I'm not a big fan of Arthurian myth -- Knights of the Round Table, Holy Grails, faithless Lancelot, mysterious Merlin, evil Morgaine, the magical time of chastity and chivalry in the flowering of Britian has been done and done, and done to death. Thus it was not with any enthusiasm that I picked up Elizabeth E. Wein's The Lion Hunter. Why on earth would adding sixth century Ethiopia to the legend of the Britons make it any better? Whose idea was this? I remained unconvinced that this would be a worthwhile book -- until about the fourth page.
Telemakos is twelve, smart, and good with lions. He's a minor noble, because he is also Artos, King of Britain's half Ethiopian grandson. He doesn't live in Britain, but in Africa, where he's been serving the Emperor with his life and health. The Emperor owes him a debt of gratitude for stopping some black-market salt smugglers who broke quarantine laws and endangered the whole country. He was captured there, and tortured, and he's just happy to be home and safe, playing with the Emperor's lions and waiting for his new sibling to be born. But safety is a fleeting shadow over the desert, and soon, Telemakos, for his own safety, and the safety of his family, must leave his beloved Aksum again.
His father and mother send Telemakos and his infant sister, Athena, to Abreha, the Emperor's brother and ruler of Himyar, with a lion cub in tow. The cub is a gift from the Emperor to Abreha. Himyar is a land on the edge of the Red Sea which was once at war with them, but with whom they have now brokered a fragile peace, and the cub should be a gift of great honor, if Telemakos can get him there in one piece. It should be safe in Himyar -- there are treaties and friendships in place, but Telemakos' aunt Goewin warns him that peace is sometimes only seen in words and on paper. Goewin is the Emperor's British mentor and queen of spies, and she should know. Abreha is tricky, Goewin says and bears watching, and in those words, Telemakos knows what he must do. He's been the Emperor's sunbird before, and knows the duties of a spy for the kingdom. But he doesn't realize how easily a sunbird can be snared.
Details of the dusty and ancient are suffused with life as The Lion Hunter unfolds. Elizabeth Wein has combined research and vivid imagination to create an Africa which vies with ancient Britain in majesty and glittering intrigues. The reader is reeled into a tale of tautly strung danger and deep suspicion that encircles Telemakos and share in his painful struggles to mend and master his mind, to overcome terror, and be the Bright One najashi Abreha names him to be. As he cares for his difficult but beloved little sister and begins to feel a tentative kinship with the stern and brooding Abreha and the salt-rich kingdom where he is, the trap that has been set for Telemakos draws in closer and closer...