The Lost Years: Initial novelty has worn off

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book reviews The Lost Years of MerlinThe Lost Years by T.A. Barron

Perhaps because it was a tad over-hyped for me, perhaps because since its publication there have been several other books and films that tell the story of Merlin’s youth, but T.A. Barron‘s The Lost Years left me a little cold. I enjoyed it well enough, though certain segments dragged a little, but ultimately I think that much of its initial novelty has worn off. What was an innovative look at an unknown aspect of a legendary figure’s life back in 1996 may feel like a somewhat generic fantasy-adventure by today’s standards.

Told in first-person narrative by our young Merlin (who goes by the name of Emrys), the story begins with him and his mother being washed up on the shores of Wales. Unable to remember who he is or where he’s come from, Emrys and Branwen make a life for themselves in a small village, though he eventually comes to suspect that the woman he calls “mother” is not really his mother at all. Branwen refuses to discuss anything about where they came from, and the only clue to Emrys’s past is a strange pendant that she wears.

But after his twelfth birthday, several strange powers begin to manifest within him. After a terrible accident that leaves him maimed and guilt-ridden, Emrys goes in search of his secret origins and own identity. His quest leads him to the island of Fincayra, a magical land that lies between the mortal and the spirit world, populated with mythological creatures but also suffering under a growing pestilence. Teaming up with a feisty wood-girl and a shrunken giant, Emrys begins his exploration of the island, hoping that answers to his past will be found there. But when enemies strike, it’s up to him to journey to the source of the island’s evil and attempt to save his new friends. There the final answers are waiting, both to the island’s blight and his secret heritage.

The book is divided into three distinct parts; you can probably tell what they encompass just from the summary above. This means that the book is quite slow to start, as the adventure doesn’t really kick-in until the final part. There is a lengthy introduction to the mystery of Merlin’s life, followed by a journey of discovery around Fincayra, and finally the journey into evil’s stronghold. The final part is undoubtedly the best; it just takes a while to get there.

Emrys is a nice enough kid, sometimes torn between his desire for answers and his need to do the right thing, and throughout the story one becomes invested in his desire to figure out where he comes from, master his latent powers, and struggle through the various tribulations that come his way. It’s easy for first-person narrative to become too ego-centric or too stylized, but Barron has a good grasp of his protagonist’s thought patterns whilst still keeping everything natural. Less successful is the explanation of Merlin’s “second sight.” This ability helps him see without the use of his eyes, but it’s never particularly clear how exactly this works, or why (if the second sight is tantamount to having vision) it was even necessary to blind him in the first place.

Barron draws on Welsh mythology to paint Merlin’s world, meaning that there’s a passing resemblance to Lloyd Alexander‘s The Prydain Chronicles, particularly in the use of an evil cauldron that can only be destroyed if someone were to willingly get inside it. However, the similarities are trifling and the story and style are wildly divergent. Despite my lukewarm review, there is plenty here for young fantasy fans to enjoy, as well as four successive books that no doubt deepen the characters and plot introduced here.

Merlin — (1996-2010) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Spat out by the sea, the boy lay on the rocks, as still as death. Even if he survived the day, he had no home. No memory. And no name. So begins the tale of the strange young boy, who having washed up on the shores of ancient Wales, is determined to find his real home and his true name. One day he will become the greatest wizard of all time, but he knows nothing of this now. At the knee of the mysterious Branwen, who claims to be his mother, the boy learns lore of the Celts, Druids, and people even more ancient. Yet the secret of his identity seems always to escape him. To discover the truth, and the secret of his own powers, he runs away, voyaging to the mist-shrouded side of Fincayra, an enchanted land between earth and sky that is being destroyed by blight. It is there he discovers that the fate of this land and his quest are strangely entwined? Combining all the passion, power, and spiritual depth that are T. A. Barron’s hallmarks, this book adds a thrilling new dimension to the legend of Merlin.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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