“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.

“I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of…”

[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.]

In 1955, when Lloyd Alexander published his first book, he didn’t seem poised to become a children’s writer. The back-cover blurb for And Let the Credit Go emphasizes his studies at the Sorbonne, notes his published translations of Éluard, Sartre, and other French writers, and mentions his gigs as a piano player and cartoonist. Drawing its title from Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, this brief memoir makes a promise on its dust-flap that even a skilled fantasist might struggle to fulfill: to explore “one of the most hilarious and heartbreaking of worlds: banking.”

And Let the Credit Go is neither hilarious nor heartbreaking, but it may interest Alexander fans who want to know more about the author’s teenage years. Forced by his practical father to get a job (“And some day you might even be head of a department”), Alexander doesn’t fondly recall his pre-college, pre-war stint as a Philadelphia bank messenger, but he does sketch memorable characters: misers in moth-bitten afghans wheeled into the lobby to make deposits; a trigger-happy security guard (“I don’t think he was fundamentally interested in banking”); an investment counselor who kills himself in the safe-deposit vault.

In time, Alexander midwifes the epistolary courtship between a personnel manager and a legal secretary, and he watches, bemused, as a deluded clerk proclaims his Nazi sympathies in song. There’s a French chef here, too, who’s too busy writing reports for bank management to do any cooking, and a frustrated accountant who blackmails his boss while devising a mathematical system for betting on horses, all because he dreams of buying a case of champagne.

Later, Alexander observes the pathetic love between two strange analysts who discover mutual interests in “vital fluids and magnetism, the strange forces of nature; and of course, the ten lost tribes.” If anything, And Let the Credit Go paints an eccentric picture of banking culture in 1939. “Belief in the occult was not uncommon in The Bank,” Alexander explains, in one of this book’s few real insights into banking. “I knew half a dozen clerks who consoled themselves with astrology; or some other mystical system which allowed them more authority in another world than they had in the present one.”

Some elements of 1939 office culture are drearily familiar: a joyless party (rented phonograph, potted plants, ham-and-cheese sandwiches); a wedding shower for a secretary nobody likes; a Secret Santa game (here called “Polly-Anna”); and subdued Yuletide murmurs in upstairs cubicles, “many furtive celebrations, rather like those of the Christians in the catacombs.” But then Alexander invites us to sample the strange, lost custom of “Milk Time”:

Most of The Bank’s employees were very young or very old, and to sustain them throughout the day The Bank supplied two free glasses of milk, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The milk was consumed in the company restaurant on the fifth floor. Waitresses brought the milk, unskimmed, warm and delicious and the clerks crowded around the trays. Monsieur Piquet, a genuine French chef in charge of the restaurant, watched to see that no one took more than one glass.

And Let the Credit Go is a gentle book by a famously gentle soul, but it does offer one real surprise for lifelong readers of Alexander: Unlike his books for children, this one is not entirely chaste.

When Alexander visits Atlantic City with his buddies, he puts on a British accent and tells girls he’s a banker, an misadventure that leads him to a brothel, where he implies the obvious through detail, elision, and self-deprecation:

Sandra was sitting on the edge of an unmade bed. She was completely unclothed. Somehow I hadn’t expected that.

“Hello, honey,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

The light from the parlor shone through the curtain and gave it a grainy look. The curtain did not quite reach the floor and in the gap I could see the maid’s shoes and heavy ankles. I thought of my aunt’s lodger sitting out there.

From that point, I knew everything was impossible.

Later, in a chapter called “Dorothea,” Alexander dates a girl messenger who has been abandoned by her father, manipulated by her mother, and educated into droll boredom. When he lands in her boudoir, he faces a challenge worthy of a hero of Prydain:

“Would you marry me?” she asked again. “Or would you rather go to school. You don’t have to marry me, you know.”

I walked over to the piano and tapped the keys with one finger. Had she been sober and asked me that question, asked me to go to Algeria, insult Mr. Flathers or do any number of other insane things, I would have done it.

Dorothea giggled. I turned around.

