The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby (Scholastic, September 2013, Middle Grade).
It is the mid-18th century in a (just slightly) alternate America. The colonies are not yet united, and the French and Indian Wars are flaring up on the western frontier. And Ben Franklin, and his colleagues at the American Philosophical Society, decide to launch an expedition to find the legendary kingdom established by the Welsh prince Madoc, and convince the Welsh to join in the fight against the French. Fortunately the Society has a magnificent air-ship, a marvel of engineering, that will make the voyage last only a few weeks instead of months or years...and the scientists and philosophers aboard are eager not only to find out if the legend of Madoc is truth or fiction, but to collect data and make observations as they go.
And one of the scientists is a renowned botanist, John Bartram, bringing his son Billy plant-collecting with him for the first time (both are real historical people, which I found cool). Billy is thrilled, and pleased as well to find out he's not the only young person on board--the daughter of the expedition's leader, Jane, successfully sneaked on too. It's sure to be a grand adventure--after all, high in the air, what could possibly go wrong?
Answer: Treachery. Attacks by the savage megafauna of this alternate America. Natural disasters and Sabotage. Violent conflict with the French. The prejudice of Billy's father toward Andrew, the half-Native translator of the expedition that threatens to destroy the relationship of father and son, and threatens Andrew's very life. And then the arrival in the hidden kingdom they had searched for...where they do not find exactly what they were looking for.
Once airship sets off on its journey, these exciting bits follow one another like beads on a string, and the tension grows steadily. But alongside these adventures, and often taking center stage, is the conflict between Billy and his father, as Billy sees his father exhibiting ugly racism toward Andrew. Like Billy, the reader will (I assume) be disturbed by this; though it's historically accurate, it's no less repellent.
All though the excitements of the journey are enough to carry the audience along nicely, the perfect reader for this one, I think, has to have some interest in the pass times of geeky adults. The world of the ship is dominated by the eccentric members of the American Philosophical Society, who we met and observe (as they fixate on their particular interests) as the journey passes.
My one major issue with the book is that Jane, the token girl, never gets to be more than the token girl. She has no character arc, and though I thought that the relationship (and it didn't have to be a romantic one) between Jane and Billy would be explored during the story, Jane remains off to the side, functioning only to drive the plot (in a dangerous direction) at one point. And I wondered why she was there at all.
I am often troubled by presentations of Native Americans in historical fiction, but I think Kirby did a pretty good job here of using the attitudes of the characters to convey a pretty accurate idea of how 18th century colonials would have perceived them. So I have no substantive complaints on that score, though I think Kirby does tilt slightly toward portraying the frontier lands as unused wilderness with only a scattering of people who weren't properly taking advantage of it, which wasn't exactly the case (and which was something the Pilgrims, for instance, liked to believe). In fairness, though, the horrific mega-predators in this alternate America might well have kept population densities lower than they were in reality...
In short, a solid adventure with a fresh and ultimately satisfying premise, and a really cool air ship that should delight the scientifically-minded reader, that would have appealed more to me personally if Jane had been more of a person and less a female place holder.
Here are other reviews at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Views from the Tesseract
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher