Despite its mouthful of a title, this children’s novel has everything that you would expect from a Lloyd Alexander story: a likable protagonist, a colorful supporting cast, plenty of twists and turns, and a profound morality at work that is so expertly melded into the storyline that many won’t even realized they’ve been reading about it.
Set in what feels like sixteenth-century Italy (though Alexander is never specific on the time or location) young Sebastian is a fiddler for the Baron Purn-Hessel, up until the time a badly-timed discord on his fiddle coincides with the gluttonous Treasurer bending over. Thinking his pants have been torn, and then believing that Sebastian deliberately made the noise to embarrass him, the Treasurer demands his immediate dismissal — which is how Sebastian finds himself wandering the countryside with his fiddle and little else.
He’s soon accompanied by a white cat named Presto, a burly villager named Nicolas, and the badly-disguised Princess Isabel, learning that the Regent of the country is forcing her hand in marriage and that the people of the country are suffering under his rule. Determined to join forces with the mysterious Captain (a rebel working against the Regent’s tyranny), Sebastian first must survive the more mundane trials of angry mobs out to kill him, and the curse of a beautifully carved fiddle that threatens to steal away his spirit with its beautiful music.
The story is reasonably straightforward (several times I was expecting some twists in the plot, but these never came to fruition), but there are plenty of laughs, particularly when Sebastian falls in with a traveling theatre called the Gallimaufry-Theatricus. Sebastian himself is a perfectly nice protagonist whose main attribute is his boundless optimism, though most of the character development goes to Princess Isabel, who we first meet as a stiff, rather nervous monarch (with a very long-winded way of speaking) to a more relaxed young woman with a greater understanding of how her kingdom should be run. Perhaps the story should have been about her, considering she goes through the major character development of the story — but Alexander was no doubt daunted by her dialogue. Here’s a sample: “Sir, in future and presumably more favorable circumstances, your courtesy shall be both gratefully remembered and appropriately recompensed.” She’s like that for pretty much the whole book!
The pace of the story is brisk, and the language is clear and descriptive (but what else would you expect from Lloyd Alexander?) giving young readers plenty of opportunities to extend their vocabulary. There are a couple of loose ends, particularly the exact nature of Sebastian’s fiddle, which is hinted to have magical powers — yet in the story’s wrap-up, one of the characters pretty much tells Sebastian (and the reader): “We’ll never know.”
But it’s impossible for Lloyd Alexander to write a bad book, and although The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian isn’t quite up to the standards of The Prydain Chronicles or The Westmark Trilogy, this is a great little book.