Book Review: Alina: A Song For The Telling – The Nightingale Breaking Free of Her Cage
Alina: A Song for the Telling by Malve von Hassell tells the story of Alina, a 14-year-old girl in 12th century France who has lost both of her parents, as well as her sister, which leaves her and her brother, Milos at the mercy of their uncle and aunt. Their uncle doesn’t let Milos learn to take care of their estate which he is supposed to inherit, while their aunt tries to marry off Alina who isn’t ready for marriage and dreams of being a trobairitz (a female composer and performer of musical lyric poetry during the High Middle Ages) which does not seem appropriate for her status and gender. The siblings look for an escape from this life they are stuck in, at least for a while, and decide to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the excuse that they will pray for their father’s soul who is believed to have killed himself. This young adult novel tells their journey from France to Jerusalem, how they find themselves in the middle of the royal court politics in Jerusalem and how Alina finds her voice through this journey.
Some aspects of this book reminded me of Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. Even though they take place in different historical times, they both present the hardships of being a woman in the past, especially one that wants to pursue music. I also found the travel aspect and sibling dynamics somewhat similar. Alina: A Song for the Telling lacks the fantasy aspect of The Kingdom of Back, while it makes up for it with the royal court drama we are presented with.
The reader is presented with vibrant imagery of various cultures and brings to life the world in a historical period. Although I would have preferred to see more exploration of the cultures and landscapes they pass through, especially Constantinople which was an important and diverse city at the time, the book itself feels like a journey. Especially, the descriptions of Jerusalem are quite vivid, which I quite enjoyed.
The first half feels a little slow-paced while the second half moves faster. I would’ve liked to see more action during their travel or the drama at the court starting earlier in the book, as well as Alina being more involved with trying to solve the mysteries and the conspiracies which would’ve positively affected the pace of the book. For the most part, I also felt a need for more romance in the story which we were only teased with but I actually found the ending quite satisfactory this way. Although romance is, in general, an element that engages the reader more, especially the YA readers, the character development was much more satisfactory this way, as the female character who runs away from marriage, does not end up in another one but instead finds her independence and holds on to her passion for music, no matter how the society sees it. A modern twist to happy-ever-after in which the female character’s saviour and happy-ever-after are themselves and not a man. This is especially powerful when put in a historical context. And it even defies the concept of happy-ever-after completely, saying ‘things in this life are impermanent and that ‘[i]mpermanence meant change, and change meant an opening to something new’ (P. 214) which is an encouragement of a happy now than a happy forever which is an unrealistic expectation.
One of the best parts of this novel is the character development of both of the siblings. You can clearly see them change, learn and grow up. Von Hassell’s book celebrates different cultures and religions through their history and struggles, gives the message that the things we are taught about ‘the other’ tend to be sided and despite our differences, we’re all people. The characters learn how people may not be what they seem and they learn to accept and own their misjudgements and mistakes. While Alina’s journey possesses great messages for the younger readers, the vibrant exploration of cultures, the characters and the historical side of the story make it an enjoyable read for both teen and adult readers.
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