This is one of those rare books that I went into without having read any other reviews, or even having a strong sense of what the story was going to be about. I had two facts: airships! and Matthew Kirby! That was enough to convince me. But what’s The Lost Kingdom actually about?
Billy Bartram’s father is a naturalist and a member of the American Philosophical Society. Billy is his father’s helper, drawing the specimens his father studies. When he has the chance to go with his father and some of the other Philosophical Society members into the frontier, he jumps at the chance. It turns out that they are going in search of the lost kingdom of the Welsh prince Madoc, whose powerful warriors may make a difference in the possible war with the French.
So, it’s a nice coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of a historical turning point. The sense of branching possibilities lends an urgency to the plot, plus I tend to like books with that kind of setting (anything could happen!). Billy’s character is nicely done, and I thought his fraught relationship with his father fell on the side of complex and interesting, rather than melodramatic.
In some ways, The Lost Kingdom read like an old-fashioned adventure story, and indeed there are a lot of elements that the careful reader could recognize (stowaways! airships! the great West!). At the same time, Kirby does a nice job of remaining historical while also not presenting the historical figures as all in agreement. For instance, the Philosophical Society is fairly divided in its opinions on the French, electricity, Indians, and even their quest.
I don’t feel at all qualified to speak about the portrayal of the Native Americans that Billy and his compatriots interact with. I will just say that on the character level the portrayals very much worked for me, and that I felt Kirby did a nice job of showing historical opinions while also suggesting that they were wrong, while also remaining in character. If anyone who’s read this wants to comment on this aspect, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One thing I especially liked was the light touch with which Kirby added historical cameos. For instance, at one point the Society meets George Washington as a Major in the British army. This could easily have been mishandled, but there was no sense that the narrative was figuratively breathing down the reader’s neck saying, “Get it? GET IT?” Kirby relies on the readers to make the connection and leaves it alone.
I haven’t said very much about Jane, because I thought she was one of the weaker elements in the book, although I could see a tomboyish girl who always wants to see herself in adventures stories feeling otherwise. For myself, I am old and jaded and didn’t find her character particularly engaging or new. But other readers, especially younger ones, may feel otherwise.
All in all, I thought The Lost Kingdom did a nice job of mixing various threads together into a cohesive book with a nice coming-of-age story and some historical and fantastic elements. Kirby’s afterword about the real people he based his characters on is fascinating and adds another layer to the story. I would definitely recommend this for adventure fans who don’t object to a little history, or to historical fiction fans who don’t object to a little adventure and fantasy.
Book source: ARC from ALA
Book information: Scholastic, 2013; middle grade