Elizabeth Wein, A Coalition of Lions (Viking, 2003)
A Coalition of Lions is a stands-on-its-own sequel to Elizabeth Wein's first novel, The Winter Prince. The latter is so spectacularly good that when I met an editor named Sharyn November and heard that she was going to reprint classic out-of-print fantasy novels suitable for a young adult audience, I grabbed her by the shoulder and demanded, "Elizabeth Wein's The Winter Prince!"
(Before she could respond, I tightened my grip and added, "And Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea." Both books have now been reprinted by Sharyn November's Firebird, with new afterwords and gorgeous covers. But that's not my doing. They were already in the works when I talked to her.)
The Winter Prince is an unusual Arthurian novel narrated by Medraut (Mordred) in the form of a letter to a person whose identity is withheld for much of the book. This version of the story has no Lancelot, but gives the blessedly un-smarmy Ginevra and Artos two legitimate children: Lleu, the crown prince, and Goewin, a daughter. Early Welsh variants of the legend mention Lleu, but Goewin is Wein's invention. A Coalition of Lions is about her.
The Winter Prince exists at an odd angle to the legend of Arthur, but A Coalition of Lions takes place at an even farther remove. Goewin flees England after a catastrophic battle and fetches up in the kingdom of Aksum, which we now call Ethiopia. (The Winter Prince established that Medraut had spent some time in Aksum and that the countries have diplomatic relations.)
Her intention was to meet her fiancé, Constantine, the British ambassador to Aksum, and return to England with him. But Aksum is preoccupied with an extremely complex political situation, which becomes even more complicated with the introduction of a princess of Britain. And Goewin's own plans are thrown into doubt when she meets a boy named Telemakos, the son of a beautiful Aksumite woman... and of Medraut.
Goewin is a practical, intelligent young woman who needs every bit of those gifts to survive Aksum court intrigue. While The Winter Prince was a family novel about conflicting loyalties and the pull which the past exerts on the present, A Coalition of Lions deals with similar issues on a larger and more political scale.
While the exoticism of the African setting lends a great deal of interest to the book, the complex and unfamiliar Aksumite political system makes the plot difficult to follow in the beginning. There is a character list and glossary at the back of the book. I recommend referring to it. Often.
But while the politics are murky, the relationships between the characters are clear and compelling. Wein's large cast of characters are distinct, memorable, and complicated the way that real people are complicated. There are no Dark Lords here, only men and women struggling to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.
A Coalition of Lions is a compact, thoughtful novel which, though not as emotionally intense as its predecessor, also makes you care about all the characters, not just the ones labeled "protagonist." Wein's prose, as spare and poetic as an old ballad, carries the story through a series of twists to a satisfying and believable resolution.
[Rachel Manija Brown]