Let’s face it: we’ve all been late with library books from time to time. But there’s late, and there’s sixteen years late—and there’s late returning to your local library, and late returning to a remote library in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Vesper Holly, naturally, has encountered a late book of the second type.
Moreover, it turns out that it is quite a rare book indeed, one that the library in question would want back very badly. In fact, in one of the many plot holes of the book, I’m not sure why the library ever let the book out of the building, but I digress. It’s obvious that Vesper Holly needs to leave Philadelphia and return the book in person, accompanied, of course, by Professor Brinton Garrett, informally called Brinnie, her faithful companion, on The Jedera Adventure.
This time, their journey takes them to North Africa and the desert, along a road that both compare, not kindly, to a lunar landscape. This also gives Brinnie the opportunity to make yet another wrong prediction that humans will never go to the moon. As per usual, they pick up various assorted amusing and helpful companions along the way: twins Smiler and Slider, conveniently relocated from the second book, and thus able to do a little bodyguarding and travelling; Maleesh, a skilled magician and travel planner; Jenna, the lovely girl Maleesh falls in love with; and An-Jalil, a mysterious traveler who, as it turns out, is the hereditary ruler of the difficult to reach city of Bel-Saaba.
If the previous books in the series had been in some way Alexander’s nod to old movie serials and the Indiana Jones films, The Jedera Adventure is unquestionably his nod to H. Rider Haggard, what with journeys across deserts and hidden cities and mysterious blue people and so on and the African/Arabic setting, told in a lighthearted tone. But this takes on a sinister feel during the inevitable meeting with the evil Dr. Helvitius, who, as it turns out, plans to use the city both as a center for the very lucrative slave trade (outlawing slavery in most areas, he explains, has only made it more profitable) and create a fleet of airships capable of dropping bombs on distant enemies, which he plans to sell to multiple foreign governments. Vesper and Brinnie, naturally, determine to end this diabolical plan immediately, even if it means having to try out a flying machine.
It’s all mostly the usual fun. Still, something is slightly off in this book. Maybe it’s that the entire adventure seems somehow even less real than Vesper’s other completely improbable adventures in imaginary countries. Maybe it’s the rather delayed appearance of the evil Dr. Helvitius. I get the impression that Alexander knew that Helvitius had to be there because he’s in every single book, but couldn’t quite figure out how to bring him in, thus making his appearance as late as possible. The related problem is that although I could certainly buy Helvitius’s other improbable appearances in remote locations, none of the previous adventures were anywhere near this remote, and I just cannot bring myself to believe that a man so dedicated to comfort and style would go to this much discomfort just to Be Evil, even if this does give him a reason to wear a nice turban with an emerald in it.
But while I’m talking about Dr. Helvitius, his presence brings up one major plot flaw: over and over, we are told that Bel-Saaba is a very difficult place to reach; members of Vesper’s party come close to dying on the way. So how, exactly, does Dr. Helvitius plan on transporting living slaves back and forth from the city? (For that matter, how did the French Army manage to get through in the end?)
Anyway, back to the uneasy feelings. Maybe it’s the slavery, marking a surprisingly bleak note for one of the Vesper Holly books. Going from exploding sausages and hot air balloon escapes to getting sold in a slave market is a bit of a tonal dissonance, and even Alexander’s sense of humor can’t really make that scene work. The last minute rescue also has a false note: if An-Jalil can end a slave auction that easily, and so disapproves of slave auctions, why are they going on at all? The answer: to introduce Vesper and Brinnie to An-Jalil, and convince us that Bou-Makari is Genuinely Evil, is all very well, but not quite enough to justify this or the ongoing slave theme. Though Dr. Helvitius’s announcement that he has only gotten into the slavery business because Vesper keeps defeating him is evil enough.
Maybe it’s the romance, here shoved in for two side characters, Maleesh and Jenna. It’s not that I can’t buy their romance; it’s that Jenna is only in the story for a couple of pages before suddenly she and Maleesh are a lovely Romeo and Juliet couple needing to romantically elope, chased by angry members of both their families. Which they do, but we’ve seen so little of Jenna at this stage that it’s rather difficult to care much. They later have a much more romantic moment—but again, only after they have been offscreen for several chapters. It’s just hard to care.
Or maybe it’s just knowing that all of Vesper’s heroics are doomed to fail: within her lifetime (assuming Helvitius doesn’t kill her off, and by this time, that seems unlikely) planes will fly in the air and drop bombs on enemies. Possibly even with Vesper’s slight assistance: by the end of the book she is pouring over Helvitius’ notes, figuring out where the evil mastermind went wrong. Building a plane is hardly beyond her power, and thinking of her earlier declaration about the evils of airplanes combined with bombs gives me a twinge. Or maybe the fact that, for the first time in the Vesper Holly books, complete outsiders—not Vesper, not the natives of the city—come to save the day.
Or possibly all of these reasons. The Jedera Adventure is not a terrible book, but it’s definitely the weakest of the series. If you feel like skipping one, this would be it.
Mari Ness refuses to detail just how long it has taken her to return one or two library books, for the sake of the health of any librarians reading this. She lives in central Florida.