The Empty Kingdom, by Elizabeth Wein (Viking, 2008), continues the story of young Telemakos, the half British, half-Aksumite (Ethiopian) grandson of King Arthur. This is the second book of the Mark of Solomon duology, set in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula during the 6th century. In the first book, The Lion Hunter, Telemakos, wounded in body and spirit by months of torture (a story told in an earlier book, The Sunbird), was further wounded when he lost his left arm to blood poisoning after a lion attack. Sent with his baby sister to Abreha, ruler of Hymar, ostensibly to keep them safe, he began to learn the secrets of his own emperor's erstwhile enemy. But Abreha caught him in an act of apparent treachery, and threatened him with a death warrant.
When The Empty Kingdom opens, Telemakos is serving the final span of his immediate punishment, a period of disgraceful isolation, whose worst pain was his separation from his beloved sister. The valuable information he has learned must somehow be sent home, but how can he do this when his every move is watched by Abreha, who reads his every letter, and whose acts of kindness and respect seem at odds the the death threat hanging over Telemakos' head:
"You sign yourself Meder, lord of the land, and you boast of your disgrace. Do you count yourself so far above other mortals, my shining one, that you make a jest of the order I carry in my sash, and of the iron nails balanced ready to pierce fast your feet and your single wrist?"
The tangled threads of intrigue, politics, and trust are skillfully woven together here, but I would strongly recommend reading The Lion Hunter first if you want to try to untangle them. I read it last year, when it was a 2007 Cybils nominee, and I still had to focus while reading The Empty Kingdom to try to keep things straight. And these two books are themselves a continuation Telemakos' story, so ideally one should read The Sunbird first (although I have yet to read it--it sounds like it might be too distressing for me...). And that in turn is one of a series stretching back to Arthur's Britain, which even more ideally should be read beforehand (see below for complete sequence).
This is a book that I would like to come back to, having read all the earlier ones--I'm sure I would find things I missed in reading The Empty Kingdom this time around (which is a compliment, not a criticism!). For instance, I am still brooding over the title--The Empty Kingdom--which I am sure must be a metaphor that I don't quite get, as yet (the kingdom of Telemakos' lonely spirit??? General emptiness of kingdoms when there is no trust???). Likewise, the world building, in the geographic and cultural sense, is superb in its detailed and nuanced complexity, but carries with it a concomitant possibility that the new reader will be confused.
Telemakos is great hero, not so much in his deeds of action, although those are present, but as a character. In Telemakos, Wein has carefully created a thoughtful, lonely, and intelligent boy, trapped in complex circumstances that seem beyond his control. The pacing of the writing is unhurried, allowing characterization and relationships to take center stage. I imagine that there will be many who love this book for that reason, and others who may become irritated--I fall into the former category.
Amazon has this book listed as appropriate for ages 9-12. It is true that there is no sex or bad language, or actual acts of violence. But I think that (in general) a kid that age might end up confused, and an older kid might get more out of it. Another categorical trickiness is that although this is "fantasy" in the alternate history sense, there is no magic, no supernatural elements--in short, nothing explicitly fantastic at all, so don't expect to find that here!
Here's a review (by another Charlotte), at Blogging for a Good Book.
And here's the sequence: The Winter King, A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom.
The Empty Kingdom has been nominated for the 2008 Cybils Awards in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category (link to complete list at top right)- BUT was also nominated in YA and Middle Grade, and has ended up in YA.
BREAKING NEWS: There's a great (and I mean great) interview with Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland.