Thursday, January 10, 2008

T. A. Barron

The Lost Years of Merlin
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Age: 12+

The first of five books in a series by the same title, it is (naturally) about the great wizard Merlin, specifically his not-so-well-known youth.

It begins with a seven-year-old boy washing ashore on the coast of Wales, half-drowned, with a bad bump to the head, and awakening without any memory of his past life. A woman claiming to be his mother washes ashore as well, and she raises him. But because she refuses to tell him anything about where he came from, or about her own past, he doesn't really believe she is his mother - or that her name is Branwen - or that his name is Emrys. Nevertheless she takes good care of him, considering that she has to scrape a living healing wounds and burns, practicing an art that many fear and despise as "of the devil."

Around the age of twelve, young Emrys discovers that he has some amazing powers, and pretty soon he finds reason to wonder if he himself is "of the devil." Scarred, blinded, and crushed with guilt after a terrible demonstration of his power, Emrys swears never to use his powers again if only God will let him see again. And though his eyes remain blind, he slowly develops another kind of vision - a "second sight."

Soon Emrys decides that he has recovered enough, and he takes his leave of Branwen to go on his quest. He wants to find his own past, who he is, where he belongs. And all he carries with him is a pouch of healing herbs and a very special, magical stone.

Emrys travels to the magical land of Fincayra, which is like a bridge between our world and "the other world." There he carries out his quest of self-discovery. But what turns out to be just as important, or more important even, is the danger that overshadows the whole land of Fincayra, and especially his new friends. An evil spirit has blighted the land and broken its people's spirit, and a ruthless king is drawing all its magical gifts to himself-- sort of like an unholy marriage between Sauron of The Lord of the Rings and Arawn of The Prydain Chronicles. The darkness is spreading to cover more and more of the country, ruining much that was once beautiful and good.

And though Emrys wants nothing to do with all this, he learns that he has to confront this great evil in order to rescue a girl he loves. It will take courage, luck, and sacrifice-- not only for Emrys, but for his friends as well: the midget giant Shim, and the merlin hawk named Trouble.

Peopled with characters taken from ancient legend, as well as some (I think) from Barron's own imagination, this is a wide-ranging, well-rounded adventure with an interesting hero, stunning beauties, terrible dangers, and appealing friends. The march of the main plot is very strongly reminiscent of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, especially The Black Cauldron. Of course they both probably draw on similar legends for inspiration, and "brilliant minds think alike." Richly detailed, well-paced, and full of interesting characters and images, this book is a tantalizing preview of the series that follows it.

The Seven Songs of Merlin
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Age: 12+

The second book in the Lost Years of Merlin sequence finds Emrys Merlin on an assignment with the Flowering Harp. His task is to waken the Dark Hills, and bring forth life and growth again where the evil powers of Rhita Gawr had blighted it. But a little power goes to the young would-be wizard's head. Soon his own hubris (this book's Word of the Month, which means "excessive pride") has gotten him in a lot of trouble. And to get out again, he has to learn the Seven Songs of his wizard grandfather, Tuatha.

The problem is, he has to learn the "soul" of each song in sequence, but the lessons are spread so wide apart in the magical land of Fincayra that it could take months to learn them all. And Merlin doesn't have months. He has four phases of the moon to learn the seven songs, then fight a terrible ogre, enter the Otherworld (maybe a more accurate name would be Underworld), and bring back the elixir of the great spirit Dagda before his mother Elen dies. Because you-know-who (Rhita Gawr) has put a death hex on her, and she has that long to live.

Accompanied by his friend Rhia, who has good instincts and knows all about "trusting in the berries," as well as a jester named Bumblewy who is so unfunny that it's almost funny, Merlin sets out to visit dwarves, giants, dragons, and other amazing creatures and places; to encounter tricksters and traitors, ghosts and visions, a sister of the wind, and a certain robber of magical items who figures later in Merlin's career. He learns the soul of changing, binding, protecting, naming, leaping, eliminating, and seeing. And in one last desperate gambit, he takes on the world of spirits with all its dangers and uncertainties.

And in the process he learns (at least) one more lesson, perhaps more valuable than all: humility. By the tale's end, Merlin is well on his way to becoming a true wizard.

Filled with elements that will captivate all lovers of the Arthur-Merlin legends, as well as the works of Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, and even J.K. Rowling, this is a powerful character-driven story, a gripping plot-driven adventure, and a beautifully realized new world created for your pleasure, all at the same time. Here, I perceive, is another series for Harry Potter fans - and non-fans - to embrace. Take a look!

The Fires of Merlin
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Age: 12+

The third book in the Lost Years of Merlin sequence finds Merlin on the point of finishing his rite of initiation into the "high magic" of a wizard. Like all other wizards, he must first study the arts of magic under a tutor. But since the magical land of Fincayra - the "in-between place" that is neither of our world nor of the spirit world, but a little of both - has no other living wizards, Merlin accepts instruction from the bard Cairpré. And after getting through all the material in record time, he is about to complete the final step: creating and playing the magical, musical instrument that will reveal whether or not he will become a real wizard.

But on the point of plucking the strings of his little psaltery, Merlin's hopes are dashed by an unforeseen accident. And then, summoned to the realm of the dwarves to fulfill his promise to the enchantress Urnalda, Merlin finds himself stripped of his powers and betrayed into the claws of a gigantic dragon named Wings of Fire. A dragon who has slept long years, under a spell cast by Merlin's own grandfather. A dragon who can only be destroyed by a descendant of his old enemy... but whose destroyer will also die. Awakened, and angry, Wings of Fire is coming for Merlin, whom he believes to have killed his nine newly-hatched young. And Merlin is powerless to fight him.

