“Cabbarus forbade the truth,” Torrens answered. “I would forbid only lies.”
“To my knowledge,” said Keller, “no one in the history of the world has managed that.”
In fantasy books written for children, the restoration of the rightful king usually brings about a happy ending. After all, order has been restored and the evil guys have generally been overthrown and, since these are children’s books, sent into exile instead of getting their heads cut off. Sometimes the main characters get medals or a party or at least the grateful thanks of the restored sovereigns—assuming the main characters aren’t, in fact, the restored sovereigns.
And then we have Lloyd Alexander’s The Kestrel, where the restoration of the rightful princess does no such thing.
Life has been uneasy, at best, in the kingdom since the end of Westmark. Mickle—that is, Augusta—is still learning to be queen. Not everyone is pleased with her restoration, or her father’s rule, however, partly because her father, frankly, has not been a great ruler. As if to give further evidence of this, Theo, former printer’s apprentice now turned potential prince consort, has been wandering the land, auditing the accounts of various aristocrats, and finding multiple problems. More happily, he is also doing pen and ink drawings of the various people he’s meeting. Since this is a Lloyd Alexander novel, it’s immediately clear that Theo is happier and better off focusing on the pen and ink drawings. Unfortunately, since this is also a novel about corruption and war, he’s not going to be able to do so.
Within the first few pages, Theo is alerted to some potentially major problems in the army thanks to a certain General Erzcour who has turned against the crown. A page or two later, the king dies, making Mickle the queen of the country, and a page or two after this, the inept assassin from the last book shoots Theo in the chest. You certainly cannot accuse Alexander of starting the book on a slow note.
Fortunately, Theo survives the gunshot wound. By the time he recovers, however, Erzcour is more or less openly plotting with a rival kingdom to overthrow Mickle, and Theo soon finds himself joining Justin’s army to fight against the invading Regians. Theo is remarkably good at soldiering, and finds himself rising in the ranks. That’s about the only positive development for Theo.
As the fighting continues, morals deteriorate. Justin kills unarmed prisoners. The Regians retaliate by hanging innocent civilians. Soldiers start to fight over food and steal from civilians and one another. Theo and Stock, the poet from the previous book, initially object, but are so hungry they end up eating the stolen food themselves. Later, after Theo comes across Stock’s mutilated body, he feels his emotions go numb. It’s the final step in his transformation into the Kestrel, a vicious killer.
Mickle, fortunately enough, is doing much better. In a neat twist, the princess turned queen who needed to be rescued and restored to her rightful place in the first book, becomes the unquestioned hero of this one. Mickle is the first to realize that the war cannot be won by either side. She’s also the first to come up with acceptable peace terms, and does not hesitate to humiliate herself for the sake of ending the war and saving people’s lives. She also volunteers to head up to the enemy army in disguise to negotiate these peace terms. It’s all very awesome—
—which is why her decision in the last few pages of the book to go along with setting up a government of three consuls while keeping a queen is just so mindboggling headthunking AUUGH WHY ARE YOU AGREEING TO THIS MICKLE WHY WHY WHY? It’s not the idea of the three consuls so much—although history is decidedly mixed on the successful rule of triumvirates. It’s more the idea of these three particular consuls. Two of them are completely against the monarchy. Two of them have excellent reasons for hating each other. Appointing one means delaying producing a nice cute little heir to the throne, something that MIGHT help rally the people around the throne. I present adorable little Prince George as an example of this (don’t click if you understandably can’t take any more William and Kate coverage.)
More to the point, none of the three consults have any practical governing experience whatsoever. I get the law of conservation of characters and the fact that from a plot standpoint, the last thing Alexander wants to do is introduce three new characters in the last three pages. But Alexander has mentioned other functionaries as side characters, and presumably somebody has been organizing the food supplies, however badly, for the armies. And before anyone starts complaining that revolutionary leaders in general have lacked administrative experience, I’ll just counter by noting that many of the leaders of the American Revolution and the later designers of the Constitution had studied law or history or both or had significant administrative experience or both.
That said, Alexander evidently had the French Revolution more in mind here, where administrative competence was not necessarily the main quality sought for in revolutionary leadership, something Napoleon later worked to address. Alexander was aware that revolutions happen in fits and starts, and never in a smooth line between uprising to immediately functioning government. And more importantly, this is not a novel about how to create an effective democratic government, but rather, a novel about war.
By his own admission, Lloyd Alexander was a terrible soldier. His experiences in World War II not surprisingly gave him a lifetime distaste for war, as shown in his previous books, where many of his characters go out of their way to avoid physical conflict of any kind. This was a choice Alexander clearly approved of.
But he was also aware of the tendency in some children’s fantasy books to soften or even glamourize war. I’m thinking here specifically of the Narnia books, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy, where battles are short, no one of any importance dies, and Lucy either runs around magically healing everyone or admits that his brother won’t let her carry her gleaming potion to something as frivolous as a battle. (Which is also where the bottle would be most NEEDED, Peter, but I digress.)
Alexander often found his work, particularly the Prydain Chronicles, compared to the Narnia series, and in a very real way, the Westmark series is a counter to that comparison and to the entire Narnia series. As I’ve noted, Westmark may be an alternate reality, but it is a decidedly non magical one. The country has guns, which hurt people, a lot. Including major characters, or good characters, or characters that just happened to get in the way. They die gruesomely and terribly. The amusing characters like Count Las Bombas and Musket find themselves sidelined. And Alexander grimly shows us just how easily a well intentioned hero, like Theo, can be turned.
Reading the book, I also could not help thinking of the various stories, true and false, of child soldiers in modern warfare. Exactly how much of those stories Alexander had in mind I can’t tell, but Theo is certainly not the only young character to find himself dragged into war. A subplot focuses on Sparrow and Weasel, the two very young thieves from the previous book, who find themselves homeless and terrified here. Theo’s own age is never mentioned in the text: mid teens, perhaps, in the first book, perhaps late teens or early twenties now. Young enough to be called boy at the start of this book, but old enough to be considering marriage and to lead older men into battle by the end. And certainly old enough to know how to kill, and to be very much an adult at the end.
Not content with exploring the corrupting influence of war, the book also studies the corrupting influence of pure power, in the person of Dr. Torrens. A hero in the first book, by the second book Dr. Torrens is claiming that he needs to censor the press in the name of security and truth. The novelist Alexander gives some space to this argument, but clearly disapproves and disagrees with it. Justin, too, finds himself enthralled with and mesmerized by power. As do most of the leaders of the invading country.
The Kestrel is not necessarily an easy read. For such a short book, it has an almost overwhelming number of characters, plots, subplots, and sub subplots. The crowding means that many characters get short shifted, and the entire romance between Theo and Mickle ends up getting taken for granted, when it’s remembered at all. But for all that, it’s a serious book about war and its consequences, and a solid bridge between the first and second books of the series.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.