She had taken off her white blouse and was trying to unhook her little brassiere. She gave me a silly grin.

“I can’t make it,” she said.

The brassiere ripped and fell. Dorothea started to laugh again. She was very pale and slight.

“Is there anything wrong with me?” she asked.

I looked at her green eyes, her thin shoulders and tiny breasts and I knew that whatever I did would be wrong.

“Dorothea,” which appeared in an anthology a year before the book was published, is by far the best story here. I wonder if Alexander and his agent used its strength to sell the publisher on the lengthier recollections of a bank messenger—and if so, what they thought of the strange book they received.

Alexander’s humane nature is evident throughout. When his friend falls in love with a girl at the beach, he says only that she “was pretty in the way girls are pretty at the seashore.” When he creeps into the mansion of the blind, ancient bank chairman, he lets the old man’s utterances—”They feed on me” and “I wish I was dead”—speak for themselves. There are short stories to be written here, not chapters that veer drearily back to banking, so And Let the Credit Go is a hodgepodge. The bank never becomes a microcosm, an allegory, or a source of moral and ethical insight; it’s as if Alexander dislikes the place too much to give it greater meaning.

Readers who want to see the adult(ish) side of Lloyd Alexander or catch a highly censored view of 1939 bank culture as glimpsed from its bottom rung may be intrigued by this book, but I’m glad Alexander moved on and allowed other places, and other experiences, to shape his writing. “Working in a bank,” he concedes, “does not encourage generosity.”

“Tief im Westen, wo die Sonne verstaubt…”

[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.

“Take your shoes off, and throw them in the lake…”

[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.]

When you know an author only through his novels for children, reading his nonfiction for adults—his first published books—is as strange as it is illuminating. Lloyd Alexander was a bestselling author by the age of 40, but in the years leading up to his success he was a frustrated bank messenger, an occasional translator, husband to a woman he’d met in France after World War II, and a budding nonfiction author. His books from that period are entertaining, comic, and oddly personal—although they’re most revealing for the experiences they omit.

Published in 1959 to a mostly positive review in the New York Times, the memoir Janine is French is one of Alexander’s more obscure books, and it only occasionally turns up secondhand. For adult readers who tire of Alexander’s stock characters but enjoy his sense of whimsy, this rare book stars a more improbable heroine than anyone found in his fiction:

Janine, my wife, is French. Slight and brunette, she walks with the tiny, hurried steps of Parisian women. On a crowded street, I can distinguish her at any distance by this quick, decisive gait that makes her seem to be following an invisible thread. She is fascinated by Indians, by animals, and Martians. She collects rusty nails for good luck and hoards them in a little wicker basket. She detests ice cream and ice cubes. She is small but determined; I have seen her demolish a chimney, using a bread knife and a tack hammer. The only period in my life when I believed I understood Janine completely was in Paris, a dozen years ago, before I had known her very long.

The first chapter of Janine is French is a fine example of light comic writing, largely because Alexander sketches two characters: his eccentric wife and, by inference, himself, the most bemused of narrators:

In France, marriage is still contracted under the Napoleonic Code, and the husband is specified as master of the house, with the right and privilege to select the place of residence, to control the budget, and to exercise final authority in all domestic matters. During my life with Janine, I admit that my claim to the benefits of this arrangement has been for the most part theoretical.

Struggling to maintain calculated befuddlement across 226 pages, Alexander leads readers on a rather mundane mystery: Can the young couple save enough money to return to France? Along the way, he punctuates the quasi-plot with funny anecdotes about Janine’s conflicts with her conservative in-laws, her attempts to become a dressmaker and hairdresser, and her lurid first encounter with scrapple. Eternally good-natured, Alexander taps his wife’s bad English for easy laughs—when stuck in the cold, she complains that she is “frizzing to deaf”—but his affection is obvious even when showing how alien she seems in the Philadelphia suburbs. “She was,” he writes of Janine on her first American Halloween, “the only ghost I had ever seen who walked with a Parisian accent.”