Or is he? Playing his psaltery was to be his one and only chance to enter the world of high magic - but it was destroyed just as his fingertips touched the strings. The magic he did have has been stolen by Urnalda, along with the staff touched by the spirit of his grandfather Tuatha. And the one remaining magical instrument that Merlin can count on-- the stone Galator - has been stolen from the lair of the hag Domnu.

Worse still, while Merlin races to make it to his fateful confrontation with a dragon he cannot possibly defeat, he is harried by enemies bent on destroying all the magic in Fincayra...and by hideous creatures called kreelixes that feed on magic itself. This sinister business of "negatum mysterium" and "Clan Righteous" smacks of the work of Rhita Gawr, the evil warlord of the spirit world. Befriended by a horse and a "deer woman," Merlin's only hope is to find the great power within him - though he feels sure that all his magic is gone, and all its containers destroyed.

Friends of Harry Potter will feel right at home, with a hero armed with a scar that reminds him of a brush with an evil overlord, who continues to wreak havoc through minions who believe that what they are doing is good and right. Seethe with fury against Urnalda, break your heart in grief over friends lost (or at least thought to be lost), hold your breath in suspense as the enemies attack in strength, and dance in joy at the triumph that - seeing as Merlin had a long and distinguished career - ought to be a foregone conclusion. Yet somehow, the suspense is still there.

Care of magical creatures advisory: you'll never look at dragons the same way.

The Mirror of Merlin
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Age: 12+

The fourth book in the Lost Years of Merlin cycle begins with an embarrassing magical goof. And more mistakes by the young wizard Merlin lead him deeper into a new adventure, in which he must finally confront himself face to face.

Plagued by a shadow that won't do what he tells it to do (don't you just hate that?), lost with his deer-woman friend Hallia and a creature called a ballymag that is half seal, half lobster, and all character, a bit of "leaping" gone awry lands him first in a troubled forest, then in the Haunted Marshes.

Things at this end of the land of Fincayra - that "in between" place that forms a bridge between Earth and the spirit world - are not going too well. The Marshes are encroaching on the trees. Evil creatures are attacking the people, plants, and animals that have long lived there in peace. Besides strangling snakes and deadly beetles, there are ghouls at large, armed with arrows that can literally pierce the day. A malevolent power - one that smells familiar to Merlin, somehow - must be behind it all.

The strange adventure grows stranger and more adventurous, when Merlin encounters a boy whose destiny will be intertwined with his own. And the last, lost "wise tool" of Fincayra. And a mirror that needs no light, that stands as a gateway to the Mists of Time. And Merlin's own choices - his mistakes, his flawed humanity, even his rebellious shadow - are all that he has to prevent a powerful enemy from destroying everything he cares about.

Along the way, Merlin faces the paradox that, even in his failures, he can be victorious. And that even when his doom seems to be at hand, he has a chance to change the world.

Filled with many magical moments to delight fans of T.H. White, Lloyd Alexander, and J.K. Rowling, this story brings Merlin through another stage of his development as the great wizard he will someday be...

The Wings of Merlin
by T. A. Barron
Recommended Age: 12+

The Lost Years of Merlin sequence comes to its strong and fitting conclusion in this book.

Here, Merlin faces his gravest challenge yet: a threat to the very existence of Fincayra, that magical land that bridges the mortal world and the world of immortal spirits. In a few days' time, a doorway will open. And the most powerful of evil spirits, Rhita Gawr, will attempt to lead his army through that doorway, to destroy the balance between all the worlds, and to rule what is left himself.

A vision from Dagda, chief of the good spirits who inhabit the Otherworld, tells Merlin that he holds the only hope of stopping Rhita Gawr. But to do it, he must unite all the quarrelling peoples of Fincayra: the giants and dwarves, the canyon eagles and marsh ghouls, the walking trees and the sole remaining dragon, and many others. And in the little time left to summon them together, he could scarcely visit them all-- even if they would listen to him!

To make matters worse, Stangmar - Merlin's fallen father, once the wicked king of Fincayra - has broken loose from prison and is trying to find Elen, Merlin's mother. And on top of that, a dark stranger with swords instead of arms is wandering the country, maiming innocent children and challenging Merlin to a grudge-match. Why is this masked man so familiar? And how does he always manage to throw Merlin's magical powers back in his face? Can Merlin neutralize him in time to carry out his desperate mission to save Fincayra?

More than ever, he must depend on his friends and loved ones. His sister Rhia. His deer-woman companion, Hallia. The bard Cairpré. An orphan boy named Lleu. A giant named Shim. And even a certain hawk who has passed out of the world of the living. But to have even a ghost of a hope of saving the land, Merlin must also heal the conflicts in his own conscience: to forgive and be forgiven, and to fight a battle even without hope.

And finally, what is gained is also lost. Merlin faces a choice that will bring him much sorrow no matter what he chooses, but that affects his destiny. One way or another, he will soar to heights no one can imagine... and he will change at least one world forever.

Packed with excitement, horror, action, and suspense, this tale ties up all the loose threads and brings Merlin's lost years to a moving end. Whether you savor the beauty of rich, imagery-filled words, or the pulse-quickening pace of combats and dangers in land, air, and sea, this is a book-- and a series-- that will satisfy your fantasy.

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