“I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger…”

[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.]

To borrow a library book is to make a promise; to return it is a sacred duty. That’s the premise of The Jedera Adventure, the fourth Vesper Holly tale—but that description makes Lloyd Alexander’s 19th-century heroine and polymath sound downright mundane. The book in question is a manuscript in Avicenna’s own hand. Vesper’s late father checked it out of a library in the North African desert, and it’s 15 years overdue.

Regular Vesper Holly readers know where this is going: Vesper and her guardian, Professor Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, travel to the fictional land of Jedera, where—aided by her perfect command of Arabic—she marches with the French Foreign Legion, settles an ancient tribal war, resolves a star-crossed romance, charms a brooding desert warlord, and again outwits her nemesis, Dr. Helvetius. She also becomes the first human being to fly.

At this point, an adult reader wonders: Does the target audience for this series want to adore a flawless teenage genius? Do they expect an enemy so cartoonishly evil that he invents the petrol-powered airplane just so he can exploit the natural resources of others, re-institute the global slave trade, and subdue the world through aerial bombardment? As the Vesper Holly formula calcifies and the characters feel sketchy and interchangeable, I long for the more serious author who knows that choices often bring hard consequences for grown-ups and children alike.

Alexander does tease readers with a new character: Marelle, a colonel in the French Foreign Legion. His dual loyalties hint at plausible conflict in an otherwise harmless world:

“So it is my first duty to avoid trouble and not to stir it up or seek it out.  It is a practical policy. For myself, I would prefer it if the French were not here at all. But I am an officer. Above all, an officer of the Legion. I command. Also, I obey.”

This attitude struck me as unusual. Most of the colonials I had met during my travels set the natives an example of European civilization by brutalizing them. Marelle, as Vesper drew him out a little more, was not usual.

She soon learned that he had been born in Mokara of a Jederan mother and French father, that he was fluent in all the tribal dialects, and that his devotion to Jedera was as fierce as his devotion to his beloved Legion. He was the sort of person who should be a governor-general and seldom is.

It’s not the job of a light adventure series to paint a complex and harrowing picture of French power in North Africa, but the subject is an odd one to raise and then dismiss four pages before the end of the book, when Marelle and a noble desert outlaw acknowledge that they are only temporary allies:

“Arrest me?” An-Jalil’s eyes glinted. “Will you try your Legionnaires against my Tawarik?”

“I said it was my duty,” replied Marelle. “I did not say I would carry it out. Why should I deprive myself of a gallant opponent? Another day, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Be warned. It may be different with those who someday will take my place. The times have changed. You, with your honor and chivalry, are not modern.”

“Are you?” answered An-Jalil. “We are both only temporary. The desert and the mountains will outlive us. But a day must come when the French leave my land, as others before them have done.”

There’s hope here for drama. Alexander lets it pass.

Still, Colonel Marelle brings clarity: He shows how safe this series is. Unlike the heroes of Alexander’s Prydain books or his Westmark series, no one in a Vesper Holly book is ever in any real danger. Religion doesn’t exist, so Vesper can resolve age-old cultural conflicts with implausible ease. Even our skittish narrator, Professor Garrett, accepts that a feisty, 18-year-old white girl commands respect, even worship, from warrior-nomads in 19th-century North Africa.

My copy of The Jedera Adventure says the book is meant for readers between the ages of 10 and 14, but it feels like it’s aimed at a much younger crowd. With her perfect command of history, literature, languages, and science, Vesper is competent, but effortlessly and unsympathetically so; she’s a sharp contrast with Lidi, the heroine of Alexander’s 2002 novel The Rope Trick, whose life is a series of compromises made ever more frustrating by her failed quest for magical escape.

Alexander once told an interviewer that the Vesper Holly books contain no fantasy, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s a term that suits stories where girls never deal with a difficult choice.

3 thoughts on ““I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger…”

  1. I’ll have to revisit Alexander’s work — I read the Prydain books with absolute delight in my grad school days in my mid-twenties — but maybe I’ll dig into something other than a Vesper Holly romp, based your review here . . . I found his Prydain books satisfying on lots of levels, from the Welsh mythology to the characters which seem to work for both kids and adults, based on my sons’ reaction to some of them. Is there a particular book you would recommend for a return to Alexander’s stuff, outside of the Prydain books?

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  2. Hi, Chris! I’m seven reviews away from finishing this series, but here’s a preview of my recommendations:

    The Westmark trilogy (which I haven’t written about yet) is terrific. It’s Alexander’s take on the moral questions surrounding war, revolution, and killing, and it’s a satisfying and thoughtful read even for grown-ups.

    Alexander also has a nice spate of books about the hard road to maturity, the best of which are The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, and The Iron Ring.

    I also liked The Rope Trick, even though I suspect many kids didn’t get it.

    The Arkadians is a funny romp full of Lloyd Alexander in-jokes.

    The Gawgon and the Boy is wonderful, especially since Alexander puts aside his usual formulas and tells the story of how he came to love reading.

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