K. J. Taylor
Ace, 369 pages, $7.99
I came across this book in Wal-Mart of all places. That's not a store known for its book selection, never mind its fantasy and science fiction selection, but the one close to my house (there are 4 where I live) has a dedicated section of stuff worth reading. The cover caught my eye, with the Griffin in flight and the Eyrie in the background. The guy riding the Griffin is Arren, who is described in the book as tall, thin, and pale complected with dark hair. The guy on the cover doesn't really fit that description. Instead he looks like he escaped from a romance cover. On second thought, considering what tends to be happening on romance covers, maybe he's trying to get to one. Yeah. I bet that's it.
Anyway, the cover art caught my eye, and the synopsis on the back cover sounded intriguing,. In leafing through the book, I noticed on the about-the-author page that Ms. Taylor wrote that she takes her inspiration from George R. R. Martin and Finnish metal. Now I've never been much into metal, Finnish or otherwise, but I'm familiar enough with it and with Martin's works that I bought the book on the basis of that sentence.
I really wanted to like this book. And I do. Just not as much as I had hoped. Part of that was the fault of my expectations of the book and part the fault of the author. As far as my expectations, I was expecting something darker and more violent; I thought the book fell somewhat short of Martin in these areas. From what I've been able to determine, this is Taylor's second book, and some of what I would consider to be her fault is simply she's still learning her craft.
Arren is a northerner. In the land of Cymria, the northerners are considered barbarians, and captured northerners were once kept as slaved. Arren is the son of freed slaves, and the only northerner to become a griffiner. Sent on a fool's mission intended to disgrace him, Arren captures a wild griffin, the titular dark griffin, but doing so costs the life of his griffin. The dark griffin is taken to the arena to fight (read kill) convicted criminals, while Arren is stripped of his post in disgrace. Of course Arren will end up in the arena himself fighting the griffin he captured. I don't think I'm giving too much away by telling that, since it's a logical event in the plot. There are other surprises that I wasn't expecting.
All griffins have one magic power, and the book implies the power is related to the griffin's color. The dark griffin's power it turns out is unique and sends the plot in an unexpected direction, creating all kinds of complications for Arren. The griffins are also at least as vain, arrogant, greedy, foolish, and scheming as the humans, which made me wonder who is really in charge. It may not be who the humans think.
I had a couple of problems with the story. First, it drug in places. Some of that was due to the passage of time in which not much happened other than Arren going about his daily routine. I've always found those types of narrative to be tedious, almost without exception. In part the slow pacing was, I think, the due to the author's attempt to develop character. And to be fair, with only a couple of exceptions, Ms. Taylor does a good job of developing most of her characters, better than most new writers do. Unfortunately it seemed to me that Arren had a terminal case of the stupids. He's whiny, self-pitying, and wishy-washy. He's also prone to some really bad lapses in judgment. In short, he's not very heroic for the majority of the book, and I wanted to knock some sense into him several times. Even when he finally takes action against those who betrayed him, he came across to me as hesitant when he should have been aggressive. Again, in fairness, when the book ended, he was in a position where he was almost certainly going to have to be more assertive.
There were also some other things that bugged me. A great deal is made throughout the book of the prejudices against northerners, but until Arren returns from capturing the dark griffin, this really isn't shown. In fact, until he leaves, he's shown as being completely accepted and surrounded by friends from all levels of society. The leader of the council is a woman, and her brother, Lord Rannagon, is the principle villain. She disappears halfway through the book with no real explanation as to why, although it's implied that she would soon be stepping down from age. It's her plans, and how Arren fits into those plans, that set off the events leading to his disgrace. Lord Rannagon isn't very consistent in how he's portrayed, at times acting supportive of Arren and other times hostile. He doesn't seem to have a problem with Arren's romance with his daughter, either, something I found hard to buy considering some of his other actions against Arren. Also, Rannagon's bastard son briefly appears in two scenes. In the first, he's unbelievably arrogant; in the second, a concerned and caring brother. It was almost as though he were two different people. He'll be back in the next book, so I'm sure he'll be fleshed out more.
And if you think that last sentence implies I'm going to read the next book, you're right. I intend to. In spite of the complaints I have about the book, the characters really are well developed. Arren does go through some major changes, as do some of the other characters, most notably the dark griffin. We only see a small piece of this world, and the northerners are a culture I want to learn more about. Arren's fate takes an unexpected turn, and I'm curious to see how Ms. Taylor gets him out of the predicament he's in. Or if she even does. Taylor is a new writer, and I'm prepared to cut her some slack on the issues I have with the pacing. I predict she will eventually be a major name.
The feeling I got when I finished the book was that this would have been a good first third to half of a much longer novel. That may be the case. The second (The Griffin's Flight) and third (The Griffin's War) volumes of the trilogy hit the shelves within weeks of The Dark Griffin. I don't recall the last time a trilogy was published without at least a year's wait between books.
The Dark Griffin might be a little slow and lacking in sufficient combat for some readers of this blog, but if you like griffins, give at least this volume a try.