Author: Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, PoC, Young Adult
Publication date: April 12th 2004
Paperback: 184 pages
Telemakos is the grandson of two noble men: Kidane, member of the parliament in the African kingdom of Aksum, and Artos, the fallen High King of Britain. Telemakos is also an exceptional listener and tracker, resolute and inventive in his ability to discover and retain information. Now his aunt Goewin, the British ambassador to Aksum, needs his skill. Plague has come to Britain, and threatens Aksum. Disguised, Telemakos must travel to the city of Afar where salt—the currency of sixth century Africa—is mined, and discover the traitor who has ignored the emperor’s command, spreading plague with the salt from port to port. This challenge will take all of Telemakos’s skill, strength, and courage—because otherwise it will cost him his life.
Stand alone or series: Third in the Lion Hunters series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I LOVED this author’s newest book Code Name Verity. Plus some of our blogging friends have been raving about The Lion Hunters series for a while now.
The Sunbird is the third book in Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian/Aksumite cycle of stories which follows the descendants of King Artos of Britain and their lives in sixth century Aksum, Africa (present-day Ethiopia). Although part of an ongoing series, The Sunbird can definitely be read as a standalone (although I did have a few questions about previous happenings in the series, the most urgent one being: how and why exactly did the descendants of King Arthur end up in Africa? I shall have to go back and read the first two books in the series The Winter Prince and A Coalition of Lions both already purchased and added to my TBR pile)
The Plague is spreading in Europe and even though quarantine has been set in the Aksumite Empire, the plague breaks through and begins to spread. This story follows young prince Telemakos, the son of Medraut (son of King Artos) and Turunesh (daughter of Kidane, member of the imperial parliament of Aksum), as he is tasked by his aunt Goewin, the British ambassador to Aksum, with the dangerous mission of investigating who is responsible for it. Telemakos is a clever, resourceful boy who is constantly overlooked and underestimated because of his youth and his mixed-race status. Using these to his advantage, he is able to learn key information to help the Kingdom and is eventually sent on a journey across the Empire to learn more – a journey which will have terrible consequences.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Sunbird – it is a short yet extremely well developed story. It has moments of great gravitas – especially those that deal with courage and loyalty and the moments where the story dealt with the relationship between Telemakos and his father Medraut. There is a great comparison between their relationship and that of the mythology Telemakos and his father Ulysses. The latter deals with an absent father and the hope for his return whereas our Telemakos has to deal with a father who is present but who won’t use words to communicate with Telemakos: his muteness is a self-imposed punishment for past deeds and frustratingly difficult for Teleamakos to understand. I also really appreciated the strong female characters with agency and the high stakes of the story – Telemakos’ is a really dangerous mission and the author doesn’t shy away from it and there are horrendous scenes of torture that were really hard to read.
I loved its protagonist above all. Telemakos is a great, intrepid hero whose reluctant acceptance of his mission is coupled with his own cheeky certainty that he is the only one who can pull it off. He is at times old beyond his years and at others, a youngster who wants nothing to be cuddled by his family. I loved the Ethiopian setting as well, although I can’t really attest to any historical accuracy when it comes to the Kingdom of Aksum ( I am not really sure historical accuracy comes into play here considering this is a Fantasy novel about King Arthur).
Beyond that, I had extremely high expectations for The Sunbird considering that 1) the author wrote Code Name Verity which is so far my favourite 2012 read and 2) the main character of this book has been compared to Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides, one of my favourite characters of all time. In hindsight, this was probably not a good thing and I will admit that those expectations were impossible to be met. Although Telemakos did remind me of a young Eugenides (from The Thief) for his cleverness and cocky demeanour, I think the fact that narrative here doesn’t have the unreliability factor akin to Megan Whalen Turner’s books, makes this comparison a bit too extreme. This is perhaps, an unfair assessment but expectations are expectations and I believe I have to be clear in this regard. Funnily enough, I think The Sunbird has more things in common with Code Name Verity and its themes of courage and patriotism despite their wildly different setting.
One thing is certain though: Code Name Verity was not a fluke and Elizabeth Wein has just become a new favourite author.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: I loved this bit:
“I think it is something I should do,” Telemakos said slowly. “But I don’t want to.”
“Why not, then?” Turunesh took the fluttering dove from his hands.
Telemakos waited until she had finished with the bird, then pressed himself close against her to make his mother hold him. He stood clasped in her arms, looking down at the imprisoned doves, and whispered, “I am afraid to do it.”
Turunesh spoke calmly, her voice normal and matter-of-fact as she stroked his hair. “Can’t someone else do it, then?”
“I don’t think so, “ Telemakos answered, and tried to speak as calmly as Turunesh. “Nos so well as I could, anyway.”
She laughed at him, and held him close. “What if you weren’t afraid?”
“I’d do it.”
She let go of him, and set the lid on the basket. “Thank you for helping me, Telemakos. I know it makes you sad to lose these friends.”
“It’s all right. I’d rather do it myself than hide and sulk and make someone else do a nasty job in my place.”
Telemakos suddenly felt the strength in his knees turn to water. He had to kneel and lay his head on the lid of the basket, stricken.
Rating: 7 – Very Good.
Reading Next: Fair Coin by E.C Myers
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