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Retro Friday Review: Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out-of-print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
So this is a book I've spent a lot of time talking about. Chances are, if you've hung around these parts, you've heard me push it. But I actually read it for the first time way back in the olden days before the blog was, well, what it is now. I read it shortly after it was first published, back in 2007, when I was writing monthly posts, mere collections of mini-reviews. So Song of the Sparrow got shortchanged. I decided to address that situation today. The fun thing is lots of friends have read (and reviewed) it since, and so I was able to trip through their lovely thoughts and remember my own. When I heard about a retelling of Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott," I was so in. I mean, I'm nothing if not up for a good Camelot tale. I could bore you to tears with my obsession with the entire Arthurian legend, but who needs that on a Friday afternoon? The thing is, when I heard this retelling was, like Tennyson's version, told entirely in verse, I was no longer so sure. Truthfully, I tend to like my modern poetry short and to the point. So I did what I often do. I went to the bookstore and read the first page. Then I read the second page. And on through the tenth, at which point I accepted the delicious inevitable and bought the book.

Elaine of Ascolat is sixteen years old and alone. The lone woman among an endless encampment of men, she has grown up wild and independent and determined to keep her father and brothers and friends alive. Though she is not allowed to fight alongside them, she works tirelessly in any way she can to keep their spirits alive, to mend both their limbs and their souls between battle forays against the ever-encroaching Saxons. After her mother died, her father brought his two sons and one small daughter to live with the soldiers. And so Elaine's oldest friends are Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Tristan. But when Ambrosius Aurelius, dux bellorum, is killed, Elaine must watch the laughing eyes of her friends turn grim with strain and responsibility. She must watch as they rally around Arthur--their new leader. As they reform in their new roles and battle leaders and men. And she must watch as a someone new enters their lives and disrupts their old balance perhaps forever. Gwynivere. Haughty and proud, she ensnares Elaine's friends with seemingly no effort at all. But, though her boys seem entranced, Elaine can see clearly just how much craft Gwynivere puts into the web she casts. And when that web extends to Lancelot, the one she loves most, wild, independent, determined Elaine decides it is time to fight at last.

This book. This book set a flock of butterflies free in my stomach on the first page. The writing is that heady blend of urgency, vision, and nostalgia. I loved Sandell's revisionist version of Elaine of Ascolat. I knew there was more to her than her magic web and her love for Lancelot. I just knew there was. Sometimes you meet a character, sometimes over and over through the years, and you know her. In bits and pieces, through various art forms and articulations, I have always felt a kinship with the lily maid. But it took until Lisa Ann Sandell decided to paint her version of her, for me to realize why. All that history you just know is there, the spell, the mirror, knotted web of threads, the loyalty to Lancelot, it all comes together in Song of the Sparrow. Any lover of all things Arthurian will tell you, it can be a life of suffering. A rich life, but a rocky one. This retelling soothes the soul. And the beautiful thing is that, by all accounts, it seems to work for newbies (even those utterly uninterested in the myth) as well as us dedicated fans. And it's because the writing and characterization are strong and sure. I'm so glad this Elaine chose to fight instead of die. I loved beautiful Gwynivere, and the choice she makes. The women in this novel are ace. They inhabit the tale, fleshing it out with life and pain and wanting, and together they are my favorite part about this version. But right up there with the ladies is the way Sandell wove in Tristan and his horrible past. In a genius move, we get a glimpse of Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde fame), and I kind of am of the opinion it should always be this way. Forgive the long passage, but it is the moment Elaine first comes to the camp, and it is a favorite.
It was nighttime when we reached the camp.
When my mind began making sense
of what it saw and heard again.
In the torchlight I could see Lavain's face
was smeared with dirt,
streaked with ash.
His eyes were still wide with shock,
so white
so white
against his dirty ash face.
He looked like a scared, wild animal.
I must have looked the same.
Frightened animals.
Arthur, younger then,
stepped forward,
caught my father in his
arms in an embrace.
Then Tirry.
He pressed little Lavain's shoulder,
then put his hands on my hair,
petting, stroking.
And I felt safe,
a tiny bit,
for the first time again.
Poor children, he murmured.
You are welcome here,
in this camp,
into this brotherhood.
Lavain, someday, no doubt,
you will be a fierce fighter.
Aye, I can see it in your eyes.
But for now, you must take care
of your little sister.
Lavain turned away sullenly,but I alone saw him blink
back tears.
Arthur looked to me,
What a brave girl you are,
indeed, I've never met a girl
so courageous.
There are not any others
here to keep you company,
but you have a whole army
of brothers now.
He gave me a sad smile and
stepped back.
Then raven-haired Lancelot came to us,
kneeling to look in my eyes.
And I felt I was standing in
the sunlight, as though
his bright gaze alone could warm
my frozen insides.
He had blankets for Lavain and me.
And once more I felt protected.
Finally, a young boy who could not
have been more than a few years
older than Lavain
presented me with a doll
unevenly sewn of corn husks and rags.
He turned to Lavain and placed
a wooden sword in his hand.
He said his name was Tristan.
His golden cat eyes shone in the dark,
his mouth downturned, his brow
creased as though--
as though he knew.
He said his name was Tristan . . . This one joins Beauty, Daughter of the Forest, The Outlaws of Sherwood, and Valiant on my most beloved retellings shelf. I love gifting it. I love re-reading it. And I will be doing both for the foreseeable future.

