Reviews: The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby

The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic, Expected publication August 2013)

Note:  An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.

The last time I encountered a story that used the legend of Prince Madoc as inspiration for the story, it was A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle.  Apparently, it was a popular legend in the Colonial days.  The story goes that long before Columbus  “discovered”  America, a Welsh prince came to the shores of  North America with some of his people.  Rumors of  Native Americans speaking Welsh and a lost kingdom of Welshmen fueled all sorts of searches and offers of reward for their discovery.  Though in our reality, nothing ever came of the wild story,  writers have taken the threads of the legend  to inspire their own fantastic stories.  Matthew J. Kirby  takes his readers into a an alternate Colonial America where the threat of the French and Indian war is looming and a remarkable group of men have devised a plan . . .

Billy Bartram is about to undertake the adventure of a lifetime.  His father, naturalist John Bertram and the renowned Benjamin Franklin are anxious that the French are ready to make their move and threaten the British colonies.  In order to get the jump on the French and try and secure allies against the threat,  a singular group of men from the Philosopher’s Society  will embark on a flying ship in search of a legend.  Billy can scarcely believe his luck at being included in the mission as his father’s assistant, but things don’t go quite as imagined for the intrepid explorers.  Dangerous wildlife,  violent storms and the whims of the crew make a risky journey into a deadly one, while the French are closing in.   Kirby’s story is one of adventure, myth and fantasy woven into the backdrop of actual history.

Kirby isn’t shy about rewriting whole parts of the U.S. history for this story.  While we meet characters of historical context (most notably Ben Franklin and Washington) many of the inventions and the frontier creatures that our explorers meet are not consistent  with that historical period.  The author has made good use of a variety of myths, from the Philosopher’s Stone, to the Fountain of Youth and paired this with wild legends of a Welsh kingdom in the frontier lands.  Kirby’s landscape is reminiscent of  the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede, but without the slower pacing, quieter action and extra detail.  While the setting is critical  to the  story and its outcome,  the author’s main  focus is  his characters and the interactions between them.

Billy is our protagonist in this tale, and it is his journey, both physical and emotional, that readers are meant to follow.  At the outset of our story, Billy is in utter awe of his father and has no doubt he wants to be like him.  But as the journey gets underway, our hero quickly discovers sides to his father that he had not expected . . . and areas where they don’t agree.  The changing interaction between Billy and his father is one of the main plot arcs in the novel.  Where the alternate history and steampunk styled inventions might not be familiar to middle grade readers, Billy’s struggle to come to grips with who he is and how that differs from his parent will be one most kids can latch on to and identify with in some part.  The other crew members on our flying ship are also vividly imagined, and complex individuals with conflicting motives and interests.  My one disappointment in the character building has to remain with the single female character that is present in this story.  I don’t believe I’m spoiling much by mentioning young Jane, since she’s clearly pictured on the cover of the book.  Jane’s character never seems to fully take shape in the story and there is at least one glaring moment where her ineptitude  puts the entire mission at risk.  It may be I was more bothered by this than a younger reader would be, but my overall feeling is that Jane is used to conveniently forward the plot and give our character a friend of similar age without giving her enough of her own personality.

This book moves forward at a fairly fast clip that keeps us moving from crisis to crisis in fairly short order.  While my adult self does tend to prefer a more leisurely pace for storytelling and events, this may work well for younger readers who prefer the constant action.  The breathless adventure with its historical fantasy flavor manages to pack quite a punch for such a short book.  Obviously there’s more than a little “steampunk” to this story (it’s more good evidence that steampunk has made its way firmly into the middle grade fiction) the flying ship on the cover of the book, the explorations of electricity, the creative weapons and inventions of our philosopher crew.  The author clearly feels at home with the genre and is willing to explore it, with quite delightful results.  I was thoroughly entertained .   Reader’s who enjoyed the Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three (2010) and Icefall (2011)  should definitely check this one out.

Publisher: Scholastic

Expected Publication Date: August 2013   

ISBN13:   9780545274265   

Recommended for grades 4 and up.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on July 4, 2013, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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