Arthurian Africa? Two novels by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein, The Winter Prince (1993)
Elizabeth Wein, The Sunbird (2006)

Elizabeth Wein has an unusual take on the Arthurian legend in her Lion Hunters series. She starts out in The Winter Prince focusing on Medraut (Mordred in other versions), who is usually portrayed in a fairly one-sided and unsympathetic way as the villain of the tale. Wein’s Medraut, though, is a complicated man with great capacities for love, sacrifice, and healing as well as cruelty and vengeance. He is tormented by his tainted origins, by his horrible mother Morgause, and by his stifled potential for kingship; he must work his way painfully to a realization of where his true loyalties lie.

Further complicating things, Wein has given Artos (Arthur) two legitimate children, daughter Goewin and her twin brother Lleu. (In this version of the tale, there is no Lancelot, and Artos’s wife Ginevra is a mature and sensible woman with a talent for mapmaking.) Lleu, the heir to the throne, is a sickly child, but with Medraut’s help he grows in strength and skill. No one, however, can give him the indefinable quality that has allowed Artos to hold his fragile kingdom together, and Goewin and Medraut both suffer from knowing that either of them would be a better ruler.

Wein creates an absorbing picture of sixth-century Britain and the brave, stubborn people who must have survived in that harsh land: charismatic but very human Artos, bright and frustrated Goewin, and the brilliant, flawed Lleu. As a window into Medraut’s soul, the first-person narration is both compelling and disturbing. Indeed, it must be said that with its scenes (described or implied) of incest, torture, and attempted murder, this book is not for the squeamish, nor for younger readers, however it may be marketed. But it intrigued me enough to want more.

Warning: spoilers for the second book, A Coalition of Lions, follow.

In later books, action moves to the African kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia), a place that was briefly glimpsed in The Winter Prince as Medraut reminisced about his travels, when he formed ties with the noble Kidane and his beautiful daughter Turunesh. Following the collapse of Artos’s kingdom (told about in A Coalition of Lions), Medraut and Goewin both move to Aksum, where Goewin becomes the British Ambassador and Medraut rejoins Turunesh. The Sunbird centers on their son, Telemakos, born after Medraut returned to Britain. An odd, engaging and precocious child, his talents for hiding and listening are called on by his aunt, Goewin, to foil a plot by greedy merchants that would bring plague to Aksum. In so doing, he is tested to the limit (more torture, here very graphically described indeed); but will his suffering allow his father to finally exorcise some of the demons of his own past?

It is in The Sunbird that Wein perfects a laconic style that uses telling details to convincingly place us in a country that never was, but should have been. As the tense and thrilling plot unfolds, we become ever more emotionally invested in her wonderfully diverse characters, and more enchanted with the rich, highly cultured but dangerous land of Aksum. Fortunately, a pair of linked novels about Telemakos follow: The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom.

The new e-book versions from Open Road Media are a joy to read: impeccably transferred to digital format, with attractive new covers, and adding a lengthy biography of the author (with photos). The Winter Prince also includes illustrations but gives no credit for the illustrator; the drawings are somewhat amateurish in appearance, and I wonder if they are actually by the author. I do not remember them from the print version. Anybody have a solution to this mystery?


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