“But the world spins on regardless, which is lucky for you and me…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. The second and third Westmark novels will be covered in subsequent posts. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

I’ll put this simply: Westmark is Lloyd Alexander’s masterpiece. Published in three volumes from 1981 to 1984, the series deserves to be at least as well known as Alexander’s beloved Prydain books. In fact, this story of a monarchy on the verge of painful modernization ought to be the next challenge for all maturing Prydain readers. I suspect that in the past 30 years, no other series for young adults has offered a more thoughtful look at the morality of violence. Adults will find it intriguing, even disquieting, too.

Westmark, the first novel in the trilogy, is populated by Alexander’s stock characters, but the world they inhabit is distinctively troubled. The kingdom of Westmark is plagued by a broken monarch mourning his lost daughter; a greedy courtier is de facto tyrant; the aristocracy is either corrupt or flirting with revolution; the streets teem with beggars; and there isn’t a trace of magic in sight. No fantasy, Westmark is the remarkable start of a 700-page series, a sort of young-adult Les Miserables that abandons the conceits of sword-and-sorcery kingdoms to ask difficult questions about tyranny, government, and violence, both individual and political, in a setting that resembles 18th-century Europe—with all the complexity that implies.

The moral development of Theo, an orphan turned printer’s apprentice, is at the heart of the Westmark series. Naive and relatively happy, Theo “loved virtue, despised injustice, and was always slightly hungry.” He unthinkingly wishes death to tyrants and blithely considers himself kindly, good-natured, and honorable—until he shocks himself by committing an act of violence. Sinking into a personal morass of theft, grifting, and lies, Theo realizes he doesn’t even know his own heart, especially when confronted with a second chance. “Killing is wrong. I believe that. I still do,” he insists. “But now I wonder. Do I believe it because I wanted to be a decent man. Or—because I’m a coward?”

Westmark complicates the question when Theo falls in with a band of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian, one of the most intelligent characters Alexander ever wrote. Picking up on anti-monarchic skepticism introduced a decade earlier in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, this first Westmark novel sets the stage for grand-scale political drama—and some big philosophical questions. When Torrens, the exiled royal surgeon, takes pains to distinguish between monarchy and tyranny, the revolutionary aristocrat Florian argues that no monarchy is worth preserving:

“Preserve it?” returned Florian. “Preserve a power fixed by accident of birth? Unearned, unmerited, only abused? You have been sadly misled, Doctor, if you come to me for that. Legitimate monarchy? The only legitimate rulers are the people of Westmark.”

“That, sir, is a dream. I do not share it with you. There are abuses; I do not deny it. They must be corrected. But not through destruction. If I have a patient with a broken leg, I mend the leg. I do not bleed him to death. I do what is possible and practical.”

“So do I,” said Florian.

Is there any other young-adult novel in which two temporary political allies hold a good-faith debate about the relative merits of monarchy and parliamentary democracy? Amazingly, Alexander lets their argument simmer unresolved. Theo and the reader are left to ruminate, while Westmark darkly hints at bloodshed to come.

Already bereft of magic, Westmark continues the skepticism about government and bureaucracy that often tempers Alexander’s whimsy, from The Town Cats to The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian. On the first page of Westmark, Alexander suggests limits to bureaucratized charity when he tells us that the “town fathers” are responsible for Theo’s apprenticeship: “instead of sending him away to a King’s Charity House, where he would be made miserable, they arranged the same for him locally.” By the second page, we learn that Cabbarus, Chief Minister of Westmark, routinely arrests and executes printers and publishers. He rose to power, we later discover, because he possesses “the virtue of diligence with an immense capacity for drudgery” and is “willing and eager to accept the duties the other ministers found boring.” He now has “his fingers in everything from the purchase of lobsters to the signature of death warrants.” The villain of Westmark isn’t a distant shadow, as in Prydain, or a stock tyrant who shows up for the climax, as in Sebastian. Cabbarus appears in the flesh by the fifth chapter of Westmark and reappears throughout the book. No “dark lord,” he is shameless, wicked, and plausibly human.

The kingdom Cabbarus schemes to control is equally plausible in its tyrannized misery. In Westmark, appeals to the government go unanswered, stormtroopers check travelers’ papers, and the existence of a “beggar factory” is well known: “Youngsters bought or stolen, then broken past mending, sliced up, squeezed into jars to make them grow very crooked. Sold off to a master who pockets whatever charity’s thrown to them.” Westmark swams with urchins whom fortune will never bless; if they’re extremely lucky, they may learn how to read.

Finding himself in league with con artists, Theo wonders why one of his colleagues, the portly, mustachioed Las Bombas, so dramatically embellishes his adventures. Theo’s exchange with Las Bombas’s footman is telling:

“The Salamanca Lancers! Great Copta! Trebizonia—I wonder if he even knows where it is. Why does he put out such nonsense?”

“No business of mine,” said Musket. “For all I know, he can’t stomach the world as he finds it. Can you?”

Theo did not answer . . . He had been more comfortable when he had been able to judge Las Bombas a complete rogue.

There are things you expect to find in a Lloyd Alexander novel—decency, the challenges of maturity, trenchant moral questions—but his usual themes really shine when they’re dropped into a world ruled by mere humans rather than wizards. “Books are one thing; how the world works now is another,” shrugs Theo’s mentor Anton, but Westmark, though consistently sad, isn’t depressing. It’s a somber, thoughtful study of how the immature conscience grapples with moral ambiguity when deprived of the comforts of fantasy.

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