The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander

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The Kestrel is the second novel in the Westmark trilogy, and, like many good sequels, it deepens the themes and muddies the morality from the first book. Theo, the printer’s devil and main protagonist of the series, has been exploring the kingdom to get an honest feel for the people and the land when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Meanwhile, a faction of Westmark noblemen and military officers conspire with the king of neighboring Regia to invade Westmark and force Queen Augusta, the Beggar Queen, from the throne.

War breaks out and it’s a nasty, tough business – even if this is more or less a children’s fantasy novel. Things get truly dark as Theo joins with the partisan troops of the democratically-minded Florian. Alexander doesn’t flinch from the sins of the soldiers, even the “good” characters, the ones whose aims we sympathize with. There is a toll to the violence and a growing amorality as tough decisions are made and callousness in the name of their cause prevails.

The conflict between monarchy and the rights of commoners – a burgeoning democratic spirit – deepen, as well. This is a story with a lost princess reclaiming her throne that did not end there but instead asks if she even deserves a throne in the first place. I’ve never seen this element in a fantasy series before and I admire it greatly. Alexander is asking some tough ethical questions here in the frame of a children’s story and he doesn’t force feed any trite answers down our throats.

The Kestrel may be a darker sequel but it still has plenty moments of fun and is entertaining throughout. If Westmark is to Star Wars then The Kestrel is to The Empire Strikes Back. It remains to be seen whether The Beggar Queen is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi. P.S.: this is a secondary world fantasy series without one ounce of magic! It’s truly doing its own thing.

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

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Westmark is a flintlock, mid-18th century style young adult fantasy novel about a printing press printer’s assistant who ends up on the wrong side of a tyrant councilor’s law and falls in with a charlatan snake oil salesman and his dwarf assistant.

Theo, the printer boy, is roped into Las Bombas’ deceits and swindling despite his moral objections to it. Las Bombas and company soon pick up a street urchin named Mickle who is more than she appears to be. (No kidding?)

There is also a good court doctor waging a battle of will and influence with the corrupt councilor for the grief-stricken king’s soul, a bohemian circle of resistance fighters who are not only anti-tyrant but also anti-monarchy in general, and lots of sincere questioning of morality in regards to both violence and truth.

I loved Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain as a kid and am happy to find, as an adult, that he’s still a really good writer. Westmark is a very entertaining read, with a nice, spare but witty prose style, and convincing sparks of action.

The book is short and I read it fast but the characters still stood out and the twists worked. The setting itself is a tremendous plus, being a kind of alternate version of Europe circa late 18th century or so, with no real magic to speak of, but with guns.

There are a few trite elements, including the half-cliché evil councilor, interesting only in his distinct lack of outward mustache twirling and austerity, and a twist in the back half that I will not spoil (but your common sense might). However, these flaws are outweighed by the overall quality of storytelling.

There are two more books in the Westmark trilogy and I definitely want to read them soon. I expect to enjoy them, especially if they can delve more into the democracy vs. monarchy angle. I haven’t quite seen that before in a fantasy series.