The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron
Digital Audiobook narrated by Michael Cumptsy
Published by Philomel Books Series: Merlin #1
Genres: Arthurian, Fantasy, Fiction, Mythology, Young Adult
Length: 326 pages or 9 hours, 45 minutes
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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.
I tend to be a bit careful about Arthurian retellings. I really like the whole Camelot aesthetic, but I feel like they often underwhelm. Not all of them, I know! And, also, I haven’t read them all. But I came into The Lost Years feeling careful, and I think that was a good choice.
Some scenes were great. I really enjoyed the voice when Emrys was in the “human world”, as well as the scene with Cairpre and his amazing room of books. Standalone scenes stood out to me, but the book as a whole had a bit of that… stumbled over feeling. Most of Emrys’ adventures were because he tripped and fell into something and while that cliche plot twist is fine when used sparingly, T.A. Barron loves it.
The characters in themselves were just… fine? Nothing really stood out and made them memorable as individuals – they all felt like fantasy archetypes. In a more modern book, I’d be pretty harsh about this, but in 1996, fantasy wasn’t exactly the literature of choice. May older books use elements that feel especially cliche today, and I’m sure in another 20 years, the things we find fresh will be considered cliche as well.
Shim, as a character, bothered me. His character arc was really obvious and the author’s choice in dialogue just made me cringe. This is such a personal thing, but I wanted to mention it. Also there was a really questionable point in the early chapters where the village kids decide it’s a good plan to stone a Jew and while it doesn’t sit well with Emrys, he doesn’t prevent it. This scene set off SO MANY red flags in my head and I was really concerned this was going to end up having an anti-Semitic dialogue. It didn’t, but the choice was so very unnecessary and did not sit well.
I think The Lost Years will suit younger readers better. There are some scenes that feel intended for older readers, while others read very young. The writing style is scattered all over the place. Generally, I think this is best for more mature middle grade readers. A lot of reviewers on Goodreads are comparing it to The Black Cauldron, and having only read one book in each series, I think I liked The Book of Three better than The Lost Years. Alexander’s story had a better voice, enough so to make a difference. Otherwise, I think they’re fairly good companions.
Which Arthurian character is your favorite? I’ve always been drawn to Morgan le Fay, so if you know any good Morganna retellings, let me know! 🙂