by Lloyd Alexander
I grew up reading the Chronicles of Prydain by Alexander, and I only discovered as an adult that, in fact, the man wrote several other books. It’s been a lot of fun discovering and reading those other novels, even though it makes me feel kind of dumb that I didn’t already know about them; after all, Alexander won two National Book Awards and was nominated for four more, so . . . I guess everybody but me knew about his broader legacy. I would like to blame my parents for not telling me about Alexander’s other books. And also Piers Anthony, who so captivated my youthful love of fantasy that I read every single one of his books. Including his genuinely crappy autobiography, Bio of an Ogre.
Blame and castigations aside though, this is a genuinely good book. It is more adult than the Chronicles of Prydain: it really only belongs in fantasy because it’s Lloyd Alexander. He never writes with too much magic, but this book has none; rather, it has – politics. It’s about a printer’s assistant, Theo, who goes on the run after his master Anton is killed by the military as part of an attempt to control the press. The printer’s assistant hooks up with a con man and snake oil salesman who is a mixture of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the King and Duke from Huck Finn; he’s a big, bombastic, lovable rogue who makes no bones about the fact that he’s in it for the money and will tell whatever lies he can in order to get it. He’s a lot of fun and he makes the book a lot of fun.
It isn’t all fun and games, though: the fear and anger over the printer’s death and the subsequent flight are quite serious. Theo eventually parts ways with the con man and joins up with a group of intellectuals leading a rebellion, who are a great set of characters; the last third of the book is a quite realistic portrayal of the beginnings of a revolution, including Theo’s efforts to print anti-royalist pamphlets as his own efforts to free the people. Yeah: definitely not a simple children’s book.
The book leans more fantasy in the royal aspect of the politics: although there is a definitely historical feel in the elements about revolution, the causes of the nation’s oppression come straight from a fairy tale. The king is bereft and despondent to the point of uselessness over the death, several years ago, of his beloved only daughter. An evil counselor – I definitely think of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, or Flagg from Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon – has taken over running the kingdom, and is trying to consolidate power for himself, becoming a tyrant in the process. He is overcome not by the revolution, but by the direct actions of our hero, who essentially saves the day – though there is a twist I won’t give away.
It’s a good book. The characters are well-drawn, as is the setting; the plot is a little haphazard, which I think is because of the mix of fairy tale and historical novel, but it isn’t hard to follow. And the other reason for the somewhat complicated course of the story is: this is the first book of a series of three. So there are seeds planted here, paths started but not taken to their ends, because there is more story to tell.
I’m going to try to find the other two books. I recommend this one.
One last note: the biggest downside of this book, for me, was honestly the cover. I hated this image, and the way it depicted the characters, so much that I tried not looking at it while I was reading the book, and even now I can’t stop thinking bitter thoughts. Yech. But of course, don’t judge this good book by its crappy cover.