Monday, July 20, 2015

Down the Stacks #9: Lord of the Changing Winds

This week on “Down the Stacks” we’ll be looking at a fantasy novel that takes a unique spin on a classic fantasy creature, the griffin.  The uniqueness of the author’s approach makes it difficult to judge the book as simply “good” or “bad,” because it simply ignores many expectations of griffins while still hitting many familiar notes.  Come with me on this journey through Lord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier, and maybe by the end we’ll figure out if it’s actually worth looking for the rest of its series.

Before we get into Neumeier’s special griffins, let’s get the basic setting details out of the way.  Lord of the Changing Winds takes place in typical fantasy setting - medieval technology and social level, with the land divided among three human kingdoms: Feieraband, where our story takes place; Casmantium, across the mountains to Feieraband’s east; and Linularinum, to the west.  The three kingdoms are technically at peace, although international politics involves a lot of not presenting signs of weakness to one’s neighbors. North of Casmantium is the desert home of the griffins, but the book begins with the race moving wholesale to just outside the town of Minas Ford in southern Feieraband and bringing the desert with them.
In this world, griffins aren’t merely regal and graceful predators embodying the symbolic greatness of both lion and eagle, but are rather creatures embodying the element of fire.  The deserts they dwell in are extensions of their spirit: all burning sand and red stone with not a drop of water or bit of plant life to be seen, harsh and unbending to the sensibilities of Man.  Griffins are proud, violent, stubborn, and would have no dealings with creatures of Earth (i.e. men) if they could help it.  In almost all respects, they are uncanny and alien from a human perspective.
What drives this proud race to set up camp in a human kingdom is a need for the one thing their own mages cannot provide: healing.  In Minas Ford, they find a young woman named Kes, a shy little thing prone to getting lost in daydreams, wandering around the wilderness barefoot, and often overwhelmed by social situations.  Kes’s extreme hesitance to speak even to her sister Tesme, the way everyone acts gently around her while denying her much agency, and the feelings of alienation she sometimes expresses make me read her as possibly mildly autistic in some way.  At any rate, she doesn’t quite fit into Minas Ford and the sight of some griffins flying overhead in the first chapter awakens something in her that only takes shape once the Griffin’s mage, Kairaithin, the titular Lord of the Changing Wind. comes into town in a human disguise and pulls her away for a crash-course in fire-based healing magic in order to save his king from mortal wounds.  Kairaithin then keeps Kes in the new desert, calling her his student.
There are several griffin characters in Lord of the Changing Wind, but aside from Kairaithin the only one worth mentioning in this review is Opailikiita, a young female who provides Kes with an anchor of kindness and unyielding support in the harsh, confrontational world of griffins.  Opailikiita is an outlier of the norm, however; most of the named griffins are either outright hostile to Kes and humanity in general or simply blasé about war and death, at least where humans are concerned.  Kairaithin present the clearest picture of how the griffin mindset differs from that of men.  He is regarded as the most understanding of humans, yet he still fails to consider the proper protocols of starting diplomatic talks with Feierabrand’s king, instead using the griffin method of aggressively pointed questions and proud posturing rather than bothering to ever explain.  Yet, despite his obtuse attitude and effective kidnapping of Kes, I still found myself rooting for him.
The last central character of the book is Lord Bertaud, the king’s most trusted advisor who, like Kes, discovers an unusual sympathy for the Griffins.  Bertaud is the most interesting character to follow because, unlike Kes, he struggles constantly and openly with his loyalty to the king and the confusing but undeniable connection he feels to the undiplomatic Kairaithin.  His conundrum is made worse by the innate antipathy that exists between creatures of Fire and creatures of Earth that causes the mages in the royal court to antagonize Kairaithin despite their better judgement.

Lord of the Changing Wind does a fantastic job of portraying a sentient species that is too unlike “normal” humans to allow easy relations between them, but otherwise it tends to move quickly and lightly through scenes.  The writing is at its best when Neumeier slows down to describe a scene or develop Bertaud’s backstory, but she moves through fights and other high-action scenes so fast they hardly register.  The griffins are all flat and unchanging, unbecoming of their Fire nature and the fact that Kes spends most of the book among them, presumably learning of their culture.  Kes’s relative dullness is less forgivable, particularly since much ado is made of how learning fire magic is supposed to fundamentally change her.  She throws a brief fit when she learns the full extent of how she’s going to change, but the shift itself is so subtle as to be unnoticable if weren’t pointed out to me.  She starts out isolated from human society by shyness, and ends up separated from human society because she’s become fire rather than earth.  Her struggles are easy compared to Bertaud’s, and generally solved by the actions of someone else.  In fact, the one time she tries to act on her own against the instructions of Kaiaithin or anybody else she ends up kidnapped by Casmantium and needs to be rescued by a character introduced in the first chapter.

There are two more books in the “Griffin Mage” trilogy, each focusing on a new set of characters, so perhaps Rachel Neumeier will show improvement over time.  I’ll have to get back to you on that.  For now, I wouldn’t rate Lord of the Changing Wind too high but I won’t call it a bad read either.

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