The Orphan King (Merlin's Immortals #1), by Sigmund Brouwer

Alexis Neal

3 Stars

August 20, 2012

Thomas has had it up to here with the servant's life. As low man on the abbey totem pole, he is little more than a slave to the corrupt monks. And yet, until now, he has been content to bid his time, studying the secret books him mother left him and preparing for the destiny that awaits him. And now, finally, it is time. With the assistance of a lone knight, an impish young pickpocket, and a pretty deaf mute who is more than she seems, Thomas sets out to find and reclaim the mysterious and impregnable castle Magnus from the cruel Lord Mewburn. But there are forces at work behind the scenes, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering Thomas's plans. Who can he trust? What is he to make of the dark tales his mother told him--tales of shadowy Druids and powerful Immortals? And what of Thomas himself? Is he on the side of right, or merely a tool in the hands of another?

This is, at its heart, a perfectly serviceable young adult novel. At just over 200 pages, it's not too intimidating, and it's got plenty to draw in young readers: Knights! Castles! Science masquerading as magic! Bandits! Chivalry! Disguises! Dungeons! Secret societies! Hidden knowledge! And no fewer than two damsels in distress!

And there's some substantive stuff tucked in as well. Thomas's years at the abbey, surrounded by heartless greed, corruption, and cruelty, have turned him off to the idea of God. Yet, in his showdown with the monks, he uses their sin to prove that they have nothing to do with God at all--that their behavior is inconsistent with the character of the God they purport to serve. Later, when he is confronted by someone whose faith is demonstrated by kindness, integrity, and courage--someone who remains confident in God's sovereignty and goodness despite extreme hardship--he finds himself rethinking his dismissal of God. Some of the religious stuff is a bit awkward and ham-handed, and even slightly anachronistic, as when Thomas is told that 'God grants you peace when you accept Him'. Granted, I'm no expert, but I feel like a lot of the 'accept God' language is a more recent development. But there's a lovely (and fairly subtle) point about the contrast between physical beauty and the internal beauty that manifests itself through actions and service and a kind heart.

Not that it's a great book, mind you. The characters are decently drawn, and there are a fewer good action sequences early in the book. Sadly, the climax, when it occurs, is rather rushed and, well, anticlimactic. In the wake of Harry Potter, we've seen more and more fantasy series emerge onto the young adult literature scene--many of which are more analogous to a multi-part novel than a series of connected books. It is not uncommon for an author to be so eager to build suspense for later books that he (or she) ends the initial book without resolving any of the major conflicts in the story. Brouwer does a good job of actually resolving the central plot point (Thomas's plan to conquer Magnus) while leaving intact plenty of peripheral questions to be addressed in future installments.

Bottom line: If you're looking for good Christian-adjacent young adult fiction, particularly for actual young adults (as opposed to adults like myself who enjoy the occasional YA read), you could do a lot worse than this book. Brouwer has upwards of a dozen YA series under his belt by now (and more than 100 titles), and this particular series (Merlin's Immortals) is actually a revised and expanded version of his Winds of Light series from the early '90s. I'm not familiar with the original series, so I don't know if it's good enough to merit revision and expansion, but hopefully Brouwer's learned a few things in the last 20 years and will produce a solid series.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.