EWein Special Ops: Pushing the boundaries of Young Adult

Rachel Neumeier is the author of fantasy novels House of Shadows, the Griffin Mage trilogy, The Floating Islands and The City in the Lake. I love chatting with Rachel about the books that we love because I feel like our tastes in books overlap. I knew I had to ask her for a guest post for EWein Special Ops since I know she enjoyed reading Elizabeth Wein’s novels.

Give it up for Rachel!


Elizabeth Wein: Pushing the boundaries of Young Adult

Rachel NeumeierI should start with a confession: I haven’t read CODE NAME VERITY. Nor have I read ROSE UNDER FIRE.

But I have an excuse! See, if I am working on a new book of my own, I really can’t read anything that is too emotionally compelling. Because if I start a book like that, I am going to be forced to drop everything and finish it, and that kind of compulsion is not your friend when you have work to do. Plus, a truly brilliant story lingers for days or weeks in my mind, its characters and story and setting suggesting different characters and stories and settings I would love to write. This makes it much, much harder to get back to my current work-in-progress.

No, the right choice when I’m busy is a book I’ve read several times before, or else nonfiction.

Books like CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE are the ones I set aside as a reward for finishing a major project. With any reasonable luck, I expect to read both of them, plus a couple of other special titles, somewhere in the second half of February, once I’ve finished the first draft of my current WIP.

And how do I know that these two titles are worth holding out as a special treat? Particularly as I have been avoiding reviews of them, since I don’t want to be deluged with spoilers? Well, because they’re by Elizabeth Wein, that’s how.

The first book I ever read by Wein, just a year or two ago, was THE SUNBIRD. I think I must have picked it up at a library sale or something, which goes to show why library sales are worth checking out, because THE SUNBIRD immediately wound up on my (very short) list of Truly Perfect Books.

Telemakos is simply one of the great YA protagonists of all time. He is clever and kind, but you will never confuse him with all those other clever, kind YA protagonists. We first meet him like this:

Telemakos was hiding in the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt.

And if that doesn’t immediately make you curious, I don’t know what will.

Telemakos has a very good relationships with his aunt, by the way. His whole family is fascinating and beautifully drawn, all the family members sympathetic but far from perfect, all the relationships strong but complex.

I will just mention here that this story is actually part of a five-book set which begins with an Arthurian story before heading off in its own direction, so that various members of Telemakos’ family have actually stepped directly out of Arthurian legand. THE SUNBIRD is a fine place to start and stands alone just fine, but the series as a whole consists of THE WINTER PRINCE, A COALITION OF LIONS, THE SUNBIRD, THE LION HUNTER, and THE EMPTY KINGDOM. Each leads to the next but stands alone, except for the last two, which together comprise a single story.

So, Telemakos. Telemakos reminds me of Megan Whelan Turner’s Eugenides, but he’s not the same – his strengths are different, and so are his weaknesses, and so is his family and the world through which he moves. Most of all the world, which informs all the rest. Because though THE SUNBIRD draws on Arthurian legend, it is set in the African country of Aksum.

Aksum is simultaneously engaging and fascinating and charming and terrible. Generally an author of historical novels ratchets back the sheer horror of so much of history in order to appeal to modern readers. There may be slavery, for example, but we aren’t generally shown the sheer unutterable dreadfulness that attends some kinds of slavery.

If Elizabeth Wein pulls back from showing us horror, I sure can’t tell. Two of the scenes in THE SUNBIRD are among the most intensely horrific scenes anywhere. Those scenes would be unbearable in the hands of another writer. Yet Wein pulls them off – even for me, and I have a fairly low tolerance for grim – through her sheer skill with language and by creating a story whose overall structure and themes are thoroughly positive.

But still, intense is definitely the word.

And that is why I am waiting for a break before I read CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE.


Thank you for the lovely words, Rachel! I’m pretty sure you’ll love both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire when you get the chance to read them.

EWein Special Ops

14 thoughts on “EWein Special Ops: Pushing the boundaries of Young Adult

  1. I already wanted to read THE WINTER PRINCE after everything Chachic has said, but you have totally bumped it up my to-read list.

    I have read CNV and RuF, and yes, intense is probably a good word to describe them.


    • Li, I’m glad Rachel has persuaded you to bump up EWein’s Lion Hunter novels. Let me know what you think when you get to read them!

      I agree, “intense” is a good word to describe EWein’s books – both her Lion Hunter and WWII novels.

    • Do not be scared, Shae! You know you’ll have a support group when you get the chance to read them. Just send us a tweet or message. 😛 You need to meet Gen-in-Africa.

    • I love the three books about Telemakos – The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom. Although I feel like The Sunbird is more difficult to read than the other two.

      • Chachic, that’s really interesting. I thought The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom were much harder to read. The things Telemakos had to deal with in those two were not as directly horrible, but everything went on and on and kind of piled up — the separation from his family, then from his sister, for example.

        But the last line of The Empty Kingdom was perfect. Just a perfect resolution.

      • Hmm I don’t know why I found it harder to read The Sunbird. Telemakos did have a hard time in both The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom but I saw him growing into such a brave and intelligent young man that I guess I didn’t mind the difficulties as much as when he was a child?

        Yes, that last line is perfect. 🙂 (But I still want MORE Telemakos)

  2. Rachel, I am so delighted and grateful to hear this praise for The Sunbird, which vies with Code Name Verity for being my favorite of the books I have written – and I think that it has much in common with Code Name Verity. Both are, at heart, mysteries, or constructed in some sense as mystery novels (Sunbird perhaps more so than CNV); and both were written in a blaze of white heat that threatened to consume me and everyone around me. In moments of abject writerly despair I have been known to console myself by saying, “Well, if I never write anything worth reading again, at least I have written The Sunbird.”

    Thanks so much for reading and loving these books, and for celebrating them. Enjoy CNV when you dare! 😀

    • My favorites among my own books change all the time! Interesting that yours are more stable.

      I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to CNV — though I think I had better lay in a supply of kleenix and turn the ringers off on my phones.

      • *hands Rachel tissue* You know you have an online support group when you get the chance to read Code Name Verity. Just send us a tweet or something. 😛

  3. I love how reading Rachel’s thoughts on The Sunbird make me want to pick up that book immediately. I’ve had these books on my list of to-reads for a while, but I am growing ever more convinced about reading them ASAP. If only I didn’t have books to review, lol. But I’m definitely going to try and make time for these books this year!

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