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review 2016-05-20 18:13
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Sunbird
The Sunbird - Elizabeth Wein

This month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I started with A Coalition of Lions, which is technically the second book but I do what I want. This post focuses on the next book, The Sunbird. Please note that there are spoilers!

The Sunbird marks a shift in the series–up until now, the books have been first person from Medraut’s perspective (The Winter Prince) and first person from Goewin’s perspective (A Coalition of Lions). Now, and for the rest of the series, we switch to third person limited perspective, seeing the world from Telemakos’s point of view. I don’t have any grand theory about the effect of this switch, except that third person seems to fit Telemakos in a way that first doesn’t.

This may have something to do with age. Goewin is, I think, about nineteen in A Coalition of Lions, and here Telemakos is about 10 or 11 (I’m a bit confused about the chronology of these books but have not yet resorted to making a timeline). Nonetheless, he’s quite young and yet about to become one of the most important people in the kingdom.

That all sounds so coherent and English-essay-ish, and really I just want to say, UGH THIS BOOK. I love Goewin and A Coalition of Lions so much (and I think it’s a huge mistake to overlook its importance in the series) but I also love Telemakos. And this is the first of his books, and in some ways the most intense. It’s so much about being a child and being so clever and so quick and so brave–and yet still so powerless against the physical strength of adults.

(I hate Anako. I hate him a lot.)

Although I didn’t reread The Winter Prince this time through, I kept thinking about Lleu, drugged and helpless against Medraut and Morgause, and yet never truly without strength. I don’t think this is a coincidence; Lleu haunts this book as he haunts all of them in this series and Telemakos is compared to him several times. Telemakos has that same mixture of physical helplessness and great inner strength at several points in this story.

And I think Lleu and Telemakos would have similar reactions to Medraut’s self-absorbtion. Telemakos, maybe more clearly than anyone can see how Medraut’s refusal to speak and engage with those around him is selfish and destructive. He challenges Medraut to move beyond his own self-recriminations several times in the series, which is an interesting dynamic.

As a total side-note, Kidane, Telemakos’s grandfather, has ivory chessmen! I feel suspiciously sure that this is a quiet Sayers reference, if only because I know Wein is a fan.

We see a kind of mirror image to Telemakos in Candake’s daughters, Sofya and Esato. They have a different kind of powerlessness, and I like that we see the ways in which Telemakos is more free than they are, because he is a boy, and the ways in which they are more free than he is, because they are really royal. Sofya, who is actually one of my favorite characters in the series, is especially interesting here because she is as clever and determined as Telemakos, and yet she is less rewarded, which I don’t think is an accident.

(One of the things that pops up several times is who notices Telemakos and his ability. Goewin is the main one; she has been able to see what he can become since A Coalition of Lions, but Sofya notices him as well. I noticed on this read through how Sofya and Goewin seem to be quietly compared at several points.)

I know I keep harping on connection, but it is also a major theme that runs through this whole series. And it’s so present here: horrible things happen, but also quiet kindness. About halfway through the book, Goewin tells Telemakos the story of Lazarus and says a phrase that echoes both forward and backward through the story: “That is the moment when his friend saves his life.” We see it in Yesaka crying for Telemakos in the salt mines, in Sofya and Goewin scheming and using their shreds of power to save him. It would be easy to see Telemakos as a hyper-competent, heroic figure, but in fact we’re told explicitly that it’s those around him who allow him to succeed.

Also, I have to mention that I cried at least several pints of tears over Yesaka’s statement at the end of the book: “If I kept silent, it meant I was an agent for the emperor as well. We were comrades, even if you did not know it. If I held silent, I was your conspirator, and neither one of us was alone.” On top of being in several senses the emotional fulfillment of this book, it reminded me so much of the epigraph of Code Name Verity, “Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs.”

There’s an interesting image running through this book in particular of tombs, being buried, but also of resurrection. Anako (who I hate) calls himself Lazarus, but he does so falsely. The importance of the Lazarus story, as shown here, is that your friends save you, and that it’s a moment of great, unlooked for joy and wonder. There are moments in this book when it seems impossible that the story could end happily; that it does, with that same sense of unexpected joy, works because we have seen throughout that interweaving of terrible things, and beautiful things.

