After several years writing books about boys and young men and their girl sidekicks, in 1986 Lloyd Alexander tried something new: a series of Victorian adventure novels centered on a girl, starting with The Illyrian Adventure.
Move over, Indiana Jones. I’d like you to meet Vesper Holly.
As our narrator explains, the orphaned Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. Apart from that, she speaks multiple languages, including the filthy parts; has a self-confidence that would almost border on the egomaniacal if not for the small fact that she’s almost always proven right; is sixteen, attractive (though I’m a bit worried about the constant comparisons of her hair to marmalade) and charming; almost always gets her way; and is filthy, filthy rich. Also, she has a passion for archaeology and she’s able to do a spot of detection work on the side. I take it back. She’s not just Indiana Jones. She’s Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes (minus the violin playing, the bees, and the cocaine), and Nancy Drew and Richie Rich.
Playing Watson/Marcus Brody to Vesper Holly is Professor Brinton Garrett, aka Brinnie, himself a wealthy archaeologist who, as her newly appointed guardian, finds himself pulled mostly against his will into Vesper’s various adventures. I said mostly: the more I read these books, the more I can’t help but think that Brinnie is quite delighted to find himself back in the field and adventuring again, whatever he might be thinking about the hotel situation, and however much he may claim to disapprove of Miss Vesper. Like any good Watson, he is carefully chronicling Vesper’s adventures, and like any good Watson, he’s more than a bit bumbling, despite his keen insight into people:
I have always considered myself a keen judge of character and have taken a measure of pride in my ability to perceive an individual’s true nature on short acquaintance. Granted, I was wrong in the case of Nilo, Milan, Silvia, Matrona, Mira, and Colonel Zalik, but under the circumstances, my mistakes were justifiable.
For the record, that’s like about half the number of speaking characters in this book.
But for all of Brinnie’s various mistakes, Alexander slyly throws in hints that the narrator is not quite as hapless as he presents himself. Like Vesper, Brinnie also is a polyglot who easily picks up new languages. His extensive travel experience also means that despite his complaints and need for footbaths, he has no problem easily settling into all kinds of hotels, semi hotels, tents and other travel arrangements. When Vesper finally reaches Vartan’s Castle, Brinnie is the one able to estimate the date of the objects they have found, and note that the site probably has a substructure to explore. His subsequent paragraphs (and they are paragraphs) reveal that he has had significant training in proper archaeological methods—even if, quite like other Victorian archaeologists, he has no hesitation in using rather less proper methods to access secret chambers on occasion. And he, not Vesper, is the one to verify that the early Zentan calligraphy really is early Zentan calligraphy.
So he misjudges people. All the time. It can happen to anyone. Plus, it makes the book a lot more amusing—and gives kid readers a chance to feel superior.
Anyway. In this book, having unexpectedly found himself Vesper’s guardian (thanks largely to his own fortune, large enough to prevent him from wanting hers) he follows, that is, accompanies Vesper to Illyria, an imaginary country loosely based—very loosely based—on Balkan countries. The country is seething with tensions between the ethnic Illyrians and the Zentans, who have run the country for several centuries. The two groups still speak different languages and practice very different cultures, and the entire country is on the brink of civil war, or at least minor riots.
Vesper, however, has another purpose in mind: she is seeking out an army of magical mechanical soldiers mentioned in the Illyriad, the great medieval epic poem of the country. After extensive study, Vesper’s father—also an archaeologist and traveler—had become convinced that the soldiers were certainly real, if not actually magical, and passed this conviction on to Vesper. Fortunately, Vesper’s self-confidence has already gained her an invitation to visit the king. (She’s the sort of person who writes kings telling them that they will be delighted to see her, and, surprisingly enough, they are.)
Here, she and Brinnie get a chance to tell the king that really he needs to stop trying to quash ethnic tensions and instead grant full rights and freedoms to the Illyrians. For the first time in the book, Vesper receives a slight check: the king is polite, but says he can only act with honor. Which means quashing people. Meetings with the high ranking vizier, who doesn’t like them, and the urbane Dr. Helvitius, who is annoyingly condescending to Vesper, don’t really improve matters. It’s a nice counter to the book’s general “Here come the Americans to save the day and point out how other countries should be running their governments!” But at least she and Brinnie receive full approval to go hunting for the mechanical soldiers, avoiding weeks of complicated paperwork in the process, and start out on their trip almost immediately, after hiring a not very skilled dragoman named Nilo to help them out.
The rest of the book combines mystery, adventure and a bit of not particularly scientific archaeology; readers, and particularly archaeologists reading this section, should remember that this was the 19th century when archaeologists were more careless about these sorts of things until they realized that removing Arks of the Covenant or Holy Grails from their resting places without proper documentation and with fights, car chases, submarine chases and the like could result in severe, even permanent damage.
But I digress again.
Apart from that, it’s all a lot of fun, if not exactly plausible. Here I’m not just talking about the plot, implausible though the entire thing, from Vesper’s easy ability to make friends with both sides of the ethnic conflict to the idea that the leader of the rebellion would just happen to join their little archaeological expedition to the documents that just happened to be stored in giant medieval chess pieces to the … I just can’t do this anymore. No, it’s other details, including the not so small point that the sixteen year old Vesper Holly would not have been travelling with only a kindly male guardian during the Victorian period. Some sort of maid, at least, would have been necessary. And although Illyria might be mostly imaginary (or stolen from Shakespeare), the world in which it is set isn’t. Vesper is from Philadelphia; she and Brinnie speak real languages and have been to real places, and here, magic doesn’t work.
But although all of this should make Vesper a problem, somehow she isn’t. Oh, certainly, Vesper is almost too perfect—rich, attractive, confident, intelligent, making her almost a textbook Mary Sue. And Brinnie’s clear admiration for her only makes that side worse. At the same time, Vesper has her flaws and her vulnerabilities: her failure to immediately realize that, hey, she’s travelling around with the most wanted man in the country; her tears, or at least near tears, when she faces the possibility that people she knows might die in an upcoming war.
But what makes her character work is not, in the end, her flaws, but the realization, shown through Brinnie, that actually having to keep up with, let along live with, such a perfect character is both exhausting and exasperating. Part of the reason Brinnie’s thinking does get so muddled is because he’s so busy running around trying to organize things at breakneck speed, not to mention trying to keep Vesper from breaking her neck. His exasperation comes through more than once, and somehow makes the almost-perfect Vesper so much easier to deal with.
Plus, I have to say it: having a nearly superpowered archaeological heroine who is smart, pretty, resourceful, charming, and wealthy—well, it’s wish fulfillment on a grand scale, and the sort of heroine we don’t see enough of. Combine that with a narrator that young readers can often feel superior to, and you have a winner.
Mari Ness sometimes gets to pull weeds out of her central Florida yard, which counts as archaeology if you completely ignore the definition of the word.