[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
“Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master,” admits the befuddled narrator of The Illyrian Adventure, the first of six books to star Lloyd Alexander’s most rambunctious heroine. “She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them. She understands the use of a slide rule but prefers doing calculations in her head.” Vesper has opinions about electromagnetism and women’s suffrage, is fluent in Latin and Turkish, and knows how to play the banjo. She’s also, improbably, 16 years old.
The Illyrian Adventure opens in 1872, as the newly orphaned Vesper is keen to continue her father’s research on the Illyriad, the 12th-century national epic of a “pocket-sized kingdom on the eastern seacoast of the Adriatic.” Vesper and her guardian, Dr. Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, soon exchange the safety of suburban Philadelphia for a Balkan adventure full of shadowy villains and the ruins of ancient temples. Stuck in the midst of a medieval dispute between the Slavic majority and their Turkic overlords, Vesper and Brinnie hear ominous whispers: Vartan, a mythical hero and centuries-old symbol of Illyrian independence, may still be alive.
While our heroes befriend a monarch, dodge assassins, and put their lives in the hands of a clumsy dragoman with a knack for pithy sayings, Alexander depicts a political standoff perpetuated by conflicting notions of honor: the Zentan king will gladly bestow justice but won’t let it be forced from him, while the oppressed Illyrians won’t accept their king’s largesse but feel obligated to take their freedom by force. To Alexander’s credit, The Illyrian Adventure discourages the book’s young-adult readers from impulsively romanticizing the past by demonstrating that national myths aren’t always benign. Adults won’t fail to notice that The Illyrian Adventure simplifies Balkan strife, ignores religious and ethnic distinctions, and offers improbable solutions—but Alexander was under no obligation to squeeze as much nuance as he did into what is, after all, an adventure story about a female, teenage Indiana Jones.
Wisely, Alexander filters the reader’s view of Vesper through a comically unreliable narrator: Brinnie, a gentlemanly academic bemused to find himself the guardian of a teenage girl. Educated and intelligent but often blinded by Victorian mores, Brinnie provides the necessary distance to make Vesper’s polymathy seem that much less implausible, which frees Alexander to revel in one of his funnier narrative voices. “My knowledge of parental duties was slight,” Brinnie confesses, “something to do with graham crackers and proper underclothing.” During the climax of The Illyrian Adventure, when Brinnie naively provides vital information to a deceptive figure who turns out to be the villain, he remains oblivious to attempts to quiet him. “Vesper must have grown excited by my remarks, for her foot kept twitching against my shin,” he observes, giving the young reader another chance to feel superior to a decent but stuffy adult.
Fortunately, Brinnie doesn’t become an object of ridicule; his presence reinforces the book’s emphasis on intellectual achievement by giving Vesper an adult counterpart who’s equally passionate about learning languages, reading books, and exploring the wider world. Armed with knowledge, Vesper revels in her rambunctious self, a teenage girl supernaturally free of neuroses but also a little bit reckless. When she refuses to wear a veil and robe in the Turkic capital of Illyria, she responds to the ensuing fuss by sneering, “Time they got used to it.” The adult reader, finding her consequence-free precociousness highly implausible, is likely to cringe; your inner brat will cheer her all the way.