As Alexander sketches Janine’s terrible homesickness, darker moments push aside the comedy, and chapters about vacations, home repair, and driving lessons feel forced. The problem, of course, is that the obscure author of Janine is French went on to become an enormously successful children’s novelist, so his well-known biographical details are at odds with the life he describes in this book. Janine is French tells the story of a young, childless couple, but in 1959, Janine was 42 years old, and when Lloyd Alexander married her, he also adopted her daughter, a child who never appears in this book. Her omission is conspicuous; even the dust jacket copy describes Alexander as “now living near Philadelphia with his Parisian wife and five cats.” Renowned for his decency, Alexander was, I imagine, either forced by his publisher to redact his stepdaughter for marketing reasons or eager to protect her from embarrassment.

Unsurprisingly, there is no malice in this gentle book, but Janine is French demonstrates how a memoir can be both true and incomplete. Later in his career, Alexander commented that writing fiction for children let him express his deepest feelings in far more satisfying ways than writing for adults ever did, and this book makes clear what he meant. Seeing 1950s America through the eyes of an eccentric Parisian is a treat, but Lloyd Alexander is never fully present in the telling. Read with a fresh sense of how many of his heroines must have been based on his wife and stepdaughter, Janine is French suggests that writing fiction really did let him tell the whole story at last.

“…and all the lies the wise ones tell.”

[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.]

“I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths,” Lloyd Alexander once said, explaining that fantasy and fairy tales, far from being escapist, are “the way to understand reality.” In The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, Alexander asks a tricky question: What happens when reality must be lived but can never be explained, not even by fairy tales?

The novel starts abruptly: ne’er-do-well Lukas-Kasha wanders through the village square and decides to upstage Battisto, an itinerant magician performing hackneyed tricks. At Battisto’s request, Lukas stares into a bucket of water and suddenly washes ashore in the exotic land of Abadan—where, in fulfillment of prophecy, he is hailed as king. Quickly bored by royal luxury, Lukas develops a conscience and begins to study the workings of his government in an attempt to become a proper statesman. Hated by his scheming vizier but aided by a poet and a secretive slave-girl, Lukas also tries to end the pointless war with the neighboring Bishingari. Faced with failure, he discovers the grave responsibilities that come with being a serious person—all the while wondering why Battisto sent him to Abadan in the first place.

Published in 1978, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha is rife with themes developed more carefully by Alexander in later decades. As in The Iron Ring and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a young king and queen learn humility; as in the Westmark books, a king concludes that monarchies are obsolete; as in The Rope Trick, the hero finds no answers to baffling existential quandaries. A fine novel in its own right, Lukas-Kasha stands out from those other books in its surprising and unconventional final chapter. Poignant but unsentimental, Lukas-Kasha offers something surprising and sad: the truth of a bittersweet ending.

“…in the shade of the blackthorn, and the chill of the frost.”

[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.]

When Mallory, an orphaned scullery maid with a head full of fairy tales, finds a grouchy wizard named Arbican trapped beneath the roots of a dead tree, her life is transformed. Arbican belongs to an earlier age; he literally missed the boat when his fellow immortals sailed away and took the world’s enchantments with them. As the wizard struggles to revive his dormant magic, Mallory has a problem of her own: a local tyrant is plotting to destroy her village—unless Arbican can be convinced to work an enchantment or two.

Summarized so conventionally, The Wizard in the Tree is as derivative as anything a fantasy publisher might toss in the “maybe” pile, even if the actual book behind that premise is a curious departure for its author. Largely bereft of Alexander’s characteristic humor, the novel is notable for its relentless grouchiness—and for Alexander’s gamble that his young-adult readers will be patient with a story that wanders well beyond their usual interests.

