June 21, 2011

Song of the Sparrow: Review

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, read for my "Read Outside Your Comfort Zone" Challenge

Goodreads' description:

"Since the days of King Arthur, there have been poems and paintings created in her name. She is Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott, and now there is a book all her own. The year is 490 A.D. and 16-year-old Elaine has a temperament to match her fiery red hair. Living on a military base with her father, brothers, and the rest of Arthur's army, Elaine pines for the handsome Lancelot, and longs for a female friend. But when the cruel, beautiful Gwynivere arrives, Elaine is confronted with startling emotions of jealousy and rivalry. Can Elaine find the strength to survive the birth of a kingdom?"

Why is it outside my comfort zone? I've never been a big fan of novels in verse, but I don't think I've given enough of them a try...hence why I'm reading some for this challenge!

Did it win me over? Why or why not? Yes, it definitely did. I actually found myself really enjoying Song of the Sparrow. The writing is so atmospheric, and even the fact that it's written in verse works quite well given the medieval setting, especially with the nod to the Lady of Shalott poem.

It's fun to see how the author incorporated the various Arthurian figures and stories. I always thought Lancelot was pretty much a jerk (come on, he continually messes with Arthur) so I was glad to see him get some comeuppance in this version. I also loved how Sandell tied in that iconic scene from Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" — the riverboat one replicated in Anne of Green Gables — with her own plot.

I never liked the version of Tristan and Isolde I read (by Gottfried von Strassburg); I studied it in university and thought both Tristan and Isolde were immature and irresponsible, and so instead I just felt sorry for poor King Mark. However, I definitely prefer Sandell's version of Tristan, one who has already experienced the Tristan-and-Isolde love affair. We see him as a young man who's been burnt by love and is now wary of it. Hearing the Tristan/Isolde story after the fact (as Tristan tells it to Elaine) allowed me to respect Tristan's character a lot more and actually sympathize with him.

Best aspect? The expressive writing and richly vivid description that makes you feel like you're really there with Elaine. From lush forest scenery to the rough, dirty tone of the Saxon camp, it's sensuous and vibrant.  

I also liked Elaine as a character — yes, she's girlishly naive at the beginning, but it's the kind of innocence that feels real. And I admired her resourcefulness and her ease in the wild, contrasted sharply with Gwynivere's fashionable style and self-important manner. We can spot Elaine's romantic relationship coming a mile off, but seeing her sort out her feelings and realize the difference between an infatuated crush and a love forged from friendship is rewarding. So too is seeing all the different types of relationships Elaine has with the various members of the camp — her relationship with her brother Lavain is fraught with tension from a horrifying shared memory; she has an easy friendship with Tristan that she undervalues; Morgan teaches and mentors her; she continually longs for Lancelot's attention. Perhaps the lessons Elaine learns over the course of the story are a little obvious — and there are a few oh-so-sappy lines towards the end — but overall the emotions are handled with a light, poetic touch.

If I could change something, I would... I'd flesh out Gwynivere's character. I got the impression we were supposed to see her personality change as character development, but it was too quick for me and ended up feeling more like an odd Jekyll-and-Hyde arrangement instead. She is portrayed as such a cold, snooty "ice queen" type at the beginning that I didn't find her "growth" to be believable. Sandell sets us up for one Gwynivere and then gives us another, and that didn't work for me; her later actions just don't fit with the Gwynivere we've come to expect. Spoilery details, highlight to read: Would she really have had the stamina, determination and chutzpah to slog through rough conditions for days on ending, following Elaine? And all so sneakily that Elaine doesn't see her? I doubt it. 

I also had to suspend a bit of disbelief when it came to the climactic scenes. Spoiler: the girls managing to escape so easily from the Saxon camp was a bit much for me. Granted, they're quick-witted (and quick-footed, too) but I found it difficult to believe the Saxons could be fooled with quite so simple a distraction. And Gwynivere being the one to save Elaine worked out a little too perfectly, especially considering I didn't think Gwynivere would have paid enough attention to figure out which herbs were needed.

Just one more thing I want to mention: the first 3/4s of the book are pretty slow-moving. I didn't mind this much, although I did find myself wanting to flip ahead to find out what happens. The slow pace does allow the reader to get to know Elaine and her role in the camp, and shows off the beautiful writing style, but admittedly there isn't a lot of action.

Would I read more like this book?
Yes, certainly. I was surprised at how this book drew me in. I hadn't read anything medieval in a while and this got me right into the mood for it.


The scent of blood rides high

on the wind,
with its traces of cold, black iron,
rotted earth, dying flesh,
and I stagger backward
as the smell, pungent
and terrible, fills my nostrils.
It stings and brings
tears to my eyes.
         I hate this rank stench. 

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars.


If you haven't signed up yet for the "Read Outside Your Comfort Zone" challenge and would like to, you can learn more about it and fill out the form HERE


  1. Another great review :) So agree with you about Gwynivere. I had to really suspend belief about her turn around. Still, I liked this book even though verse novels aren't really my thing. Now that you mention it about Lancelot, I agree. It was nice to see him portrayed that way because I never liked him.

  2. I love novels in verse! Not so sure this one sounds like something I'd be interested in (I'm more interested in Arthurian legend in theory than reality) but verse novels almost always appeal to me. Not all are great, but when you find those books that do it well, there is a special kind of magic that happens in verse.

  3. i LOVE this format for your review!

    and i read this in jan this year and REALLY liked it (and i agree the beginning does feel slow ~ but the ending definitely made up for that)

    i tried to read another book by the same author (in regular prose) but couldn't get into it :(


I love comments, so post away!

Related Posts with Thumbnails