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