Lloyd Alexander is called “the grand master of fantasy”; I would argue he is the grand master of engaging writing, but it is neither great nor grand, rather, amusing. As long as you don’t think, it’s a fun ride. “Westmark” feels like a long series of character sketches. I was highly engaged, and read all three books in the trilogy, but I’ll also be the first to admit its mental junkfood at its finest. Since the story seems to lack a plot, I’ll recap the main characters. Okay, so there is a plot… its just holier than Swiss cheese, and if I told you one part, you’d look through the nearest hole and know the end!
Theo: Orphan with a pedigree in gutter scum, he somehow managed to work his whole life in a shop where every customer had to have a permit from the government before he could do a job for them, and totally forget that the first time someone doesn’t have one. And then, after said someone’s job gets his boss killed, he goes to work for said someone and involved in all sorts of illegal activities (mainly fraud). The only character in the book whose cleverness isn’t praised every SINGLE chapter; also the only character who occasionally, briefly, wonders why he’s breaking the law so much.
Count Las Bombas: Con man and aforementioned said someone. Competes with Fabian (below) for the title of village idiot. He is constantly swindling people out of their money, and usually getting other people in trouble for the same. He gets punished for it, once, but his rescue is a climax of the book. (I’m torn between being sorry he escaped, or sorry he was arrested, since anyone falling for his banal brand of “cleverness” ought to be crowned as village idiot. There is a lot of competition for that title. )
Mickle: Girl with a mysterious past, she is the author’s Deus Ex Machina. Every single idea she has serves to forward the plot by being incongruously right. Oh, and she can do gymnastics, sign language, perfect mimicry, cook, steal.. you name it, she’s master of the art by the end of this book. And did we mention she is exactly the same age, hair tone, and eye color as the princess who went missing from the kingdom many years ago? Theo is in awe of her talent and intellect (which surpass his own, but that isn’t saying much), as is…
Florian: He’s supposed to be a good guy because Theo looks up to him. You know that evil man, in Oliver Twist, who gets kiddies to like him and then uses them for his own ends? The guy who sings the “got to pick a pocket or two” song; name’s Fabian. Imagine he lived in the 60s and had become a den father to a group of hapless college-age-hippies who were all converted to communism under his vague tutelage. And he’d been smoking something for long enough he’d become a blathering idiot that was looked up to because… he has a certain charm. The only illegal thing Florian and his minions apparently don’t do is grow marijuana. Or go a single SOLITARY chapter without praising his cleverness and applauding his “certain charm”.
Chief Minister Cabbarus: apparently there was no room in the plot for someone who actually did anything bad, since so far everyone who breaks the law is considered clever. So this Cabbarus is stuck as the bad guy, and I’m not quite sure what he does to deserve it. The king has given him a lot of power, but, um… the king has spent the last ten years ignoring all his advisors in favor of trying to commune with his dead daughter via the occult. Anyway, I rather like Cabbarus; he brings in everybody else on my main character list (except the crowned village idiot, Florian) to have one of their fake séance’s for the king, facilitating a really fun climax. There’s a queen and a doctor who don’t get their own character headings, by the way, even though they have speaking parts, because despite how much power everyone credits them with, all they do is whine. And eventually retreat, so the king never listens to them, just Cabbarus, who is apparently the only person in the castle who bothers hanging out with the king.
Overall: The writing style is very engaging, so if you have a reader that needs some inspiration (say, ‘finish one chapter of that Martin Luther biography and you can read one chapter of this’), this is the book for you. I also enjoyed it from the sarcastic side of me that just loves a good argument with someone else’s worldview (especially since, without a real person doing any talking, or a plot to distract from the opinions, I could search out all the holes without interrupting my train of thought). Mental junkfood, by the way, is my family’s category for books that entertain without teaching anything in the process; not bad, just unhelpful.