As they say, there are invitations, and then there are invitations. Even wealthy adventurer Vesper Holly and her long suffering guardian Professor Brinton Garrett cannot resist accepting an invitation of the second sort to the diamond jubilee of the Grand Duchess Maria-Sophia of Drackenberg, however small, poor, and generally ignored the tiny (and completely fictional) country might be. And for once, dear Aunt Mary—Brinnie’s wife—is accompanying them. It’s only fair: after all, it’s thanks to her connections that they have an invitation at all.
These connections shouldn’t be too surprising: author Lloyd Alexander had already established in the previous books that Brinnie and his wife were at least as wealthy as Vesper, which both removed any suggestion that they might be tempted to steal Vesper’s fortune and assiduously evaded the question of “er, how can they afford all of these marvelous trips?” Exactly how a professor had amassed a fortune was something Alexander never explained, but it seems, from this book, that Mary comes from a very wealthy family indeed, which explains a lot. But really the connections are just to get the gang over to Europe for The Drackenberg Adventure.
By this time, Vesper and Brinnie are of course accustomed to danger and really wild things and getting captured and villains and so on. What they are not accustomed to, and really, I can’t blame them, are exploding sausages.
The exploding sausages are of course the brainchild of returning villain Dr. Helvitius, here to rob the tiny country of its newly formed bauxite deposits. This does force the story to pause for a convenient conversational info dump to allow young readers to realize that bauxite means aluminum, which in the 19th century means serious money, enough to drag Drackenberg out of its financial mess. On top of that, the evil Doctor has discovered a priceless treasure—a previously unknown work by no less than Leonardo da Vinci—that he is determined to have for his own. And only Vesper, Brinnie, and an assorted new group of friends have any hope of stopping him.
The best addition to the group and to the book is practical, unflappable Aunt Mary, who, I can’t help suspecting, has been more than a bit envious of the exciting trips her husband keeps taking with their ward. Perhaps because—as this book reveals—she doesn’t know most of the less unpleasant details. Not that Brinnie exactly lies to his wife. He just leaves a few things out.
Initially, Aunt Mary seems to be in the book to add a certain emotional punch and sense of urgency. After all, Brinnie and Vesper have escaped masked villains, unmasked villains, operas, and a volcano. They seem rather invincible. But dear, sweet Aunt Mary, who always rather wanted to see a diamond jubilee and have the chance to meet the nobility of era, who always thinks the best of people, seems rather vulnerable. Certainly, Dr. Helvitius, who has by now learned that Vesper and Brinnie have a gift for escaping tight spots, thinks she’s an easy target. As do Brinnie and Vesper: they unhesitatingly accept that Aunt Mary has been kidnapped and is in genuine peril, adding a personal motivation to their fight against Dr. Helvitius. Not that they exactly lacked the motivation before, but Brinnie rises to unheard of heroics and violence in this book out of concern for his wife, and Vesper, unusually enough, finds herself in doubt.
It therefore comes as a glorious moment to discover that practical Aunt Mary finds kidnapping, manhandling, and abduction completely unacceptable and something she will absolutely not tolerate. “If I had my handbag,” she tells us, “those ruffians would not have carried me off in the first place.” Alas, since she was without said item, the ruffians were able to carry her off—but only temporarily. She jumps right out of the kidnappers’ conveyance, outraged at their coarse and unmannerly behavior. She is one lady of middle years (I fear it would be impolite to enquire too closely, though I would guess that Brinnie and Mary are meant to be in their late 40s or early 50s) who stands in no need of rescue, thank you. In fact she is even indignant that her husband doesn’t realize this. It’s great.
I should, however, also mention one possible concern for readers: a subplot involves Gypsies. In many ways these are fairly stereotypical Gypsies: they are summoned to the court to dance, and they dance; they occasionally steal; they distrust outsiders; they travel a lot. But they are also honorable and extremely proud of their freedom, claiming that freedom makes them superior to most other people in the world. They are certainly superior to many of the characters in this book. I can’t say that Alexander really has an original take on them, and some of you will be saying, oh, Gypsies again, but the Gypsies of this book do have the chance to be heroes, and their characterization is not overtly offensive.
Other than the Gypsies and some shall we say rather improbable plot moments, this is a fast, fun, read. Even if it may make you regard your sausages with a touch of suspicion for awhile.
Mari Ness has now decided to stick with bacon instead of sausage for a little while. You understand, I’m sure.