The 'Protector of the Small' is a quartet of books written by fantasy author Tamora Pierce1. The books have been marketed towards 11-14 year-old girls, but have been enjoyed by girls and boys both older and younger than this, and adult readers as well. The first two books in the series especially appeal to younger readers.
The books are about a young noblewoman, Keladry, who aspires to become a lady knight in the land of Tortall, which is loosely based on medieval legends and history. While there is another Tortallan lady knight, Alanna had become a knight by disguising herself as a boy. It is only recently that the king has pronounced that girls are allowed to try as knights, and Keladry is the first young noblewoman to apply.
As First Test begins, ten-year-old Keladry receives a letter at her parents' home informing her that if she goes to the palace school to try and become a knight, as her older brothers did, she will be placed on probation simply because she is a girl. As the book proceeds, Keladry learns that the school's training master isn't the only one who doesn't want a girl to succeed. In this book the reason for the series title is also uncovered, as Keladry becomes known among her peers for standing up to bullies and protecting small animals.
This book does a great job of introducing new readers to both the series and to Pierce's world of Mindelan, without resorting to painful 'infodumps'. Many fantasy series have been stalled by opening books that were simply not accessible to readers, which isn't an issue with this book. Another appeal of this book is the way in which Pierce has managed to combine the qualities of 'tomboyishness' and sensitivity in her protagonist - too often in juvenile fiction, it's a matter of either/or.
The book Page covers Keladry's second, third, and fourth years as the only girl page in the palace school. She's no longer on probation, but that doesn't mean the other pages accept her by any stretch. Of course, not only does Keladry have the boys to contend with, she has a maid who is afraid of her, and her training master repeatedly forces her to face up to her own fear of heights.
This may well be the best book in the series; it certainly has the most gripping ending.
The book Squire deals with the four years Keladry serves as squire to Sir Raoul of Goldenlake. While a squire, Keladry defends villages, is challenged to more than a few jousts, tends a baby griffin, learns to lead an army squadron, and ducks into empty tents to flirt with Cleon.
One downfall of this book is that much of it focuses on building a relationship that ultimately fizzles almost silently in the next book. After investing so much into the relationship over the course of this book, it was quite a let-down to have the relationship completely dropped in the next, and essentially without conflict at that. The other disappointing issue with this book is the plot. Squire contains what are essentially a string of short stories, and at the end, Keladry receives her knighthood. But unlike the other three books in the series, there doesn't seem to be a cohesive plot that drives the book from beginning to end, other than to serve as the string between Page and Lady Knight.
Lady Knight is the final book in the quartet, and focuses on Keladry's struggle between obeying her King and her burning desire to fight the evil she saw in her vision during the Ordeal of the Chamber of her knighthood ceremony in the previous book. The Keladry who, in earlier books had always struggled to follow orders even under pain, is now faced with a situation where following orders means sacrificing those she is responsible for. The book involves a series of tough choices for Keladry, and on the line is her honour, her knighthood, and even her life and the lives of those under her.
Make no doubt about it - this is a very well-written book, but a rather dark and despairing book as well. In some ways it parallels Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.