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.

No Human Hands to Touch (short story in Sirens and Other Demon Lovers) – Elizabeth Wein

‘Medraut,’ I murmured, ‘Do not call me Jocasta, or I will let you borrow my brooches…’

Have this story (published in “Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers,” available as an ebook) on hand immediately after reading The Winter Prince (which I highly recommend you do!). Told from the point of view of the antagonist Morgause, it fills in some of the protagonist Medraut’s backstory, which is darkly hinted at in the book. It shares an amazing atmosphere with the book which isn’t apparent in the sequels: It’s full of tension, self-destructive pride, defiance, messed-up family relationships, cruelty, and loneliness.

His lips curled back, barely, and he croaked at me, ‘I do not need your brooches.’

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,


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.”

The Winter Prince – Elizabeth Wein

“‘Have you ever loved anything?’

‘Yes. Yes. All the wrong things. The hunt, and darkness, and winter, and you, Godmother.'”
This is a book I wish I had written.

It is a first novel, and cool and sharp and glittering, like a heavy, hanging icicle. It is very dark, with just enough hints of the backstory to let you fill the rest in for yourself.

It is an Arthurian retelling, focused on Mordred, in a version in which Arthur has legitimate heirs.

The narrator, Medraut, is complicated and brave and oh-so-fallible, like his siblings and father, the other central characters. He addresses his narration to his mother-and-aunt Morgause, who is terrifying- sadistic and false and capable of cutting to the bone.

The ending departed slightly from the subtlety of the rest of the book, spelling out the epiphany, but that’s a minor complaint. The voice is intense, deliberate, engrossing.

The Winter PrinceĀ is a short read, just over 200 pages, and a brilliant one. There are sequels, but they branch out further from the Arthurian setting and don’t seem as good. This one stands alone, and is a masterpiece.