Even as his novels focused on stories of princes or wannabe princes, princesses, and kings, Lloyd Alexander’s work had always had more than a touch of the democratic about it, with its gentle pokes against kings and the entire idea of the aristocracy. So it is perhaps not surprising that in the 1980s, after several light-hearted works, Alexander decided to take a deeper look at revolution, democracy, and kingship, in a new, more serious series, starting with Westmark, the first of the trilogy of the same name.
Theo is a devil—that is, an apprentice to a printer. Unusually for a Lloyd Alexander protagonist, Theo is mostly content with his job and his position, and actually likes to work. His chief concern, shared by his master, is with the country’s government. A grief stricken King Augustine has more or less given up all duties and responsibilities to his chief minister Cabbarus. This had made Cabbarus happy, while simultaneously upsetting many other people: Cabbarus is not only corrupt (he’s the sort of minister who hires assassins to kill his political enemies), manipulative (he’s also the sort of minister who hires supposed “psychics” to keep the king depressed and focused on his grief), and ambitious (see the assassins, as well as his plans to become the actual king, instead of just the king in everything but name), but also inept (those assassins I mentioned aren’t very good at it.) He does, however, sincerely believe that he is working for the benefit of the country.
He may have a point; the king’s ongoing grief for his lost daughter is certainly preventing him from being an effective leader, or even noticing what is going on in the country. This includes, as others detail, multiple abuses: forcing peasants off their lands or not allowing them to till their crops; increasing numbers of waifs, strays, and thieves; and various legal abuses. It’s not a happy country.
Cabbarus is also a big, big fan of keeping all printing presses under rigorous government control and hanging any and all printers who try to resist or simply forget to get the necessary government permits. It means that work has dried up, which is why when a dwarf shows up with a demand for a super fast printing job—but no permit—Theo agrees to take the job. He and his master desperately need the money, and besides, Theo deep down does not really believe in the need for permits anyway. The authorities, not particularly concerned with their lack of work, note that without a permit, printing is illegal, and begin to smash the press. In the ensuing fight, Theo accidentally kills someone.
This immediately changes the entire tone of the book, as Theo spends most of the rest of the book fleeing a mostly justified charge. Mostly, because he did, after all, kill someone, a weight that continues to press upon him throughout the book, but only mostly, because the entire attempt to shutdown the press is at best unfair and at worst questionable. Also, Theo is acting in defense of the press, his employer and to a certain degree himself. Theo, however, can only remember that he is a wanted criminal, and what it felt like to kill someone.
Falling in with the Count Las Bombas and his dwarf servant, Musket, does not exactly add any moral clarify. The Count Las Bombas is not actually a count: he’s a trickster, conjurer and all around con man, skilled at getting coin out of people’s pockets in various elaborate ruses. And more than once—in some of the book’s more amusing scenes—getting conned himself. But, as Theo soon learns, this conman, in the classic tradition of the rogue with a heart of gold, is kinder and more generous than many of the supposedly righteous people of the country.
Just adding to the confusion are Mickle, a street waif with her own ideas of honor; Dr. Torrens, who wants to keep the monarchy alive by healing the king; and Florian, a former aristocrat turned revolutionary, who, after noting the abuses of the aristocracy, delivers one of the bitterest speeches in a book filled with bitter speeches:
“As for Torrens thinking merely to correct abuses—he is almost as innocent as you are. Abuse is in the very grain of the monarchy’s power. And I can tell you one thing more: Men give up many things willingly: their fortunes, their loves, their dreams. Power, never. It must be taken. And you, youngster, will have to choose your side. Though I assure you the monarchy will be as unsparing with its enemies as I am, at least there is justice in my cause.”
“Even if the cause is good,” said Theo, “what does it do to the people who stand against it? And the people who follow it?”
“Next time you see Jellinek,” said Florian, “ask him if he’s ever found a way to make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
“Yes,” Theo said. “Yes, but men aren’t eggs.”
Theo, as you can tell, is still thinking. Theo is also still feeling guilty about killing one man, and now feeling guilty about not killing another one. Florian, less wracked with guilt, does not hesitate to kill someone to save one of his compatriots—and Theo is feeling guilty about that too. Which makes it all the more ironic that having spent most of the book hanging out with frauds and revolutionaries, he helps restore the princess to her rightful place—through what he and the others think is a fraud.
This does have the effect of getting rid of the bad guy, at least for this book. And, in a nice twist, it also means Theo can’t get the girl after all—at least, not right away. He, after all, is most definitely not of noble birth, and unlike Taran, he has no desire for that status. Nor does the restoration of the princess bring instant happiness and peace to the land. The Count Las Bombas may believe that “…a princess who smokes a pipe, swears like a trooper, and scratches wherever she itches might be a blessing for the entire kingdom. Even Florian might approve.” But the key there is the word “might.” Some people still have to be convinced—and Theo is going to have to do some more travelling, if only to find out more about the kingdom.
I’m leaving a lot out here: the myriad number of characters, enough to almost compete with a Wheel of Time or a Song of Ice and Fire novel, if in a much more compressed form, something that works only thanks to Lloyd Alexander’s efficiency with language; the very sweet and understated romance between Theo and Mickle, which starts off with the usual misunderstandings and not knowing how to speak to each other, and slowly grows into a firm friendship with a secret language, and something more; the way Alexander swiftly describes Florian’s revolutionary society with just a few quick sentences. And, yes, Mickle, the emotionally troubled young waif who has learned to throw her voice—to her great advantage—and plunges into the role of fake psychic with enthusiasm.
Westmark lacks the sheer magic of Alexander’s earlier books—indeed, it has no magic at all. And although the humor is not entirely missing, it is quelled here, in favor of a more serious discussion of ethics and the means to an end. And although the book has a larger number of women characters than the typical Alexander book and for once more or less passes the Bechdel test (at least five with speaking roles, four of whom play major roles in the plot, and four with action roles), this is more a reflection of the book’s unusually high number of characters. Of the women, only Mickle can be considered a major character, and she is introduced relatively late in the text and frequently disappears. At times, the book almost becomes overly complex, especially given its length. For instance, I found myself really not wanting to spend time with Weasel and Sparrow given everything else that was going on, even though, as it turned out, this chapter was critical to the plot.
But for all its seriousness, it never loses its sense of adventure, and when I read it at a young age, I delighted in its complexity. This is a book that assumes kids can think about and answer the tough questions—but also assumes kids will want to have fun doing that.
Mari Ness has a not so secret love for overly complicated epic tales with a vast number of characters. She lives in central Florida.