7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein

Title: The Sunbird

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Genre: Fantasy, Historical, PoC, Young Adult

Publisher: Firebird
Publication date: April 12th 2004
Paperback: 184 pages

Telemakos is the grandson of two noble men: Kidane, member of the parliament in the African kingdom of Aksum, and Artos, the fallen High King of Britain. Telemakos is also an exceptional listener and tracker, resolute and inventive in his ability to discover and retain information. Now his aunt Goewin, the British ambassador to Aksum, needs his skill. Plague has come to Britain, and threatens Aksum. Disguised, Telemakos must travel to the city of Afar where salt—the currency of sixth century Africa—is mined, and discover the traitor who has ignored the emperor’s command, spreading plague with the salt from port to port. This challenge will take all of Telemakos’s skill, strength, and courage—because otherwise it will cost him his life.

Stand alone or series: Third in the Lion Hunters series

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: I LOVED this author’s newest book Code Name Verity. Plus some of our blogging friends have been raving about The Lion Hunters series for a while now.


The Sunbird is the third book in Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian/Aksumite cycle of stories which follows the descendants of King Artos of Britain and their lives in sixth century Aksum, Africa (present-day Ethiopia). Although part of an ongoing series, The Sunbird can definitely be read as a standalone (although I did have a few questions about previous happenings in the series, the most urgent one being: how and why exactly did the descendants of King Arthur end up in Africa? I shall have to go back and read the first two books in the series The Winter Prince and A Coalition of Lions both already purchased and added to my TBR pile)

The Plague is spreading in Europe and even though quarantine has been set in the Aksumite Empire, the plague breaks through and begins to spread. This story follows young prince Telemakos, the son of Medraut (son of King Artos) and Turunesh (daughter of Kidane, member of the imperial parliament of Aksum), as he is tasked by his aunt Goewin, the British ambassador to Aksum, with the dangerous mission of investigating who is responsible for it. Telemakos is a clever, resourceful boy who is constantly overlooked and underestimated because of his youth and his mixed-race status. Using these to his advantage, he is able to learn key information to help the Kingdom and is eventually sent on a journey across the Empire to learn more – a journey which will have terrible consequences.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Sunbird – it is a short yet extremely well developed story. It has moments of great gravitas – especially those that deal with courage and loyalty and the moments where the story dealt with the relationship between Telemakos and his father Medraut. There is a great comparison between their relationship and that of the mythology Telemakos and his father Ulysses. The latter deals with an absent father and the hope for his return whereas our Telemakos has to deal with a father who is present but who won’t use words to communicate with Telemakos: his muteness is a self-imposed punishment for past deeds and frustratingly difficult for Teleamakos to understand. I also really appreciated the strong female characters with agency and the high stakes of the story – Telemakos’ is a really dangerous mission and the author doesn’t shy away from it and there are horrendous scenes of torture that were really hard to read.

I loved its protagonist above all. Telemakos is a great, intrepid hero whose reluctant acceptance of his mission is coupled with his own cheeky certainty that he is the only one who can pull it off. He is at times old beyond his years and at others, a youngster who wants nothing to be cuddled by his family. I loved the Ethiopian setting as well, although I can’t really attest to any historical accuracy when it comes to the Kingdom of Aksum ( I am not really sure historical accuracy comes into play here considering this is a Fantasy novel about King Arthur).

Beyond that, I had extremely high expectations for The Sunbird considering that 1) the author wrote Code Name Verity which is so far my favourite 2012 read and 2) the main character of this book has been compared to Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides, one of my favourite characters of all time. In hindsight, this was probably not a good thing and I will admit that those expectations were impossible to be met. Although Telemakos did remind me of a young Eugenides (from The Thief) for his cleverness and cocky demeanour, I think the fact that narrative here doesn’t have the unreliability factor akin to Megan Whalen Turner’s books, makes this comparison a bit too extreme. This is perhaps, an unfair assessment but expectations are expectations and I believe I have to be clear in this regard. Funnily enough, I think The Sunbird has more things in common with Code Name Verity and its themes of courage and patriotism despite their wildly different setting.

One thing is certain though: Code Name Verity was not a fluke and Elizabeth Wein has just become a new favourite author.

Notable Quotes/ Parts: I loved this bit:

“I think it is something I should do,” Telemakos said slowly. “But I don’t want to.”

“Why not, then?” Turunesh took the fluttering dove from his hands.
Telemakos waited until she had finished with the bird, then pressed himself close against her to make his mother hold him. He stood clasped in her arms, looking down at the imprisoned doves, and whispered, “I am afraid to do it.”

