Griffins are the new awesome

While you're waiting for A Dance With Dragons, why not distract yourself by taking a ride with some griffins? K.J. Taylor's The Dark Griffin is the best high fantasy novel we've read in ages.

Taylor's author blurb in the back of The Dark Griffin starts with a quote: "A lot of fantasy authors take their inspiration from Tolkien. I take mine from G.R.R. Martin and Finnish metal." Which says it all, really.

Spoilers ahead...

In The Dark Griffin, griffins are intelligent creatures who speak a language that humans can understand. People have domesticated the griffins and created a kind of partnership with them — each griffin pairs off with a human for life, and the griffin-human bond has a lot of power and significance. A "griffiner," or griffin-rider, is automatically part of the aristocracy, and the griffin serves as ride, weapon, friend, and sometimes dark alter ego. It's very similar to the way dragons and dragon-riders are depicted in a ton of books.

Griffins are the new awesomeS

There are two viewpoint characters in The Dark Griffin — the titular griffin, who's one of the last remaining wild griffins in the world. He learns early on that his only hope for survival is to find a human to partner with so he can navigate this confusing human-dominated world, but becoming domesticated is harder than it looks.

The more the dark griffin tries to become domesticated, the more it looks like the creature's running wild. Which is where our other protagonist comes in.

Arren Cardockson is a young griffiner who's sort of an outcast despite his high rank. He's the descendant of Northerners, a nation of barbarians who were defeated in some horrible war and then enslaved. Arren was born free, in the South, and doesn't really consider himself a Northerner, even though his pale skin and black hair mark him out as the descendant of slaves. Thanks to his quick wits and his good rapport with his griffin Eluna, Arren's risen to become the Master of Trade in the city, and is on his way to even more advancement — until it all falls apart.

Due to an accident at work, Arren winds up owing some money to a man's family — and his mentor suggests he and Eluna go to capture the dark griffin, which is terrorizing a small town called Rivermeet. The mission goes horribly wrong, and Arren loses both his griffin and his rank — and it turns out he was set up by people who didn't want to see a Northerner join the ruling classes. Arren's story gets really, really bleak and insane, culminating in a few scenes that will have you outright cringing at their nastiness — it's up there with some of the tortures Martin inflicts on his more hapless protagonists.

Meanwhile, the dark griffin gets chained and imprisoned and forced to slaughter human prisoners in an arena for the amusement of the ruling Southerners.

There are two more books in the griffin trilogy, being published on a monthly basis — I think the second book is out already and the third is coming this month, but I've only read the first so far. At its best, it reminds me a bit of Martin's work, but also some of the most entertaining stuff from Taylor's fellow Australian, Karen Miller. I'm definitely curious to see what happens in the next two books.

It's always compelling to see a noble person who starts out in advanced circumstances and then gets brought low — but also, as Arren is torn down, he learns over and over that people will always see him as a Northerner. It doesn't matter if he considers himself a Southerner and rejects what he sees as his ancestors' barbarism, he'll never really be accepted — even by some of the people who claim to be his friends. He realizes that what his parents told him was true all along: he's a Northerner after all, and his heritage is something to be proud of.

And Arren realizes, also, that what the Southerners have done to the griffins is similar to what they've done to the Northerners: both the "barbarians" and the intelligent creatures have been chained, collared and forced to serve the ruling Southerners.

And that's the most compelling thing about The Dark Griffin — it shows the uneasy relationship between domestication and colonization. Both processes involve a great deal of false consciousness and years of painful training, before a Northerner by birth can learn to disparage his own people. And before a glorious free creature can be caged and think of itself as the property of humans.

Oh, and you might also want to check out this book for its scenes of people fighting griffins, griffins fighting each other, and a badass black griffin flying free and proud with hot blood in its beak. If you enjoy a rip-roaring fantasy yarn that keeps you pissed off at the latest atrocity visited on its protagonists, then you should definitely check out The Dark Griffin, in spite of the slightly embarrassing-to-be-seen-with cover.