fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review for children Lloyd Alexander The ArkadiansThe Arkadians by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander follows his usual technique of incorporating various myths from around the world into his own original story (as he’s already done with The Chronicles of Prydain, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, and The Iron Ring) but this time it’s with a clever twist. Instead of taking aspects of myths to work into his own story, here Alexander traces several Greek myths back to their source, outlining the roots of these stories and exploring how they may have been changed over time into the myths as we know them today. For example, we meet a character in the course of the book who provides the inspiration for The Odyssey — a sailor who helps a group of warriors fetch a runaway youth and maiden from a fortified city by constructing a wooden ass and sneaking it inside the walls. This is only one of many myths adapted and “de-mystified” during the course of the story, and other aspects of Greek myth — such as centaurs and satyrs — are also stripped of their supernatural connotations and given a more down-to-earth interpretation.

The more one knows about Greek mythology, the more amusing and enlightening this book will be, as nearly every character, place and circumstance can fit in some way or another to a story in the vast range of stories in Greek mythology. Because it’s set in pre-Classical Greece, there is an element to realism in the way the origins of these stories are presented, and the on-going theme of storytelling between the characters means that any young reader can see the way in which stories are formed, told, and embellished over time. Several chapters are devoted to telling stories that have little or no impact on the over-arching story, making The Arkadians a book about stories themselves.

Lucian is a young bean-counter in Metara, who mistakenly uncovers an embezzlement plot and tells the wrong people about it. Soon he’s on the run from the royal soothsayers who have been pocketing the difference between supplies brought and money spent, and is joined by a talking ass, who was once a poet named Fronto, and is now desperately seeking a cure for his animal-form.

Lucian and Fronto are not alone in their exile from Metara, as due to an unfavorable prophecy from the local pythoness, King Bromios and his soothsayers have banned all mid-wives, wise women, and healers from the area. This makes especially difficult the two travelers’ attempts to track down someone who can help Fronto’s unfortunate condition. Just when things seem lost, Lucian meets a lovely young maiden named Joy-in-the-Dance who offers to take them to the sanctuary of the near-mythological figure of the Lady of Wild Things.

On the whole, this is a nice little book, with plenty of action, suspense, and humour to keep things interesting. But although it’s a good book, it doesn’t compare to many of Alexander’s other brilliant children’s books. For starters, the plot is a little muddled. About mid-way through the book, the story begins to suffer from character overload. Alexander keeps adding characters to the band of travelers, many of whom seem to tag along without any real impact on the flow of the story. It becomes difficult trying to keep track of them all. Furthermore, some of these characters aren’t particularly likable, such as Joy-in-the-Dance who spends the book ridiculing, disregarding, and laughing at Lucian, adding the further indignity of refusing to call him by his real name and bestowing on him the nickname “Aiee-Ouch.” How Lucian manages to fall in love with her is anyone’s guess.

This is unfortunate, because Alexander can write excellent female characters with spunk and determination, the best of who was Elionwy of Prydain who treated Taran much as Joy treats Lucian, but with one crucial difference: Taran deserved it. Lucian however, is nothing but courteous and kind-hearted, and it was sad to see him so emancipated by a somewhat shrewish character.

Their relationship extends to most of the male/female relationships in the book, with Alexander choosing to take a somewhat feminist slant on the Greek culture of the time. This means that all the females of the book are feisty, intelligent, and correct in their thinking, whilst nearly all the men are foolish, brutish, and invariably wrong about the way they go about solving their problems. Alexander introduces the idea of “women’s mysteries” in the course of the story, which allows various females to communicate with animals, read the stars, heal the sick, and perform the “Jedi mind trick” on various people (obviously it’s not called that, but it amounts to the same thing), gifts that are forbidden to teach to any male. Why? Because men would abuse these abilities, using them to pillage and destroy. I’m female, and even I found this a little harsh!

All this could be the set-up for an interesting take on gender relationships in which the two sides gradually find a sense of balance and equality, but with a few exceptions, the men of the story remain as idiotic at the conclusion as they were at the beginning, whereas Joy-in-the-Dance is just as bossy, self-righteous, and indignant about the control men have over the world. To be fair, one particular female character does admit she was wrong about young Lucian’s intentions, and offers him her apologies, but the book in its entirety does seem to hold an unfair bias toward the innate ‘correctness’ of females, with many of them coming across as Mary Sues in their perfection. Alexander’s usual brand of wisdom and wit feels a little lost.

Despite my grumbling, no book by Lloyd Alexander can be called “bad,” only compared favourably or unfavorably to the rest of his wonderful work. As it stands, The Arkadians is a good book, written in Alexander’s smooth, elegant prose, and a fun commentary on the formation of stories — yet compared with Alexander’s other books (particularly his masterpiece series Prydain) it just falls a little short.

The Arkadians — (1995) Ages 9-12. Publisher: To escape the wrath of the king and his wicked soothsayers, an honest young man joins with a poet-turned-jackass and a young girl with mystical powers on a series of epic adventures.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.