As I noted, the end of Lloyd Alexander’s The Kestrel had left Our Heroes, or, really, at this point, anti-heroes, in a tense and unstable political situation. As The Beggar Queen begins, this situation has really not improved all that much.
Worse, Cabbarus, only a lingering threat in The Kestrel, has decided that it is time to return—this time with money and troops. Meanwhile, harvests are failing, people are shooting one another, and Mickle, the queen, is responding to all this by making plans to dredge a harbor, plans that Theo, the main protagonist, correctly points out will never get used. Not surprisingly, Theo’s main wish is to chuck it and just go on a picnic.
Before he can go on a picnic, however, he has to draw up some plans for that harbor dredging. It’s unbelievably pointless: in fact, even by the end of the book a grand total of zero people other than Mickle have shown any interest in harbor dredging at all, and my hopes that this would be some sort of Chekhov’s gun turned out to be wildly overoptimistic. This does, however, allow Theo to see a couple of previous characters who are evidently up to no good. Worried, he tells his fellow Consuls Julian and Florian, in a conversation that confirms that Mickle’s well intentioned consular government isn’t just struggling with bad harvests: Theo and Justin’s rivalry and guilt has blossomed into full grown hatred, and Florian can barely keep the peace.
Theo and the readers aren’t the only ones to notice this. Rival countries, sensing an opportunity, arm and finance Cabbarus’ return. Unwilling to call himself “king” until he has full control of the country and can be crowned, Cabbarus sets up a “Directorate,” which basically is short for “this means I can hang people who stand against me.” In the overthrow, Mickle, Florian, Theo and several others manage to escape. Mickle uses her thieving connections to set up an underground resistance and government, but not before Florian is badly injured and forced to go into at least temporary exile. Justin, more fortunately, has escaped to the countryside, where he is rallying the troops—and not surprisingly becoming more and more convinced that both monarchy and directorate need to go.
This immediately sets up an interesting reader/narrative dynamic. On the one hand, it’s natural to want the hero to win. On the other hand, it’s immediately apparent to readers and other characters alike that it might be better for Theo if he loses. I mean, given the options of taking nice picnics and flying kites, or drawing pointless harbor schematics, which would you choose? And it’s also probably better for Westmark, come to think of it: it’s not that the country has been doing at well with him as one of its three leaders.
Indeed, in some ways, Cabbarus hardly needs troops and money to return: the country is already in minor revolt, and although the citizens of Marianstat do fight back after his takeover, they have to be urged to do so. Nor is the anti-Cabbarus movement exactly unified: we have Justin demanding full democracy for all; various aristocrats demanding the return of the monarchy; various people unenthusiastically agreeing that Cabbarus kinda sucks; and a group of criminals pointing out, with some justice, that it really doesn’t make a difference to them who is in charge: they’ll be hanged one way or another.
But it’s not exactly easy to cheer on the other characters, either. Cabbarus has changed little in the three books except to be more and more convinced in his own self-worth, and feeling sorrier and sorrier that not a single person appreciates all of the various things he is doing to improve the country—hanging people, dispensing wisdom and guidance, making all kinds of sacrifices so he can hang and shoot more people, and so on. Plus, nobody, but nobody, is intelligent enough to understand him. It’s all very sad but not exactly sympathetic, especially since Cabbarus is killing ten to twelve civilians for every single one of his murdered supporters. Cheerful! Meanwhile, Justin is still annoyingly fanatical; Florian is mostly injured and out of this book; Las Bombas and Musket are again shuffled off to the sidelines, and a number of other characters are getting themselves killed.
That leaves us with only Mickle to cheer for, and although the thought of a beggar queen planning a revolt from a den of thieves certainly has its appeal, my general sense is that Mickle is fighting for her throne out of a sense of duty, not because she wants to. And although I’d agree that Mickle is a better ruler than Cabbarus, “better ruler than Cabbarus” is not exactly a high bar to clear. Foreign rulers are supporting Cabbarus’ overthrow of the legitimate government for a reason, and it’s not just because they are getting paid.
Indeed, I almost think that Cabbarus is so villainous just to make sure that we will cheer on Mickle, and even then, it’s not entirely clear why we should, except that Mickle is brave, clear headed, and overall pretty awesome, and, unlike the other characters we might cheer for, she isn’t dead.
Anyway. Mostly led by Mickle, the citizens of Marianstat begin actively resisting for various reasons, setting up barricades throughout the city. (I started humming from Les Miserables. Couldn’t help it.) Things go badly, since the revolutionaries are severely outgunned, until Justin makes an appearance, and then, things still go badly.
A subplot contrasts Mickle’s “rule” (of sorts) with that of Constantine, the young king of neighboring Regia. After surviving an assassination attempt, the once kindly, good hearted Constantine finds himself growing harsher and stronger, not hesitating to deal out justice without the benefit, of, say, a trial. His uncle, who once dismissed him as a fool, approves, believing that the ability to set up a firing squad makes Constantine a real king. Not that this exactly encourages Constantine to think of ways of serving his country: more, Constantine is thinking of how to keep his throne. The glimpse we have of him at the end suggest that he will be a ruthless ruler.
And yet, despite the fact that he is considerably less intelligent, by the end of the book, perhaps because he has embraced a ruthless, pragmatic course of behavior, Constantine is still king, his country strong and unified. More to the point, he has not caused, directly or indirectly, the deaths of innocent civilians. Mickle, who has not been ruthless, who has attempted to only do the right thing, not necessarily the what will keep her in power thing, finds herself forced into exile, directly and arguably indirectly responsible for multiple deaths. Just how responsible is, as I said, arguable—it depends upon, I guess, just how much you blame Mickle for setting up the consulate in the first place, and how much you blame the consulate for Westmark’s problems. In any case, she clearly can’t remain queen—even if she wanted to. Fortunately, she doesn’t; less fortunately, she is losing her home.
It’s a bittersweet and only partially realistic ending. I say partially, because generally in revolutions of this sort rulers are not allowed to go quietly into exile with a couple of friends, but instead, find themselves killed. It may make a bit of a difference that Mickle is a girl (Alexander may have had the example of Queen Christina of Sweden in mind, although in all other ways the two are very different) but I don’t think so. I do think it makes a difference that whatever the death toll, this was still marketed as a children’s book. And it does make a difference that Mickle is giving up her throne voluntarily and didn’t really want it to begin with, and also has been known as the Beggar Queen for a reason: she spent a lifetime on the streets and is more comfortable there. Thus, her subjects can trust her to go in exile and stay there—and almost certainly be all the happier for it.
At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that Mickle and Theo had this option at the end of the first book, the end of the second book, and the beginning of this third book. I’m not saying that lives would have been saved—probably not; the first book more than hinted that Cabbarus had been able to take control from the king for a reason, and that revolutionary fervor was already stirring. It’s possible to overthrow governments without violence, but it’s not typical. And it’s difficult, reading back through these three books, to see what, exactly, Mickle and Theo could have done differently other than heading into exile to begin with.
It’s a fascinating study of what might happen to a country after a destined ruler takes the throne—not to mention the perils of aristocratic government. And it is one of the few children’s books I can think of to take a serious look at revolution and its difficulties and consequences. For all that, however, I’m not sure I really like the book. It’s dense, it keeps crisscrossing here and there, it has far too many subplots, and a very high and fairly depressing death count. Alexander evidently did not think that revolution was good for artists and writers. But he did think that children deserve books they can think about, and in that, The Beggar Queen definitely delivers.
Mari Ness sympathizes with anyone who just wants to chuck it and go on a picnic. She lives in central Florida, a place with several great picnic spots, all generally inhabited by bugs.