Retro Friday Roundup
Book Harbinger reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin
Chachic's Book Nook reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin
Good Books and Good Wine reviews Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder
A Jane of All Reads reviews Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Janicu's Book Blog reviews Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin

Book Harbinger review
Caught Between the Pages review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Giraffe Days review
One Librarian's Book review
One More Page review
Persnickety Snark review
See Michelle Read review
Small Review 


  1. Every time I see this book, or hear about it I think of you, Angie. I don't know why I haven't actually read it yet, but one of these days I will!

    1. Laura, lol. That makes me smile. One of these days I hope you enjoy it.

  2. I've never been an Arthurian fan (the adultery has always been a deal breaker), but this made me change my mind. I don't know how anyone wouldn't think it was lovely too.

    1. I really understand that. It's heartbreaking and hard to get past.

      I am so thrilled to hear this one worked for you. Lovely is the only word, isn't it? I love how she played around with the original tales!

  3. I'm not going to lie, I had written this one off as soon as I learned it was in verse. That is SO not my thing. So I'm thrilled that you included such a long passage because it kind of helped to assuage my fears and get me to think about trying something I otherwise wouldn't have. I LOVE retellings though, and Arthurian legend (which I really haven't read enough of since I was younger and devoured everything I could get my hands on). I'm sold, thanks!

    1. Heidi, I completely understand. I'm always a bit wary approaching a novel in verse. But it really is clear from the start with this one that it's one of the good ones. Let me know when you do get around to it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

  4. Oh, Angie. I hate/love you. Because I have this legit huge TBR right. With looming deadlines. And I legit don't want to read those books. I want to read Song Of The Sparrow and Magic Bites, because you weave this big magical web on your blog of great sounding books and ALWAYS make them sound more appealing than whatever I have to weave.

    Seriously. Magic.

    Also I can see my unread copy of Song of the Sparrow peaking out at me.

    1. April, ha! You already know what I'm gonna say. You should legit read Magic Bites and Song of the Sparrow because you deserve it. (and cuz I wanna talk about them with you!)

      Come on, they're both on your shelf. You know you wannna . . .

  5. Lovely review, as always, Angie! And such an excellent choice for Retro Friday. This was the first novel in verse that I ever read and I believe I picked it up based on your recommendation. I loved where the story went in this one - Tristan was a pleasant surprise, wasn't he? Sigh, this review is making me want to read more novels in verse. :)

    1. Why, thank you. :) I remember you reading this one. So glad it worked out well for you. Tristan is so lovely. I am forever delighted by how she rendered him.

  6. I hate that I didn't like this one! There are so many folks whose opinions I love and respect who loved it, but it didn't work for me. I may need to reread in the future, because my Lady of Shallot adoration should have no bounds.

    1. Aw. I'm sorry. I know the feeling well. No worries. If it doesn't work, it just doesn't work. If you do revisit it, however, let me know. It's held up for me on rereading, but I'd be interested to see how if it fared better after a less than stellar first go.

  7. I just found your blog hop while browsing my reader today. I think it is a great idea to blog about books read before starting a blog. I've posted about a very old series--Captain January and Star Bright by Laura E. Richards. kaye—the road goes ever ever on

    1. I'm so glad you think so. Thanks so much for participating. I've fallen off a bit, and really need to kick it back in gear.

  8. I wish I had known more about the Lady of Shallot story before I picked this up as I imagine that would have greatly enhanced my enjoyment. As it was, I admired the writing but I didn't fall in love with it.

    1. Hm, it might have. I do love the tale and all of the beautiful paintings that have been created in her name. I'm an unabashed Arthurian fan and I realize this influences my reaction . . .


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