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This review contains spoilers.
My first real introduction to griffins in fiction (or “gryphons”, as I learned to spell it) was in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. Her characters were rich and living beings, and I fell in love with them unreservedly. I even made some friends based on that mutual admiration, most notably the man who would become my husband. So you can imagine that I was excited to see a new novel from a new author that would utilize griffins as main characters. I wish that my expectations had been more fulfilled.
Arren Cardockson is a Northerner, and as his race has traditionally been enslaved and reviled for their violent natures, he shouldn’t have been allowed to become a griffiner. But his bond with the white griffin Eluna was too strong to be denied. Now he lives in Eagleholm as the Master of Trade and is accorded a certain measure of respect. But an incident involving a smuggling ring leaves Arren in debt. To pay it off, he agrees to try to catch a wild griffin.
The nameless black griffin has lived alone almost all his life, and he has no knowledge of humans, other than that they’re good to eat. His encounter with Arren and Eluna will change all of their lives for the worse. Broken and discredited, both Arren and the griffin now known as Darkheart will come to a moment of choice that will define their lives forever.
I really wanted to like this book. And there are some intriguing concepts in it. For one, I liked the concept of griffins having magic, although it’s explored very little in this novel. There are hints that types of magic may be tied to a griffin’s fur and feather coloration, but that too isn’t really explored. Also, the magic is emitted from their beaks, which makes sense considering that they have no hands to manipulate objects nor the ability to enunciate words.
But there is so much in this book that simply didn’t make sense to me.
For one thing, the griffins are universally unlikeable. The only two that are shown in any great detail are Eluna and Darkheart. Darkheart gets very little “face time” in the story, aside from the beginning in which readers see him grow, and again when he’s captured and put into the Arena, whereupon he descends into a depressive torpor when he isn’t killing people. For a book that’s supposedly about a griffin, Darkheart is depressingly absent.
Eluna is even less likeable. She goes into rages and hurts Arren, which is painted in the story as being something shocking enough that it needs to be concealed. This suggests that it’s something that will come to be an issue at a later point in the book, but it never does. In fact, Eluna is shown as being aggressive to a fault, arrogant and unwilling to bend the least little bit. I thought that all of this was a set-up for something near the end of the book, but Eluna is brutally killed about a third of the way through the story. It’s a Chekhov’s gun device that never materializes.
As the book went on, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the portrayal of Arren. He’s a Northerner, pale-skinned and dark-haired (and thank goodness the author didn’t make the persecuted Northerners dark-skinned—that would have been too much). His race has been enslaved by the people of Cymria for a long time. Northerners are considered to be inherently violent, worthy of nothing but scorn and menial labor. So far, not bad—mostly it’s your run-of-the-mill “enslaved race” trope. But I expected Arren to rise above his reputation, and he doesn’t. As a matter of fact, after Eluna’s death, he becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable. This is only noticed by three of his friends—only one of whom is a griffiner—and it seems to be dismissed by everyone else he meets as “just the way Northerners are”. If Arren has been around the griffiners all of his life, as Taylor implies, then someone from the griffiners should have taken note that Arren was acting out of character, even more so than could be accounted for by his grief.
However, my disquiet ran even deeper when the book took on the blatent overtones of unthinking prejudice. Because Arren is Northerner, it’s perfectly acceptable to torment him, beat him, latch a slave collar onto his neck as a cruel joke, call him names, insult him and deprive him of livelihood and comfort. It’s like it’s completely okay to do these things. Not one person who acts against him is punished, or even seems to care what they’re doing. I had hopes for some reversal of this by the book’s end, but instead, it’s Arren who continues to suffer. I don’t think that it’s hugely unusual for a story to feature prejudice, but for whatever reason, the way it’s presented here was incredibly off-putting. I think it just came off as too acceptable. Even Arren’s parents are seen to parrot the “that’s just how Northerners are” belief. And Arren’s friends may say that it’s horrible, but they do little to help him avoid worse.
Perhaps I was looking for some sort of redemption, however small, in Arren. Maybe even just the hope of redemption would do. I didn’t see it. By the novel’s end, Arren has fully embraced his dark side. There was a hint that Arren had been the victim of magic, and part of my hope stemmed from the thought that Arren’s actions would end up being a result of this magic. But while this magic is confirmed, it seems to have merely been a death curse—his actions still appear to have been his own, one of which (completely out of character) is specifically stated as not being a result of the magic.
While this novel had promise, I ended up having to force myself to finish it. There were just too many things that I didn’t like. I’m not against anti-heroes (the book is billed as one that will "have readers cheering for the dark side"), and I’m not against watching a character live through great trials, but I need to know that there’s more to the character’s journey than just the indulgent descent into darkness. I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this trilogy when the second book comes out next month.
This book was provided by the publisher.