After fifteen years spent exploring other worlds, in 2005 Lloyd Alexander decided to give his fearless 19th century pulp adventurer character, Vesper Holly, and her long suffering guardian Brinnie, one last run. Perhaps he wanted to give the two one more adventure. Perhaps, realizing that he was reaching the end of his life, he wanted to end Vesper’s story properly.
Whatever his reasons, The Xanadu Adventure is both an romp and a coda, an ending and a hope that adventures will continue in the future—if not with Vesper, than with other willing adventurers.
The book opens with a rare, rare misstep from Lloyd Alexander: a beginning that slightly contradicts the end of the previous book. At the end of that book, Vesper, Weed, Mary and Brinnie had agreed to head off to Crete. At the beginning of this book, Vesper is persuading Weed and Brinnie that what they really need to do is head off to the supposed site of Troy in Turkey—stopping at Crete along the way—if only to find out if the Trojan War actually happened or was just completely made up by poets. I am very sorry to tell you that the scholarly Brinnie, deeply skeptical of poets, is inclined to the second belief, largely because of his skepticism of poets. I am beginning to think that the evil Dr. Helvitius’ criticisms of Brinnie’s scholarship on the Etruscans may have a certain basis in face.
Anyway. The two scenes more or less end up taking the characters to more or less the same place (except Troy) but the language and conversations are different—and in one case, rather critically different. In the previous book, Brinnie had assumed that he and Mary would not be accompanying Vesper, since Vesper had found a new travel companion in Weed, and he—Brinnie—was crushed until Mary announced that Vesper and Weed would need chaperones. In this book, no one questions that Brinnie and Mary will be coming along, as adventurers more than chaperones.
I’m not sure if the discrepancies were thanks to the fifteen year gap in writing or Brinnie’s faulty recollections, though I am astonished and grieved to find that such a great scholar, with such insights into the Etruscan period, could make such a mistake. In any case, since everyone ends up in Crete anyway, it is perhaps not all that important, except when you are reading the books straight through and go, uh, what?
In any case, off everyone goes, not, I’m sorry to say, on a nice luxury ship, but rather on an ungainly freighter. Weed is convinced everyone will be delighted by this choice since it means everyone will avoid tourists. Weed, like Brinnie, is frequently wrong. It’s an unpleasant enough journey even before the freighter is sabotaged after entering the Mediterranean—forcing the group to spend their time in Crete looking for boats, not inscriptions.
The boat they finally encounter does seem awfully familiar. But, they assure themselves, it’s not possible that they have fallen yet again into the evil hands of Dr. Helvitius. After all, he is most truly and sincerely dead…
…or maybe he’s just building a fantastic, marvelous city loosely based on Kubla Khan from where he can direct his nefarious plots. You never know.
Ok, yes, this is a Vesper Holly book. It’s very definitely the second.
Quite apart from the usual derring-do, this book has several subtle delights: a dinner with Dr. Helvitius that the protagonists, to their shock and horror, find themselves actually enjoying (whatever the Evil Genius’s myriad other failings, he does know how to serve an excellent dinner and select the very best champagne), the moment when Aunt Mary finds herself in a harem; and the fact that some of the villainy stems from a—gasp—scholarly mistake. About the actual location of Troy. I sense that Alexander might have been spending some time with academics; quite a bit of the book consists of asides about the cruelty and infighting of academia and academic deportment. And more moments where Brinnie gets to be a hero.
The book also, unusually enough for a Lloyd Alexander book, has a moment of pure, genuine romance—oh, not so much between Vesper and Weed, although they make a fun and entertaining couple, but between Brinnie and Weed. Sniffle. No, not a slashy moment. Another kind of moment. A—you know, you’re probably just better off reading it yourself.
And it’s kinda comforting to find out that for all of his scientific knowledge, and his all too accurate predictions about the international arms race in The Jedera Adventure, even Dr. Helvitius can fail to predict the future every once in awhile, as he does here during his confident declaration that oil will never be found in Alaska, Texas or Canada. It’s all right, Evil Dude; trying to take over the world and constantly failing would mess up anyone’s skills in prognostication and observation.
The Xanadu Adventure is a more meandering book than its predecessors, with a plot that only works, and I use “works” in the loosest possible way, thanks to the previous establishment of Dr. Helvitius as an Evil Genius. And even that plot comes to an explosive end rather sooner than might be expected, to give Alexander time to wrap up Vesper’s destiny (I did mention that romantic moment) and give Brinnie the hope of more adventures in the future. But if it occasionally has an almost melancholic tone, and spends significant time quoting poetry to the point of having an entire subplot focused on “Kubla Khan,” and another moment made significant by Shakespeare, these are minor flaws that can be forgiven, I think, in a final work of a series. If you read the series thus far, don’t give up now.
Mari Ness once had dreams of establishing a secret city in the middle of nowhere from whence she could launch her plans of secret world domination, but gave it up when she realized that “secret address” meant “no chocolate deliveries.” She currently lives in central Florida, in safe distance of a small candy store with fresh fudge and other necessities.