When Elizabeth Wein mentioned her 2004 novel The Sunbird recently, saying she had just re-read it, I decided I needed to get my copy out. It’s so unusual to hear an author say they’ve read their own book again, long after publication. Elizabeth has signed my copy, claiming ‘it is the darling of my heart’.
But, being the third in a trilogy, I’d not got to it. Now, though, reading the inside cover blurb, I [re]discovered that it is about a deadly plague, and quarantine, in the African kingdom of Aksum during the sixth century. I didn’t ask, but maybe that explains the re-reading? It’s such a coincidence. For me, anyway.
We’re back in the Eritrea/Ethiopia corner of Africa, which Elizabeth knows well. Telemakos is related to kings, and when he accidentally discovers how some men intend to use the quarantine to make money, he tells his aunt who is Britain’s ambassador to Aksum. She asks Telemakos to undertake several dangerous tasks to save their country.
I don’t know how old Telemakos is; but I am guessing 10-12. From here on it’s mostly a thrilling spy mission for a young boy, and it gets very exciting. Elizabeth is not gentle with her characters, and Telemakos suffers a great deal. I imagine it’s realistic.
There is less mention of the plague and I assume it’s there as the reason for what Telemakos has to do. If it was written today, there would most likely be more of the fear of contagion. But still, it’s very current. Bad men will be bad men, whatever century they live in. And money rules.
We have a likeable hero in Telemakos, and his family feels so real.
And yes, you can read a third book first.