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
I 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.