Off to Illyria with a brainy teen

The Illyrian Adventure, by Lloyd Alexander. New York: Dutton. 132 pp. $12.95. (Ages 12 and up.) When a book opens like this, how can an author miss in grabbing the young teen reader:

``Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them. She understands the use of a slide rule but prefers doing calculations in her head. She does not hesitate to risk life and limb -- mine as well as her own. No doubt she has other qualities as yet undiscovered. I hope not.''

And Lloyd Alexander doesn't miss with his newest release, ``The Illyrian Adventure.'' But fans who've read his ``High King'' and ``Beggar Queen'' series will find that the author has switched styles in this latest novel. His Illyrian tale is a romp rather than an odyssey, and the action line is a direct route, with few descriptive side tours.

For the first time, the author writes from the first-person viewpoint, and Brinnie is a delightful blend of three parts Dr. Watson and two parts Lloyd Alexander. Naturally, the 16-year-old heroine is sort of Sherlockesque.

As ``uncle'' and ward, Brinnie and Vesper build a relationship of appreciation and affection, accompanied by an appropriate amount of sparring. The third key character is a young swashbuckler who makes sure that Vesper is never a distressed damsel for too long.

Although the story begins in Philadelphia, Brinnie and Vesper shake that city within a few pages and are off to Illyria, which doesn't exist anymore. But that doesn't matter -- it used to, in ancient times. The land (now covered by Albania and Yugoslavia) is rugged, with jagged mountains and limestone rock.

What better place for a story with intrigues and coups and chases on horseback? Throw in a disguise or two, for good measure.

It's obvious the author has deliberately written a fun-and-games book. But there's more beneath the hide-and-seek and hopscotch, because it's impossible for Alexander not to give his readers more to reflect on -- if they choose to do so. Readers need to peer only an inch below the surface action to find the universal woe that tortures civilizations, yesterday and today: mistrust at lower echelons and mistrust among leaders.

The book shows considerable crafting, with every word doing full duty. And as usual, Alexander doesn't patronize in the areas of vocabulary and intellectual references. The reader either picks up on these or he doesn't, but this makes no difference in the teen's ability to follow the narrative flow.

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