It works because of Telemakos’s refusal to let anything alone: his father, the emperor’s challenge, the job that he knows he has to do. His stubborn integrity is in many ways more like Goewin’s than Medraut’s, and it’s a large part of what makes him so appealing, what keeps him from simply being an appalling prodigy. He undertakes tremendous tasks, at great risk (and the consequences aren’t shied away from) but he also refuses to take the easy road, and in so doing makes possible the reward at the end.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2004, Firebird; YA

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/elizabeth-wein-reading-notes-the-sunbird
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review 2014-01-08 21:24
The Sunbird- Elizabeth E. Wein
The Sunbird - Elizabeth Wein

Book three of Wein's Arthurian/Aksumite series takes up the story of the next generation, with Medraut's twelve-year-old son Telemakos as protagonist. Unlike the first two books in the series, it is told from the third-person point of view, and unfortunately, I think that made it less interesting. The protagonist was less complex than in the other two books and the plot less original in structure, though in substance it was quite interesting: the very young Telemakos becomes a spy to figure out who is breaking quarantine during a plague in order to profit from the situation. Even though the main villain is a bit obvious, he is also genuinely scary, both in his venal motivation and his very creepy actions and speech patterns- he constantly refers to Telemakos as "it."


Ultimately this book felt geared for a younger audience than the first two books. The interpersonal relationships were more obvious- Telemakos yearns for his voluntarily mute, trapped-in-the-past father to live in the present and speak to him, paralleling his namesake's desire for his father's return. The climax once again spells out too much explicitly. On the other hand, Goewin and Medraut's relationship continues complex, and the new character Sofya is sharp-edged, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes a jerk, and all in all a worthy addition to the cast.


Telemakos's reactions to his tribulations are realistic, his gift for hiding something he practices and works at, and his final confrontation with the villain spellbinding. I would recommend this to readers 10-14, but it's not something I would have picked up if it were not for the rest of the series. It's very satisfying to see how Goewin grows while remaining the same character, and she plays a major and thoroughly enjoyable role. It also wraps up some outstanding issues about Medraut. The book stands alone, but makes reference to the events of others; Medraut and Goewin's conflict refers back to what Medraut did in The Winter Prince and what Goewin considered doing in A Coalition of Lions.


This is where I would recommend a younger reader (someone Telemakos's age) to start, but while it's the author's favorite of the series, I think that while it's very good at what it does, what it does is less interesting than what the previous books do.

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review 2013-09-26 00:00
The Sunbird
The Sunbird - Elizabeth Wein Wein's writing as always is lovely. In this particular case, that talent is used to lovingly describe the protagonist's wounds, down to every last bleeding scratch and emotional trauma. Almost as many pages are devoted to those wounds--and to the way the protagonist's family coo, cluck, and weep over them--as to the plot.

In short, this is hurt/comfort through and through. And while there is nothing wrong with h/c as a genre, it is profoundly not my genre of choice.

I did quite like the beginning of the book, before the h/c became quite so pronounced, and I have a particular fondness for Sofya. But I don't think I'll be continuing the series.
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review 2013-07-21 20:58
The Sunbird
The Sunbird - Wilbur Smith Only by reminding myself of when this was written was it possible to both continue reading and finish the book. It's a story about an archaeologist and his discovery of an ancient Carthaginian city in Botswana. The relationship between him and his wealthy backer who has been a friend since he was quite young and his assistant, a woman he loves. That's the first part of the story, the second is about a parallel set of people who were in this doomed city, the City of the Moon. They're close enough to be reincarnations. It's not a terrible story but some of the assumptions and treatments of women and non-whites is fairly appaling. Both are objectified and the various African Tribes are treated with a dreadful paternalistic dismissal that just made me grind my teeth. The parallels are interesting, but the idea that only White folk can bring civilization to Africa rankles and made me seriously annoyed with the book and story, even if his sexist attitude to every woman there didn't make me happy.
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review 2013-03-05 00:00
The Sunbird
The Sunbird - Elizabeth Wein I absolutely loved this book -- I hardly know what to say about it at this point, except that it's amazing! I think everybody should read it....BUT I will add one caveat. I agree with [a:Karen Healey|2945301|Karen Healey|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1262678790p2/2945301.jpg] --Parts of this book are really hard to read, and haunt you for ages after you've finished reading. Here's what Ms. Healey says:The character torture is sickening and it made me feel physically ill.So if you are not a wimp like me and you can handle really very awful things happening to child protagonists, then I encourage you to read it.That said, it's an incredibly powerful story, beautifully told, with amazing characters. I loved it.
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