by: Matthew J. Kirby
While I am an eager reader of YA fiction I feel like I must take a moment here to ask you to bear with me. When I first started reading "The Lost Kingdom" by Michael J. Kirby I was finding it to be some rough sledding. Then I discover that it was written for eight to twelve year olds. Well after that, I went back to the beginning, with a changed perspective, and read it anew. I believe that a good book is a good book, regardless of target audience or genre; but some expectations have to be adjusted. And in case you are wondering, "The Lost Kingdom" is a pretty good book. I certainly wouldn't give it a sweeping endorsement to all readers, but for readers in its targeted age group, and some other readers who may want a fast, breezy adventure. I’d say give it a shot.
“The Lost Kingdom" is an adventure tale, set in an alternate fantasy version of Colonial America right before the start of the French and Indian War. The main characters are Billy Bartram and his father John, both real-life American naturalists. John is going on an expedition, at the behest of the American Philosophical Society, (also real.) To find the lost Welsh king, Modoc, so they can secure an alliance with him against the French in the war they believe will happen soon. Now believed to be a political tall tale created by the English to strengthen their claim on the colonies, the legend of a lost band of Welsh, led by King Modoc was a real phenomenon, and Thomas Jefferson told Lewis Clark to look for them on their way West.
This search is a varied lot of scientists and natural philosophers who are flying, (yes flying), in a wooden boat held aloft by rather specious methods. On their way they encounter bearwolves, Incognitum, Mastadons, the Fountain of Youth, and manage to create a version of Archimedes fire beam, and use a Leyden jar to shock hundreds of French soldiers. This mixture of facts and the fantastical abound as George Washington and Ben Franklin have cameos, and is one of the more amusing parts of the book, although the science often seems to be used as a kind of Deus ex machina.
The adventures are well written but lack that feel of real danger that would give them some more power, but I think that is because of the target audience. I feel that Mr. Kirby pulled his punches a bit too much, but it's really a judgment call. The sub-plots of deception and spying amid the Society are fine, but lack depth and danger.
The best part of the book for me is in watching how Billy grows up as the adventure progresses, finding friendship with a stowaway girl, Jane, and their half-Indian guide, Andrew. Also, he finds himself butting heads with his father over their views of nature, conservationism, and Native Americans. In these parts, Mr. Kirby does his best work, showing us how John changes in Billy's eyes, from a patriarch to a two-dimensional flesh and blood man; flawed, but still worthy of admiration, much like this book.