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