Despite the promise of magic in its title, The Wizard in the Tree is really a novel about politics and money. Scrupnor, the village squire and Alexander’s stock provincial bully, wants to raze the village to make way for a highway lined with coal mines. Greedy and murderous, Scrupnor monopolizes local industry through restrictive contracts with avaricious and gullible locals, an arrangement that prompts one of them, an innkeeper, to deliver a wistful monologue about his desire to buy cheaper victuals outside the village borders. State monopolies, restrictive contracts, and rapacious development aren’t mainstays of middle-grade fantasy, but Alexander’s determination to tell this story seems strangely personal, as if the author hopes to embarrass a real-life politician who once got on his bad side. Lloyd Alexander characters typically regret any loss of life, but here the demise of Scrupnor is met with only resignation from Mallory or Arbican—despite the villain’s gruesome incineration.

Just as Alexander skimps on humor, he also avoids sentimentality: Mallory and Arbican never become friends, and the ancient wizard departs the novel as pompous and unlikeable as he enters it. Arbican spends most of the book lambasting the ineffectiveness of magic in human affairs and decrying humans who take fairy tales literally, but his ranting serves a purpose: When Mallory discovers that oft-roasted fantasy chestnut, the magic within herself, it turns out to be nothing more wondrous than her ability to find courage when confronted by scoundrels and fools. As a result, The Wizard in the Tree stays true to itself, becoming something far more magical and rare: an anti-fantasy.

Alexander’s message is simple: magic happens when you understand, as Arbican does, that a fairy tale needs to be a metaphor, not just a Christmas tree festooned with empty genre tropes. A gruff wizard and a daydreaming scullery maid are only worth a reader’s time when an author uses them in a story that’s actually about something—in this case, fighting corruption through bravery and basic human decency.

As early as 1974, Alexander saw how cloying and derivative his genre of choice could become; The Wizard in the Tree was his response. Aspiring fantasy writers, take note: you shouldn’t copy Lloyd Alexander, but you would be very wise to read him.

“…where the paper lanterns gently swing.”

[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.]

During an early scene in The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a palace servant gently mocks his sovereign lord. “Ignorance is a common ailment,” he says. “In time, it goes away. Unless it proves fatal.” His remark sets the tone of this strange and intriguing book, which is one of Lloyd Alexander’s more haunting novels, if hardly his most cheerful.

When the elderly emperor of T’ang is too frail to travel northward to study another kingdom’s system of perfect justice, his son, Jen, offers to go on his behalf. Decent but naive, Jen leaves the confines of the palace and is shocked by the harsh world beyond. Distracted from his journey, the young prince falls in love, faces murderers, is reduced to begging, and comes to understand how his decisions echo in the lives of friends and strangers alike.

Promises kept, traumas overcome, lessons learned, generosity rewarded—Lloyd Alexander’s foray into quasi-Chinese myth dwells on many of his usual themes, but The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen sparkles with eerie details: a general who stays conscious even as he turns to stone; an artist who literally gets lost in his own painting; and a catatonic child who sails through the clouds on a kite. The villain, too, is no cackling caricature but a mass murderer whose whispering sword begs to drink the blood of its victims. Full of roving mystics and fickle magic, Alexander’s mythologized China is weird and unnerving. As lost as Prince Jen, the reader discovers the workings of the novel’s moral universe only gradually, each time Jen and his companions stumble, suffer, and fail.

In 1991, after writing five Vesper Holly novels, Lloyd Alexander was clearly eager to try something different. The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen opened the final phase of his career, a mature, sixteen-year period marked by experiments with light comic fare, literary autobiography, and clever musings on the art of storytelling. With its depictions of human cruelty, including a good prince condemned by a corrupt magistrate and left to scavenge like an animal, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen especially resembles The Rope Trick, in which even decency and good humor fail to leaven the sadness of the world. Jen’s journey ends well, but its lesson is somber: that we earn adult wisdom only through hardship, injustice, and fear.

“On a high red roof, Don Gato sat…”

[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 got tremendous mileage out of felines. Between 1956 and 1973, four of his books—My Five Tigers, Park Avenue Vet, Time Cat, and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man—were testaments to his adult-onset affection for the common house cat. Published in 1977, The Town Cats and Other Tales is a fitting coda to Alexander’s decades of cat-fancying, offering eight concise stories about cats and the foolish humans who are better off for having known them.

