looking. No one expected her to be around next year.
Kel was quite possibly the most mature 10-year-old ever, stoically putting up with a certain level of treatment and fighting back when her sense of justice demanded it and the rules permitted it (sort of). She had spent six years of her life living in the Yamani Islands (the fantasy equivalent of Japan?) with her parents and had picked up the Yamani custom of hiding her feelings and controlling her emotions. She had also had a little bit of weapons training, because even the most timid of Yamani court ladies got such training.
Kel was probably the most perfect possible first official female page, but she wasn't disgustingly so. She'd get frustrated from time to time, and her brutal schedule and the bullying she had to endure meant she couldn't always finish all her coursework. Her prior weapons training sometimes meant she had habits she needed to unlearn when learning to use similar but differently handled weapons.
I enjoyed Kel's growing friendships with the various other pages, and I liked Neal, her sponsor. As a fan of fantasy animal companions, Kel's little flock of sparrows and grumpy Peachblossom made me happy. Kel wasn't magically gifted herself (which I actually kind of liked), but some of the other characters were. Bonedancer, a living archaeopteryx skeleton, Numair, a mage, and Daine, a Wildmage, all made appearances.
The only way my copy of this book is ever leaving my possession is if I one day gift it to one of my nieces or it falls apart.
A map of the kingdom of Tortall, a "cast of characters" section, and a glossary.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)