Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

Song of the Sparrow is based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, an Arthurian poem about Elaine of Ascolat. I’ve never read a novel in verse before and I thought it would be a good idea to start with this one because I like the premise. I don’t read a lot of Arthurian tales either although I remember reading Le Morte d’Arthur for English back in high school and I love Elizabeth E. Wein’s books. When I saw an inexpensive used copy from Julie’s Sari-Sari Store, I bought it right away. Thanks to Celina for the heads up on where I could find a copy.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Since the days of King Arthur, there have been poems and paintings created in her name. She is Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott, and now there is a book all her own. The year is 490 A.D. and 16-year-old Elaine has a temperament to match her fiery red hair. Living on a military base with her father, brothers, and the rest of Arthur’s army, Elaine pines for the handsome Lancelot, and longs for a female friend. But when the cruel, beautiful Gwynivere arrives, Elaine is confronted with startling emotions of jealousy and rivalry. Can Elaine find the strength to survive the birth of a kingdom?

I was swept away by the beautiful writing in Song of the Sparrow. Maybe it’s because of the verse format but it felt like I was reading a fairy tale instead of a historical fiction book. I was easily immersed in the story and I knew right from the start that Elaine and I would get along just fine. Elaine is a girl stuck in a world full of men and she can be described as “one of the boys”. Her father brought her to Arthur’s camp when her mother died and she’s been there ever since. Her father and her two brothers fight alongside the knights of Arthur and she has great respect for all of them. As the only lady in their camp, Elaine’s sewing and healing skills are in great demand. She doesn’t mind because she’s friends with most of the men in their camp and she enjoys the freedom that her lifestyle allows. What I loved about Elaine’s character in this retelling is that she manages to show her strength without picking up a sword or fighting in a battle like other fantasy heroines (not that I don’t love them). Elaine’s infatuation with Lancelot is an integral part of the story because that’s what she’s famous for but I liked how the author provided a background for it – how Lancelot was always there whenever Elaine was lonely as a child and how he comes to the rescue the few times that Elaine needs help. It isn’t a tragic kind of love, which was how it was portrayed by other writers.

I don’t read much poetry so I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to relate to this one but surprise, surprise, the pages just flew by. To get a feel of the writing, check out the excerpt available in Lisa Ann Sandell’s website. The story provided not just a clear picture of Elaine but of other well-known characters like Gwynivere, Lancelot, Tristan and Arthur. I loved seeing how Elaine interacted with all of them, even Gwynivere who is everything Elaine isn’t – beautiful, ladylike, cold and cruel. I made an excellent decision when I chose Song of the Sparrow as my first novel in verse because now I’m curious about books written in a similar format. I wonder if other novels in verse are as lovely as this one. I highly recommend this to fans of Arthurian tales, retellings or novels in verse. Or maybe I should just say, read this if you want to fall in love with an exquisite retelling about Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott.

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