The logic of the tales in The Town Cats is unusual but internally consistent. All of the cats talk, and most of them easily assume human roles or trade places with people, largely for comic effect. Most amusing to an adult reader is Alexander’s gentle but persistently disdainful depictions of people who govern: a bureaucrat who threatens to impose taxes and conscription on a provincial town; a king who makes his personal preferences the law of the land; a sultan who forbids anyone to tell him “no”; and a group of city fathers who argue about which of their names will adorn public works. Naturally, cats humble them all. At the same time, the cats in these stories help the poor, reward the honest, and teach hard lessons to the nouveau riche.

Published during the period between the Prydain series and the Westmark books, The Town Cats offers nothing new for Lloyd Alexander readers, but that’s the judgment of an adult sensibility—or, more specifically, of an adult who’s familiar with Alexander’s later, more mature writing. Although the final chapter, the story of a cat trying to choose a career path, is unsubtle and kind of corny, most of the tales in The Town Cats are clever fables set in fantasy versions of recognizable places, from 17th-century Holland to the bustling cities of the Middle East. For kids, the book promises a world tour and a fine introduction to the art of the short story. For adults—well, all I can say is that if you take no pleasure in watching a talking cat outwit a cheating sultan at chess, you surely have a heart of stone.

“I’ll call you ‘jaguar,’ if I may be so bold…”

[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.]

Yes, that’s the cover of The El Dorado Adventure. Yes, the girl behind the counter at the bookstore gave me a suspicious look when I bought it. That didn’t bother me; what did worry me was that the Vesper Holly adventures would be a chore to read. I was wrong. Published in 1987, this second of six books about the 19th-century teenage adventurer and polymath is a hoot—and further proof of Lloyd Alexander’s knack for writing pure, lighthearted action.

When the wealthy, orphaned Vesper receives a mysterious telegram about some volcano-festooned real estate she inherited from her parents, she puts aside her banjo and her experiments in fractionating hydrocarbons and sails with her bumbling guardian from Philadelphia to El Dorado, “one of a tumble of countries crowding the neck of land between North and South America.” Upon her arrival, she battles a slippery French engineer who plans to build a canal that will flood the last surviving village of the Chiricas, the only local tribe to hold off the Conquistadors. During her stay in El Dorado, Vesper also breaks out of several prisons, repairs a riverboat engine, brings about gender equity among the Chiricas, burns down an opera house, quotes Rousseau and Alfred de Musset from memory, and arranges for the eruption of a dormant volcano—all without the benefit of a formal education.

Of course, Vesper’s preposterous competence is half the fun of the Vesper Holly Adventures; the stuffy narrative voice of her guardian, Dr. Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, is the other half. Educated but largely uncreative, Brinnie is the classic unreliable narrator, but he never becomes a buffoon, and his Victorian decency is frequently comic. When the evil Dr. Helvitius—Vesper’s nemesis from The Illyrian Adventure and Moriarity to her Holmes—resurfaces in El Dorado, Brinnie is livid. “The fellow is a disgrace to the academic profession,” he huffs, even as he backslides into good-hearted optimism: “Perhaps, I suggested, he might still retain some spark of human decency. He was, I reminder her, an opera lover.”

When Vesper dissuades the Chiricas from initiating a hopeless armed rebellion that would surely cause their extinction, and when Brinnie contemplates pulling the trigger when an evil man lands in his rifle sights, Alexander comes close to reexamining some of his favorite moral questions—but then something blows up, or our heroes get captured, or a new friend or foe emerges from the steamy jungle. I’ve said before that novelists could learn much about lively, concise storytelling from Lloyd Alexander, but the Vesper Holly books—marketed to girls but with something for everyone, even grown-ups—are especially entertaining because they’re such a rarity: short, breezy adventures by an author who’s having the time of his life.

“Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace…”

[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.]

