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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Empty Kingdom

In June, I’ve been looking at Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum series. This is the last published book in the series, which continues from The Lion Hunter and concludes that arc.

The Empty Kingdom opens with Telemakos still in disgrace, and yet–because he’s Telemakos–trying to get a message to his aunt and father about Abreha’s betrayal. It’s an amazing scene, that shows both Abreha and Telemakos in a complicated light. As a reader, I can see Abreha’s desire to both honor Telemakos and make him his own. Telemakos, I think, can sense this without quite seeing it.

I mentioned the Scions in my last post, and in this second book we see the payoff of their companionship with Telemakos. This book is full of quietly heartbreaking scenes, but the two when the Scions, at some personal risk, declare themselves are among the most powerful. There’s an understated bravery here when Inas tells him, “We are with you. We are all with you,” which in turn gives Telemakos hope and courage.

There’s a running theme of Telemakos being compared to his uncle, Lleu, the lost Prince of Britain. And it happens again here, almost immediately. A visiting Roman (Byzantine) legate tells him, “You put me in mind of Lleu…[who] had a backbone of steel beneath his winning charm.” This is one of the clearest and most personal comparisons, and it’s very true, both of Lleu and Telemakos.

One of the other major themes throughout the series is the question of trust. And in this book that really comes to the fore. The conflict between Abreha and Telemakos is really one of trust. Does Abreha trust Telemakos to be loyal to Himyar? Does Telemakos trust Abreha to have his best interests at heart? Unlike the past books, Telemakos faces an antagonist who isn’t truly an antagonist, who wants Telemakos to like and respect him. You could write a mirror image of this book from Abreha’s point of view and it would be almost as true.

Because, of course, they’re both manipulative and conniving, and fairly ruthless. Telemakos is at this point a practiced spy and is so used to being secretive that at one point he thinks, “It was wonderful to be damned. You did not have to guard yourself at all.” If that isn’t a revealing statement, I don’t know what is. And Goewin warned Telemakos of Abreha’s cool ruthlessness like a book and a half ago; we see him again be both kindly and cruel. He takes everything away from Telemakos, and then holds him during a nightmare, ” clasping him firmly hand in hand and stroking his hair.” (HANDS AGAIN.)

But there are two other characters who in their own way are also part of this dance. Medraut, who shows up in a scene that’s heartbreaking but also the moment I like him most in the later books because he is finally present, using his strengths in defense of his children and not lost in regretting the past. And Athena. It’s so easy to see her as only little and to forget whose child she is, to forget that Telemakos himself was sneaking through the palace just a few years older than she is here. The moment when she shows herself is so viscerally heartbreaking. It reminded me not just of her relationship to Telemakos and Medraut, but Goewin too.

Underlying the outward political issues, there’s also the recurrence of Telemakos’s fear and the anger and hatred he feels stemming from it. It’s a weakness that Abreha both uses and tries to train out of him, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Anako at the end of the book that he’s truly freed. There’s an arc from fear and hatred to pity and mercy which is shown almost as miraculous: Telemakos thinks, “In the end all my fear is gone. How can it have happened? but there’s only pity left.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this moment that Telemakos begins to act, rather than react. We see him take authority over himself, rather than being a tool in the hand of powerful adults (he’s always been an uneasy tool, but still). We see him find himself again, when he’s been everything but just Telemakos Meder and has been so far from home. (I love the moment when Priamos greets him: “Peace to you, Telemakos Meder. You’ve been lost.” That greeting has been used to great effect throughout the series, but nowhere is it more emotionally resonant than here.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this that he and Abreha finally coming to a wary understanding with each other, that we discover Abreha’s threats were hollow all along and Telemakos is heir to three kingdoms. Both have misjudged and mistrusted the other; both have been strict where they could have been kind. And yet in the end they manage to reach a kind of stalemate, but also a new appreciation of each other.

All of this finally leads up to the ending, which I love dearly. It leads to Telemakos going home, to Athena calling him by name. It’s all hopes fulfilled, when they were lost. “She did not walk. She ran.”

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2008, Viking; YA