Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell is a difficult book for me to review. A revisionist retelling of Elaine of Ascolat, which aims, much like Marion Zimmer Bradley did with The Mists of Avalon, to put the women of Arthurian legend at feminist centre stage, it is written entirely as a verse novel.
16 year old Elaine is the only woman in Arthur’s camp, aside from the mysterious Goddess worshipping Morgan. Elaine’s place is assured as she stitches her male friend’s clothing back together for each days fighting, and heals their bodies with her herblore. Wildly in love with Lancelot, everything changes when the beautiful Gwynivere is brought back by an infatuated Lancelot to be Arthur’s bride. Suddenly Elaine’s life is turned upside down. Can she put aside her feelings, jealousies, and resentments, in time to help save the people she truly loves?
Before I continue, there are three things you should all know about me;
1. I love Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott
2. I love stories about Arthurian legend
3. I love verse novels
So this review should technically have been an automatic 5 star review.
There are a couple of things that prevented it from being that, unfortunately. It’s a young adult novel and when Scholastic state this, they really mean it. As a result, it’s a quick and easy read, and the story ended too soon for my liking. This meant some characterisation’s were quick and brief, and the pacing was off. It took Gwynivere halfway through the novel to even show up. When the blurb says;
Elaine is thrilled to have a female companion… until Gwynivere proves to be cold, cunning, and determined to win over Lancelot for herself. But when the two girls are thrown into a situation of gravest danger, they must come together in order to survive,
and the promise of the situation of grave danger only happens in the last quarter of the book, you know you have a pacing problem.
The other plot problem for me, was that the story was pretty predictable. For people unfamilar with the historical Arthur, it probably would be a fresh and new take on an old tale. Unfortunately for me, I’ve read Mary Stuart’s Merlin series since the age of 11, and religously read the author’s note at the back every time. Stuart did alot of research, and my interest in the quest for a real Arthur stems from her. The only thing that was unexpected for me was Elaine’s romantic choice, and even that I guessed early on, down to the way Elaine was going to become empowered.
The other major problem I had was with the verse poetry form. I blame this on The Monkey’s Mask and Australian poet, Dorothy Porter. She ruined verse novels for me for life. None can ever match her biting wit, incisive, barbed language, and colloquial, sexy form. No one. Stylistically, Sandell’s poetic form seemed amateurish in comparison. The poems had no shape. This annoyed me, because there were times when the poems would have read better with that in my opinion. Sandell also chose to write conversations in italics, which I found rather confusing at times. Where Porter wrote individualised poems with well chosen titles, Sandell divided her novel into roman numeral chapters, and again, I think this detracted from the poetic quality overall, as ideas seemed to spill into each other, with poems demarceated at random. Finally, and as someone else already pointed out on amazon, some of the poems read like Sandell hit the space bar alot, without actually looking at the sound and rythym and sentence structure of each poem. I found this was especially the case towards the middle of the novel.
With all of this criticism, you might think I hated this novel. You would be wrong. When it was good, it was very good. For example, the start was especially strong with lines like;
I sing these words to you now,
because the point of light grows smaller,
ever smaller now,
ever more distant now.
Or from pg 4.
we move as the fighting moves,
as the wind moves.
so there might be peace.
One of the things I love most about verse novels, is their ability to cut to the quick like that. Words are economical. They aren’t wasted. The bare bones are laid out, emotions hung out to dry, and the assumptions made about character left up to you. For example, when Arthur first makes his appearance on pg. 7, characterisation is strong, with a sense of bitter sadness permeating the poem.
Arthur’s stance is graceful
and straight, his eyes dark as pools
in a deep wood.
There is an air of melancholy
entwined in his celebrated courage
Poetry also allows for strong imagery. I loved the descriptions of the small turtles on Elaine’s former island home of Shalott, the horror of her mothers death at the hands of the Picts, Elaine’s affinity with the birch tree and river, and the metaphor of an awakening sparrow; mirroring both Elaine’s growth as a woman wise in love, and her path to respected member of Arthur’s Round Table, valued for both her brains and healing ability.
Though the novel was inconsistent, there is much to love in this short find. There is something hauntingly beautiful about Elaine’s story told in verse format. After all, is it not suitable that the woman who sung of her doomed love for Lancelot in popular 19th century tradition should be reimagined as a young girl who changed her tune, and sang for the hope of a nation? As Sandell points out, don’t we all wish for just times, peace, fairness and equality? Don’t we all still dream of Camelot? Is this not the true power of Arthurian legend? This is why I still love Hallmark’s Merlin, and Stuart’s Merlin saga, and why I still find it in my heart to love Song of the Sparrow.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes and day dream hard enough, I can still see those flags on the wind, that fae horn in the green, rolling hills, Arthur and Merlin creating their Utopian bright future. Reading their stories transfers some of the magic, some of the hope, some of that faith in a braver, nobler future. What is most powerful about them is not the romance, or the nationalistic flavour, or the stories of war, or of treachery, or of religion.
What is most powerful about these stories, is that they remind us that there is still such thing as common decency and kindness and charity in this world. That’s humanism…
And that’s something worth believing in and worth talking about.
Song of the Sparrow: 3.5/5 inky stars.