I can’t remember, out of the five million kidlit blogs I read, which one gushed about Elizabeth E. Wein’s books and got me to pick up The Winter Prince a few months ago. But, someone gushed. And once I sorted out the order of the books and got started, I was hooked. So I’m hear to pass along the recommendation. I haven’t read the most recent installment yet, but I have no doubt that it will be at least as good as all the rest. I should probably wait until I read it to do a thorough round-up of the series, but hey, why not today?
Start with The Winter Prince. This is the only one set in Britain, and many of the characters never appear again in other books, but it’s fascinating and tense and atmospheric, and if you read this one, you’ll have a great sense of some of the adult characters in the rest of the series. This one focuses on Medraut (Mordred), Arthur’s illegitimate son, and his relationship with Arthur’s (Artos’) two legitimate children.
Here’s what I said on Goodreads: This was a small book, but pleasantly dense, with characters who straddled that fine line between likable and unlikable in a realistic way. The story uses Arthurian legend, but minus any trappings of chivalry or fantasy or the Romantic period – the world felt more like something out of Rosemary Sutcliff, with the types of political and family tensions that fans of Megan Whalen Turner would relish. Not for reluctant readers, but the characters and story definitely reward a patient, thoughtful read.
The second installment, A Coalition of Lions, follows Medraut’s half-sister, Goewin, as she flees Britain to find her father’s ambassador in Aksum, or ancient Ethiopia. Again, there’s a sense of gritty reality but not a slavish attention to historical accuracy. Goewin is dealing with the death of most of her family, trying to negotiate with the man she was meant to marry, finding her place at court, and meeting family she didn’t know she had.
From Goodreads: Although the setting and some characters have changed since the first in the series, the tensions of that book definitely inform this one. It could stand alone but wouldn’t feel as rich. Like in The Winter Prince, the feel of the relationships and political scheming reminds me of Megan Whalen Turner’s books in the best way possible, and I gulped this one down.
In The Sunbird the focus shifts again to Telemakos, Medraut’s young son. Although our protagonist is a bit younger than in the first two, the book still straddles that fine line between children’s a YA – some of the content is violent, but never gratuitous, and the characters endure plenty of physical and mental hardship. For the size of the books, the stories are surprisingly complex. Goewin and Telemakos are acting as spies for the king, as plague threatens the region, and Goewin takes a great risk in sending Telemakos off on his own.
From Goodreads: This is the third in a loose series, and each one resolves but leaves you hanging a bit, and each one is unique in plot and mood. These are no cookie-cutter series titles, but filled with well-developed characters, intrigue, and fascinating settings. By this book, the story has moved fairly far from the Arthurian legend roots of The Winter Prince, but a few of those elements are still there even in the African setting. As with the previous two, I felt a similar love and addiction as I feel when reading Megan Whalen Turner. Telemakos is Eugenides’ long-lost brother, particularly when he hides around the palace or goes on insane spy missions, but also deeper in his personality, where his pain and delight in things live side by side.
Telemakos is just beginning to recover from his adventures in the salt mines when The Lion Hunter begins. The kingdom is still under quarantine from the plague, but Telemakos’ family is focused on other things – the birth of a new baby and an accident that befalls our protagonist, which are horribly linked. The household has also starting receiving threatening messages, which puts in jeopardy Telemakos’ role as a spy, and he is sent off to apprentice in a neighboring kingdom – a kingdom that may or may not prove friendly to Aksum.
Telemakos is one tough kid – and The Lion Hunter leaves him in a cliff-hanger ending. All along I’ve thought that this series would appeal to fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s books (one of my favorite series), and with the introduction of Telemakos, the resemblance is heightened. Telemakos is Eugenides’ long-lost cousin or his child self. Not only are they alike in personality – their tenacity, the scrapes they get into, their complex relationships with others (I’m just waiting for Telemakos to fall in love, but he’s only 12 so I may have to wait a while) – and their skills with spying and political maneuvering – but they also share another fate, which I won’t spoil. It took me a minute to make the connection – I was caught up in the story and didn’t stop to think – and then I had to laugh and something that nobody should ever laugh at. It was just too much of a coincidence for me; they ARE the same person, just in different ancient worlds.
I think these books could be appreciated by a really sharp middle-schooler – they’re not for the struggling or reluctant reader – or by anyone older who doesn’t think it’s babyish to read an excellent book with an 11-year old protagonist (the earlier books have young adult protagonists, so you could hook a high schooler and then they wouldn’t care). Strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys non-fluffy historical fiction (with plenty of creative license), fascinating characters, and complex plots and motivations that might require a careful read. They’re not necessarily page turners (although I couldn’t put any of them down once I started) but each one is a satisfying read. Taken as a whole, it’s a marvelous series.
Now, I’ve got to track down a copy of the latest installment, The Empty Kingdom.