fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Wizard’s Wings by T.A. BarronA Wizard’s Wings by T.A. Barron

This is the fifth and final book of T.A. Barron’s THE LOST YEARS OF MERLIN cycle, one of the earliest literary explorations of the famous wizard’s childhood. Since then there have been a number of books (and one television show) about what this enigmatic sorcerer was like as a young boy, well before his mentoring of the famed King Arthur, but Barron’s take on the subject matter remains one of the most popular.

So popular that it’s warranted a recent re-publication, with new cover art and tweaked titles. What was originally published as The Wings of Merlin is now called A Wizard’s Wings and the entire MERLIN collection — including its two spin-off series — has been repackaged as a twelve-book series.

But for all intents and purposes, this is the instalment that closes Merlin’s childhood and prepares him for his role as mentor and guide to the future King Arthur. He has lived the last few years of his life in the mystical land of Fincayra, a massive island that exists as the bridge between the mortal world and the spirit world. Here he has found the truth about his parentage, uncovered his long-long little sister, gained possession of several important artefacts, and discovered love with the deer-girl Hallia.

But now Fincayra is in grave danger. Warned by the powerful spirit Dagda as to the imminent approach of the evil Rhita Gawr from the Otherworld, Merlin is tasked with gathering together a Fincayran army that can hold back the invasion. Merlin despairs at such a thing, for the eclectic inhabitants of Fincayra — dwarfs, giants, elves, spirits, wild animals — have long been divided.

To make matters worse, a terrifying warrior is roaming the land and picking off vulnerable children. Calling himself Slayer, he has swords instead of arms and a vested interest in destroying Merlin. Caught between the need to raise an army and his desire to protect the orphans of Fincayra, Merlin comes up with the idea to transport all the children to the Forgotten Isle, a mysterious place whose inhabitants were said to have mastered — and then lost — the gift of flight.

As his allies muster an army in his name, Merlin struggles with his own mastery of magic and internal conflicts over his father, his responsibilities, and his attitude toward the villains in his life (anything from evil spirits to common bullies). There are reappearances from nearly every character introduced in the previous books, and Merlin’s growth from boy to man comes full-circle as he seeks closure from all of them, whether it be forgiveness, vindication or understanding.

By this point Barron has invested the reader in the welfare of Fincayra, having depicted it as a beautiful, magical place that is well worth fighting for, though the final battle itself feels a little anti-climactic and Merlin’s final choice a little out-of-nowhere (there’s no real incentive for him to leave his home and loved ones beyond the fact that it’s his destiny to do so).

To be honest, I was never quite as enraptured with this series as others seemed to be. Perhaps it was because I came late to the novelty of a story about Merlin’s youth, perhaps because I was disappointed at the lack of a stronger “prequel” element to the stories (there are a few little cameos from the likes of Nimue and Ector, but the saga is otherwise so divorced from Arthurian legend that Merlin actually calls them “the lost years” with the implication that he’ll never mention them to anyone in Britannia). Though we certainly get a primer in how Merlin became so wise and powerful, I could never quite connect what I read here to the occurrences of his later life.

Perhaps there was an element of over-hype at work as well; for my copy of the book came complete with two pages worth of effusive praise for the series from everyone from Lloyd Alexander to the New York Times to Booklist to Robert Redford of all people. It gets a bit excessive.

But with plenty of magic, action, miracles, wit and excitement, along with a first-person narrative voice that keeps the pacing brisk and fluid, there’s a lot here for young fantasy readers to enjoy. Just be aware that A Wizard’s Wings was previously published as The Wings of Merlin, and despite the new cover art the text of each remains exactly the same.

Merlin — (1996-2010) Ages 9-12. Publisher: 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? Combining all the passion, power, and spiritual depth that are T. A. Barron’s hallmarks, this book adds a thrilling new dimension to the legend of Merlin.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.