Lloyd Alexander,
Vesper Holly #6:
The Xanadu Adventure

(Penguin, 2005)

If you've never heard of Vesper Holly, or worse, Lloyd Alexander, it's not too late to pick up a copy of The Illyrian Adventure, the first of six more or less freestanding books featuring Vesper Holly, intrepid heroine. They combine a sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, female Indiana Jones; a bumbling, admiring, Watson-like narrator named Brinnie; various legendary settings; explosions, traps and ambushes; and the arch-villain Dr. Helvitius, who is generally behind aforementioned explosions, traps and ambushes, and whose two most salient traits are his urbanity and tendency to reappear when thought dead (hence six books).

The Xanadu Adventure is the sixth and apparently final entry of the series, and it's a bit of a tossup whether it goes out with a bang or a whimper.

Vesper's off again, this time on scholarly business to a site in Asia Minor claimed to be the original Troy. With her are her usual companions Brinnie and the twins Smiler and Slider -- and, as it promises to be a pleasant outing, Brinnie's gentle wife Mary, and the Weed, an excitable young man best described as a Shakespeare-quoting version of Tigger.

Almost immediately, things start to go awry. The first leg of their journey is marred by a sabotaged ship's engine, the second by an uncommunicative captain who takes his passengers to entirely the wrong place and then maroons them there at Vissarlik. However, Vissarlik is itself an archaeological site; in fact, the classicist scholar Professor Dionescu whom they meet there insists that it is the real Troy. Intrigued, Vesper and company accept his hospitality and the offer of a tour, but the longer they stay there, the more orchestrated the chain of events that brought them there seems, and the more danger they find themselves in....

No prizes for guessing who might be behind these sinister machinations. Despite their many sterling qualities, the Vesper Holly books can be criticized for being somewhat formulaic. The main problem with The Xanadu Adventure is that it already feels familiar, though the particular mix of elements in this one -- famous Coleridge poems, butter knives and a certain Captain Yaw Yaw -- is still fun. Like the others in the series, there is no shortage of the usual daring escapes, shows of Philadelphian ingenuity, courageous acts, mythological allusions, ready humor and quick-paced adventure.

Brinnie continues to be an entertaining narrator whose real if often misguided courage is touching; Vesper is, well, Vesper. It's even hard not to secretly like Dr. Helvitius as a good, old-fashioned villain in love with being evil. Inevitably, new characters like the Weed are less well developed. (I admit to being prejudiced on this account: I preferred one of Vesper's earlier suitors from The El Dorado Adventure.) But at just under 150 pages, a lot of things about The Xanadu Adventure feel a bit sketchy and rushed, particularly the ending. Lloyd Alexander, perhaps unnecessarily, given the loosely linked nature of the books in the series, wraps everything up a little too neatly in about 10 pages.

Although The Xanadu Adventure isn't one of Alexander's best novels, lacking the emotional resonance of The Gawgon & the Boy and the unpredictability of The Rope Trick, it's still a fine, intelligent adventure story told in Alexander's typically quirky, wise way. As a series ending, it is less satisfying -- though part of that disappointment could be because there won't be any more Vesper Holly books.

by Jennifer Mo
29 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.