With his usual literary talent, Alexander presents a variety of well-developed characters in this trilogy. Theo, a printer’s apprentice, finds himself on the run from the law after trying to kill the police officer who unjustly arrested his master. His conscience recoils at the depth of his anger, and he vows never to kill a man for any reason. Unfortunately, this does not prevent him from falling in with a series of seedy characters, including a charlatan (Las Bombas) and a band of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian. In his travels, Theo also meets and falls in love with Mickle, the long lost princess of the king of Westmark. Mickle, having forgotten her true identity, has been reduced to a life of petty theft to survive.
Florian, though himself of noble birth, seeks to overthrow the puppet monarchy currently ruling Westmark. Florian’s followers obey him as would soldiers in an army. Theo’s feelings toward Florian, however, are ambivalent. Revolutions tend to be bloody. Not convinced that the ends can justify the means, Theo is not sure he is willing to do what it takes to become one of “Florian’s children”. Florian sees things differently. When Theo confronts Florian about his use of force, Florian states, “Next time you see Jellinek (a cook), ask him if he’s ever found a way to make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Theo responds, “Yes, but men aren’t eggs.” At the end of the first book in the trilogy (Westmark), Theo allows his nemesis, Cabarus, to escape because he does not want the blood of any man on his hands.
Political intrigue and rebellion lead Theo to abandon his good intentioned promise, however. In the second book (The Kestrel), he turns into a butcher who seeks revenge for the death of a friend. When he accidentally shoots Mickle (though not fatally), he returns to his senses. Theo’s crimes weigh heavily on his mind, and he knows that they are at the root of his discontent. How does he make amends? Seeking forgiveness from the victims’ families? Supporting their orphaned children? No. He goes into seclusion for a few days to draw pictures of the people he has slain. This leads the reader to question the depth of Theo’s contrition.
By the middle of the third book (The Beggar Queen), Theo finds himself once again ignoring his conscience in order to prove himself to his compatriots. Indeed, most of the main characters in the trilogy have questionable motives and commit grievous crimes, leaving the reader wondering who the good guys are. Even Mickle, who claims that protecting her subjects is her first priority, does not have the moral conviction to confront Theo about his violent approach to political reform. A champion of democracy, she gladly abdicates at the end of the war. Florian convinces Mickle and Theo to go into exile to avoid assassination, because the people may never be able to trust a former queen, no matter how sincere. He seems to have won his republic, but at what cost? Alexander has presented the reality of revolution quite clearly. What a pity he could not include one noble soul for his young readers to emulate.
Jennifer Minicus is a former teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.