Turunesh spoke calmly, her voice normal and matter-of-fact as she stroked his hair. “Can’t someone else do it, then?”

“I don’t think so, “ Telemakos answered, and tried to speak as calmly as Turunesh. “Nos so well as I could, anyway.”

She laughed at him, and held him close. “What if you weren’t afraid?”

“I’d do it.”

She let go of him, and set the lid on the basket. “Thank you for helping me, Telemakos. I know it makes you sad to lose these friends.”

“It’s all right. I’d rather do it myself than hide and sulk and make someone else do a nasty job in my place.”

Telemakos suddenly felt the strength in his knees turn to water. He had to kneel and lay his head on the lid of the basket, stricken.


Rating: 7 – Very Good.

Reading Next: Fair Coin by E.C Myers

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  • Chachic
    March 2, 2012 at 8:24 am

    “One thing is certain though: Code Name Verity was not a fluke and Elizabeth Wein has just become a new favourite author.” -> This makes me happy even though you didn’t love The Sunbird as much as you were expecting. I hope you enjoy reading the rest of the Aksumite books. :mrgreen:

  • Ana
    March 2, 2012 at 8:31 am

    :mrgreen: I do think I was expecting far too much from the book, you know? it was bound to be disappointing in some measure. Thanks for recommending it to me, though. I can’t wait to read the rest!

  • amy
    March 2, 2012 at 10:35 am

    An amazing and harrowing tale of a young man who takes it upon himself to save the kingdom from certain death. I found the story fast-paced and never lacking in detail. Even though it is the third in a series (and I certainly want to read the first two!), it can be read alone. A richly woven story full of sights, smells and characters that won’t soon be forgotten, this is one historical novel that should delight both girls and boys alike. Telemakos is a hero that we can all feel for.

  • Estara
    March 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

    That’s a fair reaction considering how bowled over you were by CNV ^^ – And the next two Telemakos books (The Mark of Salomon was supposed to be one book, but they made the author split them) are even stronger.
    However, there is only ever one Eugenides, which is as it should be.

  • e wein
    March 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    If you’re up for more E Wein at some point, go for The Winter Prince rather than the other Telemakos books. It’s no CNV (none of them are!), and it’s quite dark in its own way, so I make no guarantees about whether or not it’ll appeal to you. But it should free you from the “looking for another Eugenides” stumbling block.

  • e wein
    March 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    (I hope you don’t mind me chiming in. It seems so ridiculous not to respond when all my mates are here and I’m reading the blog anyway!)

  • Ana
    March 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    @ Elizabeth – I don’t mind at all, of course. And I have the first two books already and I was TREMENDOUSLY interested in Medraut’s story. I shall read them soon!

    @ Estara – I need to thank you as well! 😀

  • Estara
    March 3, 2012 at 4:04 am

    @Ana: I consider myself a book blogging friend these days – I’ve managed to write a review for almost every book I read in 2011 and this year I so far HAVE managed to do so for all the ones I’ve read – only on GoodReads, though 😀 .

    In short, I was counting myself among the number anyway :mrgreen: .

  • Estara
    March 3, 2012 at 4:27 am

    Come, to think of it I shouldn’t call them reviews, but squees full of spoilers, I guess. Hmm 🙄

  • Joshua Ritter
    March 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I think this is a very unusual concept for a book Usually historical fictions are about western history. I think that it is very cool that this book is set in Africa. I have not read the book but I am very interested in any insights into African culutre it can offer me. Anyways, thank you for the review. I am very excited to read this book.

  • Anonymous
    April 27, 2012 at 9:32 am

    🙄 ❓ 😈 👿 😥 😡 😡 😡 😡 😡 😡

  • Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author: Elizabeth E. Wein | The Book Smugglers
    December 8, 2012 at 12:01 am

    […] Who: Elizabeth Wein, author of Historical YA novels including a series of Arthurian stories set in Ethiopia […]

  • Lory
    January 23, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    FYI all of these have just been re-released as ebooks from Open Road Media and I re-read this along with The Winter Prince. I still find them impressive. Does anyone know who did the illustrations in The Winter Prince? They are uncredited, oddly.
    Emerald City Book Review

  • ewein2412
    January 24, 2014 at 4:31 am

    ME! I did the illustrations myself! I don’t know how we failed to credit them. They are all signed “E Wein ’91” in teeny tiny writing.

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