In 1997, when Lloyd Alexander channeled his enjoyment of the Mahabarata and the Ramayana into his own original work of fiction, he promised “a feast of many flavors: high adventure, poetic romance, moments of wild comedy and dark tragedy, anguish at promises broken, joy at promises kept.” The resulting novel, The Iron Ring, recasts the world of Indian epic while arguing against the glorification of the warrior ethos that typically defines the epic hero. A less skilled storyteller might have produced a fumbled pastiche of Indian exoticism while failing to do justice to his sources, but Alexander spent a lifetime thinking about what he called “our universal heritage of story.” Mindful of the constants of human experience, The Iron Ring is a worthy return to one of Alexander’s great themes: how our moral choices determine who we turn out to be.

Tamar, the young king of Sundari, is decent but untested. When a strange traveler exploits Tamar’s hospitality and challenges him to a game of dice, the naive king ends up wagering his life—and quickly loses it to his opponent. Tamar must then make good on his debt by abandoning his own kingdom and seeking the homeland of his mysterious visitor. To Tamar’s shock, a black iron ring appears on his finger, a token of his rashness and a symbol of the questions that vex him: How are the responsibilities of a warrior different from those of a king? Are we beholden to the moral and ethical codes dictated by our place in society, or are we free to heed our individual consciences—and if so, at what cost?

As Tamar stumbles toward enlightenment, he attracts, as most Alexander heroes do, an unlikely group of friends: a high-minded brahmin, a devious monkey king, a disheveled and neurotic eagle, a clever milkmaid, and a usurped king who longs to reclaim his throne. Most of these characters are types familiar to readers of Alexander’s other novels, but The Iron Ring unfolds according to rules of its own. The injustice of the caste system and the characters’ obsessions with their own dharmas ensure that this pseudo-India is more than just Prydain in exotic trappings, even as Alexander suggests that love, loyalty, and friendship transcend the systems of honor and social standing that threaten to constrain the best aspects of human nature.

Disarmed by the whimsical birds, bears, brahmins, and monkeys who exchange humorous banter, the reader of The Iron Ring soon sobers up as Alexander gently explores the manifestations of the divine in our daily lives and paints a disquieting portrait of the chandalas, the wretches who wash and cremate the corpses of paupers. When Tamar joins the war to help the noble Ashwara regain his kingdom, The Iron Ring also considers the morality of the battlefield, a place that to Alexander is always chaotic, vivid, terrifying, and deeply personal:

The little worm of fear stirred. It was still alive. It had only been sleeping. Tamar shuddered so violently he could scarcely grip his blade. Ashwara’s warriors were grappling hand to hand with their attackers. There were no ranks, no formations, only swarms of figures that broke apart and clashed together again. Someone had begun shouting “Sankula! Sankula!” The cry spread: one voice, then another. The whole camp seemed to heave like a single, convulsing body.

“Sankula!” Roaring, cursing warriors flung aside broken weapons or ripped at opponents’ faces with jagged ends of shattered blades, clawing, kicking, gouging—it was all sankula. Tamar ran blindly on. Haskhat at his heels, he lunged through a thicket of flailing arms and legs, struggling to reach Ashwara’s tent. Free from the press of warriors, he sped across a patch of empty ground, lost his footing in a slick of mud, and pitched headlong. When he realized it was not mud, he promptly threw up and continued doing so until his stomach turned inside out.

Choosing fear over bravery and compassion over violence, Tamar confronts a new and more profound question: “Can any man kill and keep his heart pure, or is all slaughter alike?”

In the early 1980s, Alexander used his Westmark trilogy to explore how even a justifiable killing can haunt and compromise the killer. Fifteen years later, in The Iron Ring, he offers a more idealistic model for moral maturity, urging his young readers to be merciful, generous, and self-critical even if their peers expect them to behave otherwise. That moral decisions sometimes lead to heartbreak rather than happiness is a difficult truth that Alexander never denies; the losses suffered by characters in The Iron Ring implicitly affirm it. Tamar’s friend Adi-Kavi notes it more directly: “Astonishing how you can vex so many people all at once,” he concludes, “by simply being what you are.”