Some might consider this blasphemous, but I consider the Westmark books – Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen – to be the best of Lloyd Alexander’s rather prodigious body of work. Granted, they’re old favorites – my father first read them to me when I was quite small – but the same can be said for most of Alexander’s work.
Theo is a printer’s devil when the trouble begins, wanting no more than to read and print books, and continue to believe in virtue and hate injustice. Unfortunately, life is not good for printers in Westmark when our story begins, nor is it good for youthful idealism; the tyrannical chief minister is against books or just about any printed material and, well, is a tyrant. It isn’t long before Theo loses his bibliophiliac employment, and we get to watch all that tender youthful idealism go splat against the real world.
Only, what happens is more of a tug-of-war; Theo’s naivete cannot stand in the face of cruel reality, no, but neither can he give in completely to the injustice that surrounds him. And so there are compromises and painful adjustments, as he has to decide what can be compromised, what can be sacrificed or traded. Which ends justify which means, and when the lesser of two evils is good enough. When friendship is more important than honesty and when love must yield to justice.
It’s heady stuff, woven into the rather swashbuckling plot with Alexander’s characteristic dry humour. Not every author can tackle morality without becoming preachy or oppressively heavy; Alexander can. It helps that he stacks the deck with mountebanks, ragamuffins, demon coachmen, ventriloquists, poets, journalists, commoners who believe in the monarchy, nobles who want to bring down the monarchy, and a princess who appreciates dirt. They’re difficult books to categorize: not quite fantasy, but not exactly real, either; certainly not historical fiction, though certainly analogous to it; they’re not humor, but they are very funny, in a deadpan sort of way. Theo is the main character, but Mickle’s the one around whom everything revolves. And as with many book that play with genre and expectations, they’re marvelous.