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.(less)
If I told you that this was the second book featuring a young person covered in hair and living in a freak show in Victorian England for middle grade readers that I’ve read this year, would you be surprised? It seems Victorian fiction is one of the hot trends for 2013 . It’s a fascinating trend, because most of the stories I’ve read set in these times have either distinct fantasy or steampunk elements used in the storytelling. Of course, this is particularly exciting for me, since it means they then fall under the banner of speculative fiction.
A few years ago if I’d even mentioned steampunk, it would described a fairly small idiosyncratic subgenre of fantasy/science fiction books, mostly written for adults. Outside of Japanese animated movies, you’d find hardly anything that could be labelled steampunk for kids. Then something happened. Some strange alignment of an interest in the Victorian era and a love for all sorts of goggles and steam machines and mechanized top hats began to drift into the young adult genre . . . and now it’s safe to say it has reached the middle grade fiction.
Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones is the story of a young man who was born covered in hair and has spent most of his life being treated like a monster. But the outward appearance of a freak hides the brilliance of a deductive mind that sees and absorbs all the details of the unforgiving world of Victorian England that he inhabits. Living in a freak show surroundings, Wild Boy takes some small pleasure in being able to travel and observe different people and places in the moments when he is not kept inside. When a man from the circus is killed violently and the circumstantial evidence points to Wild Boy, there’s nothing he can say to convince others of his innocence–all they see is the monster. Desperate to escape hanging for a crime he did not commit, he puts his deductive skills to work in ferreting out the real murder. Solving the murder will take him on a path that is very dark indeed, uncovering macabre experiments, dangerous enemies and terrible betrayals. In the end it will be Wild Boy’s mind and heart put to the test in solving this murder mystery!
It’s clear that the author has some love of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, and this book readily reflects that love. Wild Boy’s observation skills and keen reasoning are reminiscent of the great Sherlock Holmes. Despite his abilities, Wild Boy still has to deal with the fact that others don’t see beyond his outward hairy appearance and a fierce temper that has come with being mistreated his whole life. Underneath the fur and beyond the brilliant mind, Wild Boy is still a boy who is troubled and traumatized and wishes he looked like everyone else. The author does an admirable job of writing this character so that readers can identify with him and become invested in his story.
The setting is pure Victorian London, full of all the atmospheric elements that define the place. The author clearly knows how to tell a historically placed story–readers can believe in the setting and begin to comprehend it without having to have a working knowledge of what London was like at the time. There’s a good balance here between setting the story in place and avoiding too many references or place names that would be alien to younger reader, or one unfamiliar with Victorian times.
While there are plenty of genres at work in this particular novel, the main story arc is the mystery itself. Overall I thought this was well handled, balancing deductive insights with action and danger and leading up to the final revelations. Remember I mentioned steampunk? this book has more than a little steampunk woven into the mystery that is at the center of the story. It moves the book out of the merely historically fantastic and sets it firmly into the ”Victorian science fiction” universe.
I quite enjoyed this read overall. My only real issues are with the fact that Wild Boy’s speech patterns tend to fluctuate. Much of the time he appears to speak a more formal English than that of typical lower class, but every so often there’s some street slang or pattern to his dialog. I’m not certain it’s entirely believable that Wild Boy would speak a more formal style, given that he wouldn’t have had much exposure to it. While I could imagine that he could adopt accents and manners rather easily given his observation abilities, I don’t know if his speaking is consistent with his situation in life. Still, I think it a small thing in an otherwise solid reading experience.
This might spark your interest if you are a fan of Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, though this focuses on mystery more than horror. Middle grade readers who are interested in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes might also want to check this one out!