The Lost Kingdom by Matthew Kirby
Matthew Kirby set himself a pretty high bar with his first two YA books. Both The Clockwork Three and Icefall made it onto my top ten list for Fantasy Literature their respective years, and Icefall I would have put on my top ten list of books that year, fantasy or not. So when I say that his third book, The Lost Kingdom, doesn’t quite match up, one should keep that high (extremely high) bar in mind. Despite being weaker in comparison, it’s still a pretty good book, and it comes as all his others have with an excellent ending.
The Lost Kingdom is set in a slightly alternate colonial America in the mid-1700s. War is clearly on the horizon, if not with England, then with the French, who are militarizing their lands in the Ohio region and expelling intruders. An expedition of some of America’s greatest natural philosophers is formed to travel via a one-of-its-kind flying schooner (lifted by “vacuum spheres”) into the uncharted west to seek out possible allies in the fabled realm of Prince Madoc — a Welsh prince who, legend has it, sailed to America centuries before Columbus and settled his people somewhere in the vast Western wilderness, forming a huge and powerful society. Traveling as part of the expedition are the famed botanist John Bartram and his son Billy, the main character of the novel. They are joined by other fictional and real-life figures, along with a young female stowaway and a young half-Indian guide. Dogged by French pursuers, stalked by a fearsome creature of the wild, and beset by internal treachery, the expedition must somehow overcome all in a race against time to find Madoc’s legendary land. If it even exists. Meanwhile, Billy, in true coming-of-age fashion, learns more about both himself and his father, new knowledge that threatens to undermine their relationship as father and son.
The major reason I didn’t enjoy The Lost Kingdom as much as Kirby’s earlier books has really nothing to do with any sort of flaw at all. The Lost Kingdom is simply a different kind of novel than the prior ones. First, while both The Clockwork Three and Icefall were rated as middle-grade novels, I’d say this one is the only one really geared toward that age, or at least, the one that would be enjoyed least by anyone older. The Clockwork Three is aimed at an older, more sophisticated YA audience I think, and easily could be, and would be, enjoyed by an adult. Icefall, meanwhile, not only could be enjoyed by an adult, but really should be, in that I’d question any adult who a) didn’t enjoy it and b) wasn’t seriously impressed with its craftsmanship (really, if you haven’t read it, get it and do so. Like, now).
The Lost Kingdom, though, really does solidly, and almost solely, fit its middle-grade demographic. Again, this is by no means a flaw; it simply is what it is. The book is much simpler in both style and structure. While the other two had complicated non-linear structures with intertwining plot lines, The Lost Kingdom is a single, straightforward, chronologically linear tale — no flashbacks, no sidestories, no interruptions. Our adventurers take off from Philadelphia and travel from A to B to C and we go right along with them. The foreshadowing is also made more evident and is maybe a bit more clunky than it needs to be, though the mystery of just who within the group is not to be trusted is mostly handled deftly, with enough red herrings tossed out to keep younger readers especially guessing (older readers may not be able to guess, but can probably eliminate several options pretty easily).
Stylistically, the novel is also much simpler, with none of the rich, lyrical, poetic style that appeared quite often in The Clockwork Three and was especially prevalent in Icefall. Both as a reader and as a writer, I really miss that language, as well as the complex structure. But I also see why neither fits here. It’s not merely a question of age; it’s also a question of type of book, of setting, of intent. Lush, lyrical language, for instance, fits a novel like Icefall that dealt with skalds and myths and the power of stories, all set in a land of mist and snow. And the non-linear structure both enhanced the theme of storytelling and also increased the tension surrounding what was basically a murder mystery (there’s a reason it won an Edgar). The Lost Kingdom, meanwhile, is an adventure story set on the frontier of America, more Jules Verne than H.G. Wells, so to say. A linear, episodic structure fits the genre, while simpler language fits the setting. These were not bad decisions on Kirby’s part, just the opposite, but as an adult reader, they do lessen the enjoyment as they make the book a less rich experience. That said, the other usual strengths of Kirby with regard to prose and plot remain on display — the prose is always clear and concise, and the pacing never flags, both working together to drive the reader forward.
The characters are not quite as richly or sharply developed as in the first two novels, and there is a bit more expository, “out-loud” development than I prefer, but again, it’s all relative as Kirby still manages to paint several of them with the complexity — for both good and ill — that humans display. Characters who are virulently anti-slavery evince clear racism toward Native Americans. Characters who talk of “freedom” own slaves. These people can be incredibly admirable in their devotion to learning, until that same devotion blinds them. There are moments of physical bravery and moral cowardice, physical cowardice and moral bravery. Sometimes by the same character.
And this in itself, this recognition that people can be all those things at nearly the same time, is part of Billy’s coming-of-age experience, which is the strongest aspect of this book, along with the parent-child relationship, both common themes and strengths throughout all of Kirby’s work so far. And while the plot culminates in an enjoyable enough big action scene, by far the book’s strongest points come in the emotional and character-based resolutions that occur at the end, which are both profound and moving.
I’d highly recommend The Lost Kingdom for both middle-grade and YA readers or for adults looking to find an excellent read for the young people in their lives — it has an engaging plot, good characters, and raises important and complicated issues that come with emotional weight to them. If you do buy it for someone younger, read it along with him or her — you’ll have a good time discussing it. But it’s not much of an adult-only read (which it obviously is not meant to be), too simple in many ways, though I wouldn’t say at all that I didn’t enjoy it. So get it for the kids in your life, and while doing so, pick up a copy of Icefall for yourself; I don’t care if you’re 10 or 100.
Addendum: My eleven-year-old son, a huge Kirby fan as well, just finished it and had much the same response; he liked it but not nearly as much as the first two and he found it much simpler in all the areas listed above. He also had a problem with plausibility, as did I, with one of the major storylines that runs throughout the novel (I think Kirby might have been going for some symbolic aspect here rather than a literal, and so was hoping for some suspension of disbelief, but none of the three of us in my family could quite suspend enough). Based on my son’s response, I’d go with 12-13 as the upper limit on this one, though with a big caution that enjoyment by age is a very iffy call.