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The Lion Hunter: The Mark of Solomon, Book 1
      The Empty Kingdom: The Mark of Solomon, Book 2
Elizabeth E. Wein
      Elizabeth E. Wein
Viking, 208 pages
      Viking, 240 pages

The Lion Hunter
The Empty Kingdom
Elizabeth E. Wein
Elizabeth E. Wein was born in New York City in 1964, and moved to England 3 years later. Her father, who worked for the New York City Board of Education, was sent to England to do teacher training at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University. Three years later he went to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica for three years. She attended Yale University, spent a work-study year in England, and then spent seven years getting a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She and her family live in Scotland.

Elizabeth E. Wein Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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This duology combines the Arthurian legend with ancient Aksum (Ethiopia) and Himyar (Yemen), the sixth century setting for the previous three of Wein's novels, The Winter Prince, A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird.

The Lion Hunter picks up just after the events in The Sunbird, in which Telemakos, grandson of Arthur, is introduced, and becomes a victim of international intrigue. Readers unfamiliar with this novel will find expert back story painted in at the start of The Lion Hunter as Telemakos challenges himself to overcome the fears he suffered after being held prisoner, blindfolded and bound, as a result of deadly international politics.

Wein skillfully catches the reader up to the present as Telemakos struggles against reactions and bad dreams caused by his experiences, and worries about the present. His mother is about to have a baby, and his father, Medraut, seems uninterested. Telemakos veers between boyish daring and intelligent (and anxious) observation of the adults around him. Unfortunately, his boyish nature gets him into severe trouble. He often goes into the lions' den, and even though he knows that lions are never actually tamed, one day he forgets. That once is all it takes: his old lion "friend" goes after him.

While Telemakos is struggling to survive having his arm amputated, his baby sister struggles just to survive. Telemakos's unhappy mother is taking the opium meant for Telemakos, and his father is prowling around restlessly, worried about the plague quarantine that is meant to preserve the empire. Telemakos and his baby sister (whom he names Athena) are starved for affection, and bond together. Meanwhile Telemakos is always listening, always trying to figure out the motivations and goals of the adults around him, many of whom have powers of life and death over nations. He's already been used as a government agent, young as he is, and ended up captured and abused.

Wariness does not prepare him for the surprise of being sent to the one-time enemy of Aksum, the subtle, dangerous Abreha Anbessa, king of Himyar (Yemen) -- once the enemy of the Aksumites, now possibly an ally, but definitely not to be completely trusted, as Telemakos soon sees. The first day of his arrival, he discovers the king's own hired man being executed in a horrible way, which Telemakos takes as a warning.

The rest of The Lion Hunter deepens the relationships and tightens the tension, ending with a scene that barely escapes being a cliff-hanger, though is not a resolution. Though the first three books in this world were all stand-alones, The Lion Hunter is really the first half of this dual story.

The Empty Kingdom opens shortly after the close of the previous book. Telemakos is forced to wear bells to let anyone know where he is, a mark of suspicion imposed by Abreha, who can order his execution -- and might still. Telemakos is severely tested: he is forbidden to see two-year-old Athena, and he is commanded to reproduce the maps that Abreha plans to use in order to invade Aksumite territory. For Telemakos really is a spy, he is doing his best to hide messages within the seemingly harmless texts of his letters home. Letters Abreha reads in front of Telemakos before they are signed and sealed.

Telemakos worries about Abreha's plans, he worries about the plague quarantine, he worries about his stubborn little sister, he worries about his aunt Goewin, who does dangerous diplomatic work. He worries about his fears, his actions all the more courageous for his determination to overcome them. He finally makes what he considers a great sacrifice, offering his service to Abreha in order to buy his sister's freedom. It requires a hot seal pressed to the back of his neck, marking him forever...

Telemakos is a child struggling to find his way in an adult world. Though the world is that of the sixth century, with exquisite skill, Wein maintains verisimilitude while giving clues that make Telemakos's dilemmas comprehensible. For example, the opium. During the sixth century, no one knew anything about addiction. A kid reader today has heard all about the dangers of drugs, so when Telemakos tries to avoid muddling his brain with opium, the reader knows that he is on the right path -- even if the adults in the story don't.

He is not always able to comprehend the motivations of adults around him, but he must be on the watch, to remember, build clues, and to plan ahead. Wein does a beautiful job with the emotional complexities of a child in this position. Though I was never in a life and death situation as a twelve-year-old child, I recall sudden shocking intrusions of the adult world into my own kid existence, one of which occurred November 22, 1963, when I was the same age as Telemakos. His anxious struggle to comprehend big events, his effort to discover the moral path when there does not seem to be reliable guidance, rings true. Not to say that this is a didactic book. There is action aplenty, gleaming with humor, as Telemakos makes friends with other boys, and learns how to play, and to love, as well as to plan.

This is, right now, an extraordinary time for young adult fiction. The range and breadth far exceeds anything ever published for young readers. The old limitations, from story length to subjects handled, have been lifted -- not always to the betterment of the genre. There are some works published for children that seem aimed at adult readers, for whatever purpose: adults may love them, even shower awards on them, but children won't touch them. Then there are the works that appeal to both adults and young readers. Like Megan Whalen Turner's superb Attolia books, which also involve a clever young male protagonist whose life is constantly in danger as he navigates high politics in a long ago time and far-away place one universe over, Wein's Aksum series is popular among the teenagers I work with as a teacher, as well as with adults. Wein writes with clarity, her prose deepening to lyrical image when exploring the sere and smoldering desert and its life. It's books like these that make this a Golden Age for young adult literature.

Copyright © 2008 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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