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The Lost Years of Merlin
by T.A. Barron
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.