Song of the Sparrow is Lisa Ann Sandell’s take on Arthurian legend, narrated by Elaine of Ascolat, or The Lady of Shalott. Since she was a small child, Elaine has been the only woman living in a military camp with hundreds of men. When her mother died, her father took Elaine and her brothers to Arthur’s camp, where she regularly mingles with people who are now the stuff of legends (people whose existence is debated–the Author’s Note at the end talks about this)–Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, Gwynivere. To the men, Elaine is a friend, a healer, a seamstress, a child–many things, but never the woman she wishes to be in the eyes of one man in particular, her friend, Lancelot.
Elaine ceases to be the only woman in the camp when Gwynivere comes to be Arthur’s bride, and changes the group dynamic. Though she is at first pleased to have another woman around, Gwynivere immediately shows cruelty and dislike for Elaine. All of that changes again, however, when the two are thrown together in a situation where many fates hang in the balance–not only their own, but that of all of Britain.
Song of the Sparrow is an enchanting verse novel that absolutely took my breath away. Lisa Ann Sandell’s beautifully written sophomore novel is a truly worthy addition to the long list of diverse books based on the same legends. I was reminded a bit of Lisa Klein’s brilliant Ophelia, especially when Sandell talked in her Author’s Note about how women are not traditionally portrayed as strong characters in Arthurian legend. Both Klein and Sandell show well-known female characters in new ways, and both of their books are simply amazing. My comparing Song of the Sparrow to Ophelia is very high praise–I count Klein’s book as an all-time favorite.
Sandell does very well telling the story in verse. Her poetry is lovely, and she really makes it work for the story she is telling as well. I don’t think it would have worked half as well in prose, or, at least, it would have been a very different book. Sometimes verse novels are novels with odd line breaks, but this is not the case here. Song of the Sparrow is lyrical and poetic and beautiful. Elaine’s voice is distinctive and she is the perfect narrator for this story, a figure who is not usually the center of Arthurian stories, and not one traditionally shown the way Sandell portrays her.
Sandell is an engaging storyteller who really manages to make her characters come to life on the page. These legendary figures are real people (but are still distinctly the well-known figures of the legends), with real relationships and personalities. Song of the Sparrow is a brilliant novel, a breathtaking, epic story told on a personal level.