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review 2016-06-09 18:14
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions
A Coalition of Lions - Elizabeth Wein

My next reading notes series is going to look at four books by Elizabeth Wein. Wein is probably known best for Code Name Verity, which was awarded a Printz Honor and is one of my favorite books ever. However, my first taste of Wein’s writing was her debut, The Winter Prince, and I’m going to be looking at the sequels to that book, which comprise the Aksum series. Please note that there are spoilers for this book in the rest of this post!

The Winter Prince is an Arthurian retelling, narrated by Medraut, Arthur/Artos’s illegitimate son by his sister Morgause. It’s a book I’ve described as a piece of really dark chocolate: intense, something you savor and save for the right mood. In this read-through, I’ve decided to skip it (at least for now) and begin with the second book, the first which actually takes place in the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.*

A Coalition of Lions is narrated by Goewin, Artos’s daughter. As the story opens, she is fleeing to Aksum with her father’s ambassador following a disastrous battle and its aftermath. Her father and mother are dead, her twin brother Lleu has died**, and Medraut himself is feared dead. Goewin, threatened by the Saxons on one hand and her aunt Morgause on the other, hopes to cement an alliance with Constantine, named her father’s heir after Lleu.

So, necessarily, this book deals with grief. I don’t know how it would read if you haven’t read The Winter Prince. If you have (and loved it as I did), it’s a heartbreaking beginning and the loss of her whole family and her world echoes throughout the story. Goewin rarely acknowledges her own grief: it’s filtered through other peoples’ reactions and only flashes out in a few moments (when she loses Telemakos in the tunnels, for instance). And yet, I felt it really deeply–it’s maybe the center the book is written around.

It’s also about family: because Goewin finds when she reaches Aksum that Medraut–the previous ambassador–had a son he never knew. Part of the book is Goewin finding her own place in this new land, part of it is learning to love the family she has gained in Telemakos and his mother Turunesh. (Who, let me just say, is quietly awesome and the best.) In another sense, it’s about Goewein’s complex relationship to Morgause, who she hates and yet understands as Medraut never could. Goewin does not want to be like her, and yet she finds herself using Telemakos despite her genuine love for him.

In large part this comes about because of another thread that runs through the book: the ways women are shut out of power and the ways they do and don’t find around that. I love Goewin partly because she allows herself to be angry that Constantine, her father’s heir, doesn’t recognize her own authority. There’s one line late in the book that sums it up: “Would I were a man. Here was I to bestow on him a kingdom, and still he addressed my companion as though I were not there.” But it’s not only Goewin–we also see Candake, the Aksumite emperor’s sister, who carves out her own kind of power, and Turunesh who has a quiet confidence that informs her decisions. I love that although Goewin has very significant relationships with men, she also forms relationships with other women.***

(I am writing this after almost a week of simmering feminist rage, and I just want to say: MEN. Notably CONSTANTINE, who persists in underestimating Goewin and also seeing her as his personal property at the same time. But also Medraut, who–SPOILER–is not dead, and who I find I have much less patience for than I used to. Yes, he has reason for his pain, but SO DOES GOEWIN and yet she keeps going and doesn’t hide in a hermitage/refuse to speak to anyone.)

However, what I ended up thinking about the most as I reread this book was connection. Goewin has a stubborn integrity and care for her far-away home which keeps motivating her to reach out, to Constantine, Caleb, Candake, anyone she can think of. In the end, it’s this stubbornness which provides the resolution and its lovely sense of things being mended. They’re forever a little crooked, but they’re also whole in a way which doesn’t seem possible at the beginning. (The last section of the book is titled “Forgiveness” and I liked that it’s a theme which runs between many different characters.) Without diminishing Goewin’s clear-sighted anger, she also comes to see Constantine’s virtues. This is a tricky balance, and it’s done well here.

I have previously mentioned that there’s a theme of hands that runs throughout Wein’s books, and it’s all over this one. Goewin and Telemakos in the tunnels, Priamos and Goewin’s clasped hands, Medraut holding Telemakos’s “small fingers,” and then Goewin’s. This ties in with the theme of connection that I mentioned above: there’s a literal reaching out.  Here it also occurs in the final, pivotal moment between Priamos and Constantine, who have been at each other’s throats for the whole book:

He offered Constantine his open hand, as though holding something precious and invisible in its cup. His pale palm was still faintly striped with the marks of the beating he had taken in the season just past…He raised Priamos to his feet. They stood firm in their shared grip, gazing down at their clasped hands, pale and dark.

