EWein Special Ops: Why I Love Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum Books (and why you should too)

R.J. Anderson the author of middle grade faery novels (Knife, Rebel and Arrow, Swift and Nomad in the UK; Spellhunter and Wayfarer in the US) and the YA paranormal thriller Ultraviolet and its sequel Quicksilver. I know that she’s a fan of Elizabeth Wein’s writing because I’ve seen her recommend it several times.

Please give a warm welcome to R.J.!

Why I Love Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum Books (and why you should too)
by R.J. Anderson

RJ AndersonIt’s all Megan Whalen Turner’s fault.

Not that I’m complaining, I hasten to add; Megan is to blame for a number of quite excellent things, including her own very fine series of Thief books. But if it hadn’t been for Ms. Turner recommending a semi-obscure author named Elizabeth Wein way back in 2010, I would likely never have read The Winter Prince and A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird and The Lion Hunters and The Empty Kingdom, and my heart might still be in one piece instead of a million little ones all crying “Medraut!” and “Goewin!” and “Priamos*!” and “Telemakos!”.

(Oh, who am I kidding. I would still probably have come across Code Name Verity eventually, and there was no way my heart was going to survive THAT.)

On the plus side, however, I can now look on all the accolades for Verity and Rose Under Fire with some smugness, because thanks to Megan, I was a fan of Ms. Wein’s writing long before most of her current readers had even heard of her. Yes, that’s right, I am a hipster Elizabeth Wein fan, and proud of it.

But seriously, if you’ve read and loved Verity and Rose’s stories, with all their vibrant humanity and sparks of wry humour, their flawlessly realized historical settings, their soaring triumphs and moments of shattering devastation — the latter often revealed so subtly that they slip right under the reader’s emotional guard — then you owe it to yourself to read Ms. Wein’s earlier books as well. It’s one of the great tragedies of publishing that the Aksum series went in and out of print with so little notice, but fortunately all five are still available as e-books, or you can find them through used book dealers if you look hard enough.

Like Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, the Aksum series is historical. But in this case Wein goes back all the way to Arthurian legend — specifically the story of Mordred, here called Medraut, and his twin half-siblings Lleu and Goewin. The first book, The Winter Prince, deals with Medraut’s bitterness toward his privileged half-brother and his temptation to betray him for the crown; the second, A Coalition of Lions, shifts to Goewin as she sets out on a desperate voyage to Aksum (ancient Ethiopia) to escape her vengeful aunt Morgause; and the third, The Sunbird, introduces us to Telemakos, the mixed-race son of an Aksumite princess and one of the most earnest, clever, fiercely courageous and altogether loveable young heroes in YA literature. The Lion Hunters and The Empty Kingdom continue Telemakos’s adventures as he grows toward manhood and finds his place in the world.

As in Megan Whalen Turner’s books, the Aksum series focuses on harsh political realities in a world where spies, assassins, and ambitious nobles abound; like Turner’s hero Gen, Telemakos becomes a key player in the great game. And as with Turner, it’s hard to say exactly what age range these books would be best for. They’re short enough (and Telemakos at least starts out young enough) for Middle Grade, but there are all kinds of nuances to the story and the relationships between characters that only a perceptive YA or adult reader is likely to pick up on. And for all the clarity of their prose, they’re simply too rich to digest in one narrative gulp: they’re the kind of books that not only reward, but practically demand, re-reading.

Be forewarned: if Code Name Verity made you gasp and cry, these books will devastate you in a whole new range of ways. But as all true fans of Elizabeth Wein know, the privilege of meeting her characters is worth all the pain their hardships make us feel. And no matter how long and rough the road they (and we) must travel, Wein never forgets to remind us of the things that make suffering bearable: the love of family and friends, the light of newfound wisdom, and somewhere in the near or far distance, a glimmer of hope.

Trust me. Read the Aksum books.

* (Seriously, do not even get me started on how much I love Priamos or how hard I ship him with Goewin. I could go on all day.)


Thank you, R.J.! I love that you mentioned both Megan Whalen Turner and Gen in this post. I do hope your post manages to convince more readers to pick up EWein’s Lion Hunters books. 🙂

EWein Special Ops

10 thoughts on “EWein Special Ops: Why I Love Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum Books (and why you should too)

    • Alexa, I’m glad RJ has convinced you to read the Lion Hunter books as soon as you can. 🙂 Like I mentioned in the introductory post for EWein Special Ops, I really want to encourage more readers to give EWein’s books a try.

  1. Priamos and Goewin!!!!! My. Heart. They are so amazing, both of them individually, and, yes, I want that ship to sail for all eternity.

    The age category for these is an interesting one to define (another way they are like Megan Whalen Turner’s books). I’m going to try reading COALITION aloud to my daughter this year. I think it will work better as a read aloud than having her try it on her own at this point. It’s what I did when she wanted to read THE THIEF and worked well. (That is now her favorite book.)

    • As much as I like both of Priamos and Goewin, Telemakos is still my favorite! Wouldn’t it be brilliant if he gets a love interest in the next book?

      Yeah, it’s hard to define whether these books are middle grade or young adult because of the themes present in it. Oh yay, you’re reading Coalition with Bit soon. Will you wait until she’s older before letting her read The Sunbird (you’re waiting before letting her read The Queen of Attolia, right?)

      • We shall see. She is BEGGING rather consistently for QoA. I may go ahead and read it to her some time in the next six months. And if she does okay with that, she should be okay with The Sunbird.

  2. RJA continues to supply me with virtual chocolate chip cookies (or some kind of authorly sustenance!). I have often thought that I can’t successfully write a character until I fall in love with him or her. Goewin and I fell for Priamos at exactly the same moment (it was when she found him sleeping with his arm over his eyes to block out the light, and she noticed the tiny scars on his wrists for the first time), and after that A Coalition of Lions pretty much wrote itself for the rest of the book.

    Also, it is very, very lovely to hear people fangirling over Telemakos, who probably still counts as the darling of my heart in terms of my own characters. Though Julia Beaufort-Stuart is tough competition.

    • Awww I remember that moment because I recently reread A Coalition of Lions for EWein Special Ops. I hope there’s a little more of Goewin and Priamos in the next book in the series?

      I ♥ Telemakos! I think you already know this about me. I think that’s so cool that he’s also your favorite character from your own books.

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