[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.]
The Kestrel is one of Lloyd Alexander’s smartest and most mature books. It’s also his most unpleasant—not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s painfully personal in its recollection of war.
Having spent the first Westmark novel introducing his version of 18th-century Europe, with its grasping political factions and tottering monarchy, Alexander seems poised to pit his characters against each other in an ongoing debate about political philosophy. Believing that people are born good, Theo argues for a monarchy kept in check by three consuls elected by a parliament. Equating monarchy with tyranny and disdainful of aristocracy, the revolutionary Florian continues to advocate a republic. Soon, though, none of this matters, as philosophical opponents become allies of convenience, and The Kestrel becomes a novel entirely about war.
The war with neighboring Regia is the work of traitorous Westmark aristocrats who deplore their rapidly liberalizing monarchy. Alexander despises statesmen who start wars, but in The Kestrel he casts a nonjudgmental eye on the people forced to wage them, from royal ministers who reluctantly impose martial law to normally gentle people who become legendary for bloodshed in battle.
The Kestrel demands more of young readers than any other Alexander novel. The cast of characters is vast: street waifs, satirists, revolutionaries, commoners, con artists, military officers, aristocrats, doctors, monarchs, bureaucrats, farmers, poets, washer women, courtiers, constables, and spies. As heroes become killers, whole chapters read like matter-of-fact military reports, sometimes with pages of indirect speech about tactics and logistics. Armies pillage, field commanders execute noncombatants, and mobs of peasants loot great manor houses. Days, weeks, and months pass without comment, as if the details are just too much to bear.
Even for an adult, The Kestrel can be a difficult read. No other Lloyd Alexander book contains as much violence and death, and while it’s never gratuitous, and in only one instance is it graphic, it’s still unnerving. Fresh faces die, as friends from the first book commit terrible acts and struggle to justify themselves. The cover of the 2002 Firebird paperback edition of The Kestrel calls Alexander a “Grand Master of Fantasy,” but the Westmark books are bereft of the consoling mysteries of the genre. As the author himself explains on the inside back cover, this series is his effort to confront wartime experiences only hinted at in previous books:
Vague shadows of Westmark and the volumes that followed had been in my head for half a dozen years before I was able even to put a word on a page. World War II was long over, and I had come home from Europe with my Parisian wife and daughter. I had been writing happily for a good while, and had discovered that stories of fantasy worlds were, for me, the best way to express my attitudes and feelings about people, problems, and relationships in our real world.
Still, questions stuck in my mind: the uses and abuses of power, not only the conflict between good and evil but–far more difficult–the conflict between good and good, noble ideas broken by violence even in a good cause; and, in the midst of tragedies, events that were hysterically, incongruously funny. I have no idea why Westmark chose to be written precisely when it did. More surprisingly, I found myself dredging up distant memories of what I had seen and known myself in combat. I did not find answers to questions raised and expect I never will. Nor was it an attempt to exorcise my own demons. No, I keep and cherish those demons. I like to believe they’re my conscience.
Questions of conscience haunt The Kestrel. How can a leader live with himself when he saves the state by spreading propaganda and imposing unjust laws? How can a man judge another’s life-or-death decision without standing in his place? How can a bloodstained warlord return to normal life? Alexander has no answers; we carry our moral burdens for life.
And yet amid war, there’s love in The Kestrel, too, unromantic but real, from the dutiful officer adoring his young queen to a street urchin who falls for her benefactor. Love also offers the promise of peace, if not redemption, for broken warriors:
He hesitated. Mickle was watching him closely. Finally, he said, “Yes, I do love you. Now. As much as I’m able.”
Mickle gave him a questioning glance, then said lightly, “Does that mean more? Or less?”
“It only means—” Theo began. “It only means that I’ve hated so much for so long, I’m sick with it. I don’t recognize myself. I’m not even sure I know what loving is.”
Mickle nodded. “I suppose,” she said quietly, “I’ll have to wait until you find out.”
Parents of especially sensitive Prydain fans may want to read The Kestrel before their children do, or even with them, but I hope they won’t be put off by its seriousness. Right up to the shocking turn on its final pages, the book is full of brutality and loss, but Alexander’s humane sensibility never falters. For young-adult readers, there’s no better place to start coming to terms with the notion that the fairy-tale kingdoms they adore are doomed to be eclipsed by human nature.