[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.]
Lloyd Alexander invented Vesper Holly in 1986. She possesses, he wrote in The Illyrian Adventure, “the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. 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, a teenager in 19th-century Philadelphia—and by her third book, The Drackenberg Adventure, Vesper Holly begins to wear a little thin.
Of course, that’s the judgment of an adult. The Drackenberg Adventure is comfort food for Lloyd Alexander fans, and young girls, now as in 1988, are likely to be charmed by the Vesper Holly formula: A cry for help leads Vesper and her guardian, Professor Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett (who is also the narrator), to a fictional foreign country, where Vesper demonstrates her brilliance, flouts local mores, ingratiates herself with royalty, and discovers that her arch-enemy, Dr. Helvetius, is somehow involved. This time, the country is Drackenberg, a impoverished and strategically useless land notable only for “zither music and chicken paprika”—and only Vesper can solve the mystery behind a priceless painting and save the locals from invasion by neighboring Carpatia.
Alexander alters the formula slightly—Brinnie’s wife, Mary, joins the heroes on their mitteleuropäisch adventure—but there’s little new here otherwise. Brinnie’s narration is again comically stuffy; Dr. Helvetius is again a soulless aesthete who uses his knowledge for evil; and Vesper demonstrates, by contrast, that education can bring about wonders. When she falls in with gypsies, for example, she confronts a horse that refuses to ferry a wagon across a river:
Since Romany had failed, she tried French, German, and Italian. None of these brought any response. We moved neither forward nor backward. Mikalia, atop the vardo, had begun whimpering, and the despairing Zoltan clapped his hands to his head.
Vesper, of course, is fluent in most languages. By now, though, I feared she had exhausted her vocabulary. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she launched into the majestic cadences of classical Greek, declaiming passages from what I immediately recognized as the Iliad.
The horse pricked up its ears. Zoltan, open-mouthed, stared at her as she continued to ring out those mighty lines, while the animal reared and snorted and began to heave with all its strength.
Naturally, Vesper becomes an honorary gypsy—but only after helping Drackenberg discover its valuable stash of bauxite and demonstrating, accidentally, her understanding of art history. And did I mention her expert knowledge of paint chemistry?
Sure, the Vesper Holly books are both preposterous and formulaic, but a jaded adult who finds The Drackenberg Adventure predictable might point out that Lloyd Alexander was a good enough writer to develop an entirely new formula for himself, plus a rare and effective first-person narrator, well into his sixties. Alexander’s cartoonish fondness for gypsies notwithstanding, the fun he has in his Victorian alternate universe is infectious, and any line of kids’ books that celebrates the arts and sciences as springboards to adventure is a series I just can’t disdain.