Theo, by occupation, was a devil. That is, he worked as apprentice and general servant to Anton, the printer. … Accidentally, he had learned to read, which in some opinion spoiled him for anything sensible.
So begins Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen).
Alexander is more popularly known for the the Chronicles of Prydain series, of which The Black Cauldron is part. Prydain is based on Welsh mythology and has a good helping of oracular pigs, rhyming beast-men, dark lords, and young chosen heroes.
Westmark, while not precisely somewhere in Europe, is set in a non-fantastical world, circa 1800. The crux of the plot involves the gradual abolition of a monarchy and the civil and international struggles of a budding republic. What more can you want in a YA series?
Theo, our main character, is not of secret noble birth or any thing spectacular like that and struggles with the actions he’s taken to become a “hero.” Mickle, our female character, is actually a really great character. She’s smart, competent, and self-sufficient. She and Theo become a couple and just… stay that way. There’s no love triangle, or “how can I be worthy of you,” or any other nonsense. They’re just two young people that would like to live their lives, but there’s this pesky revolution mucking things up.
I harp a little on the romance aspect because I find its lack of complication to be refreshing. By no means are these books romances: they are adventures! There are harrowing rescues, treacherous bad guys, plots and counter-plots. Enemies become allies and the good guys aren’t always right. The characters relationships are complex without being over-dramatic. And, while the first book Westmark won the 1982 National Book Award for Children’s Books, I can see how its lower key has possibly hurt its longevity.
Still, the writing sparkles and Alexander has a good eye for when to add some ridiculousness. They’ve been the perfect books to read a chapter of every morning for the last three months.
Side note: I collected all three of these books over the years in the above hardback editions. All three are discarded library books. From three different libraries. Westmark was purchased first, probably in Lincoln, NE; it had previously been part of the Springfield (NE) Public Library system. I’m pretty sure I came across The Beggar Queen next, at the Tempe (AZ) Public Library book sale. Later, I ordered The Kestrel through Paperback Swap. The sender removed any locational information, but it still has the shelving label on its spine.