I love the turns and choices this story makes, the characters it gives us, and the assurance of the narrative voice. But most of all, if I’m honest, I love Goewin with all her flaws and grief and anger and love. She’s a wonderful, complex character and I always forget until I reread this book just how much she means to me.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2003, Viking; YA

* I want to acknowledge, as I did in my review of Black Dove, White Raven, that both Wein and I are white, and that I have complicated feelings about this; at the same time I love this book and as far as I can judge trust Wein’s depiction
** If you can get your hands on the short story about Lleu called “Fire,” I highly recommend it.
*** I’m not sure how I ultimately feel about Candake’s protrayal, but I am certainly fascinated by her

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/elizabeth-wein-reading-notes-a-coalition-of-lions
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-01-05 05:19
A Coalition of Lions- Elizabeth E. Wein
A Coalition of Lions - Elizabeth Wein

Sequel to The Winter Prince, though focusing on a different protagonist. The first-person voice is beautiful and gripping, but without the tension and darkness that make The Winter Prince unique.

 

I was nervous after the first few pages, where most of the characters from the previous book are killed off, but

fortunately Medraut makes a comeback,

(spoiler show)

and if I hadn't known that going in, I wouldn't have continued.

 

Unusually, this is a book without a villain- there are antagonists, but as the title intimates, they are not defeated but rather brought into alignment with the protagonists via compromise. There are no irredeemable or even wicked characters, but rather people with differing flaws and agendas struggling to get their way and believing themselves in the right. Goewin, the main character, even identifies with and at times parallels the villain of the first book.

 

The setting is also worth noting- ancient Ethiopia, where the British Goewin flees from her war-torn country, in a neat reversal.

 

Many tropes from the first book repeat- fraught sibling relationships, the problem of lesser royalty, accepting you won't rule, physical abuse and punishment, defiance, the rulers mishandling relationships but then redeeming themselves, a hunt on which loyalties are tested and forged. The plot and setting, however, are quite different.

 

Edited to add: You have to love a YA book where the main motif is the Song of Songs, and the female protagonist is described as "terrible as an army with banners."

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review 2011-01-26 00:00
A Coalition of Lions - Elizabeth Wein Reads like there's a missing first half -- the fall of Camlann, the ship voyage, the friendship between Goewin and Priamos. The most recent reread, I could finally see some of what Wein was attempting: the difficult position of a woman in a world which did not allow women to be politically powerful, where her only models were evil (Morgause), suffering (Turunesh), or half-mad (the Queen of Queens). But as much as I admire Wein's restraint and Goewin's self-control, I needed to see where Goewin's traumas earlier. I also wonder about the absence of Gwenhwyfar among Goewin's models.
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review 2011-01-13 00:00
A Coalition of Lions - Elizabeth Wein I think the most important thing to say about these books is that they’re not The Winter Prince. They certainly build off of that story, and I would most definitely read it first. But The Winter Prince is one of those books that I don’t think you could write a real sequel to. Nonetheles, A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird are both fascinating and well-written. Telemakos is a wonderful character who’s reminding me more and more of Megan Whalen Turner’s Gen. I’ve got the next one ordered and I can’t wait till it gets here!
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And then I went on an Elizabeth Wein re-reading kick. I left out The Winter Prince, which I’d re-read quite recently and which always feels like it’s only tenuously part of the series anyway. (I don’t mean that as a criticism at all–just that I’m in a different mood when I read it than when I read the rest.) I love Goewin, who continues to be a fantastic character. The sense of being trapped between bad decisions and trying to find a way through them is very strong here. And, finally, Camlann makes me sad. (Authors are mean people. I may have mentioned this before.) [Jan. 2011]
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review 2008-09-11 00:00
A Coalition of Lions - Elizabeth Wein This book was marketed as YA, but I really didn't feel that it had that feel at all...
This is a short but complex historical fiction story that postulates that in the time of 6th-century Arthurian Britain, there was a political/trade connection between Britain and the kingdom of Aksum (modern-day Ethiopia). The British princess, Goewin, has had to flee her country due to political unrest and has travelled to Aksum in the company of the African ambassador, in order to meet with her British fiance, who is curently acting as regent in Aksum. However, her emotions do not match up with the course of action that may be most politically expedient....

Strong characterization and vivid cultural depictions make this book a stand-out. It also has a nice note at the end that puts it into context with "known" history - something I always like!
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