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Sunday, February 6th, 2011 11:01 am
I'm going to put this out there first and foremost: I love cheesy books and movies. I've watched movies such as This Island Earth and The Happening more times than I can count, and have an entire shelf dedicated to bad, but lovable Star Trek novellas, urban fantasy heroines with the tough exterior (but heaving bosoms when it comes to the vampire/ware/fae/other of their dreams), and animal-bonding sagas.

So when I saw this book at my local Big Box Retailer, I snatched it up on the strength of its cover alone. (Also, it had an animal-bonding theme which, as I said above, is one of my many, many weaknesses.)

Seriously. I could have done a better Photoshop with my MS Paint. I don't know what is going on with those back feet (it's like the artist just gave up and drew squiggy lines for toes). And... does that guy have a jaw-beard? How very modern of him.

Sadly, this book turned out neither cheesy nor remotely lovable.

Here is the summary, straight from the back:

Being chosen as a griffen's companion has allowed Arren Cardockson to gain a place of status within the land of Cymria. But even with his griffin by his side, Arren can never escape the prejudice that comes with his Northerner slave origins. After an unfortunate incident leaves him in debt, Arren accepts the well-paying task of capturing a wild griffin, ignorant of the trials about to befall him.

Betrayed by those he trusted and forced to fight for his life, Arren has nothing left besides the hatred growing inside him. But chained within the Arena, where rogue griffins battle to entertain the crowds, there lies another soul crying out to be freed--a kindred spirit who will allow Arren to fulfill his destiny and release the darkness in his heart.

Spoiler alert! That blub up there? That is the first 290 pages of the 369 page paperback edition. This made for a very slow, very tedious read as I waited for the plot to finally catch up to where I was told it was going to go. Once it finally, finally got there, the last 80 or so pages rolled on by at a more interesting pace.

With the exception of the black griffin, the characterizations left much to be desired. The main character, Arren, completely owns the Woobie/Butt Monkey trope. Taken straight from TV Tropes: It's like this guy is walking around with a permanent 'Kick Me' sign on his back which is invisible to him, but all too visible to the rest of the world.

Everything bad which happens to him is stemmed from the fact that he is of a different race than those around him. (They have brown hair, and he has black hair. No really.) The weird thing was that it's implied he was allowed to become a griffiner with some trouble, but not much, and was even given a fairly cushy job in the city. It's only when the plot starts going that people all of a sudden decide his 'Northern Blood' is showing too much and he is subsequently stabbed, shot with arrows, pushed around, spit on, degraded, fitted with a collar that has spikes on the inside constantly pushing into his neck and windpipe (btw, they never really give a reason for this last bit. He just comes home one day, is beaten and fitted with this slave collar... event though he's not a slave, and the act of wearing the collar itself does not make him a slave. It's like these characters are doing it for the lols, and, needless to say, he cannot take it off and must suffer gallantly with it for most of the book). 

The entire first 280 or so pages of the works in a pattern roughly like this:

Character A: *Does something which degrades Arren physically or emotionally.*
Arren: How can you!? I thought you were my friend/lover/mentor figure!
Character A: It doesn't matter because you're a Northerner and you can't be trusted.
Arren: I am shocked and appalled. Now I'm going to confide in my very best friend, Character B.
Character B: *Does something which degrades Arren physically or emotionally.*
Arren: How can you!? I thought you were my friend/lover/mentor figure!

And it just goes on and on...

Now normally this wouldn't be such a problem. This plot is about a fall from grace, after all, and the author manages to provide it in a way that Shakespeare probably would have stood up and clapped for. (Arren and Hamlet have much in common). No, that's not the real issue. The issue comes down the characterization; specifically, aside from being the metaphorical and literal whipping boy, Arren has none.

For all that Arren goes through, I have no idea what's going on in his head. The author hardly shows us. She writes this novel from an outsider's POV, watching people treat Arren badly and Arren reacting to his sudden (and many) cruel turns of fortune without hardly a glimpse to Arren's inner motivations.

There is a point towards the very end where Arren finally snaps a little and decides to steal a griffin chick of his own to raise. We are treated to how he does it, when he does it... but not really why. It's a powerful moment, and utterly ruined because I as the reader was completely left in the dark... for awhile there I was thinking that he did it specifically in order to get caught and have the opportunity to face his tormentors in a public trial. However, there was none of that. Arren sort of explains his reasoning in a bit of uninspired dialog a few chapters later, but by then the incident has long passed and it hardly matters.

The one thing the author gets right is the dark griffin, himself. The reader is allowed to see inside his head and understand his motivations -- as a result I felt connected to this character as I didn't with any other in the book. I cared what happened to him. Unfortunately, he was saddled with a name worthy of a Care Bears villain. This brings me to my final point.

The names are God Awful.

The dark griffin's name is... Darkheart.

Fans of the Nostalgia Critic know where I'm going with this.
I guess it's supposed to be intimidating, but comes off as the dark purple pony from My Little Ponies with a picture of a bleeding heart on its rump instead of a star, or whatever. The reveal of the name announced with a lot of narrative fanfare within the book, which just makes it so much worse.

Also, just for the hell of it, say Arren's name out loud. If you're like me, it came out as Aaron (or Erin.) How about another important character in the book, Erian. Fairly similar, no? Confusing, yes?

Here's a fun fact: Arren's true name is Arenadd. But unless you read the author's not in the beginning (which I didn't. Reading before reading is for losers!) it's actually Welsh or something so it's pronounced Arrenath.

This final point a nitpick because it just happens to hit a squick of mine, but the author also dedicates the book to "Bran" and lo and behold, the one character who pretty much doesn't turn completely against Arren's name is (you guessed it) also Bran. Things like this always make me wonder what other characters she based off of people in real life, and what personal demons she's exorcising by having them all beat up on her main character. Ugh, I hate that. (Again, it's a personal squick.)

I could go on and say that some of the plot points don't quite jell up -- I could never really tell what time period this world was based in. They seemed to have modern plumbing in the city, but no electricity. And the main event which send Arren out on his ill-fated jounrey felt contrived in more ways than one -- but... at the end of it, if you don't have characterization it doesn't really matter. This book doesn't have it.

However, Arren/Arenadd/Arrenath does finally get hit with a clue-bat and goes through a complete personality overhaul starting with page 332. (He becomes a dark avenger, ala Batman.) So, if you're willing to take a chance, the next book may be promising. Personally, I already wasted 8 bucks on this, and the hour it took me to write up this review. Maybe I'll check it out if I see it in a used book store. Or not.

Dark Griffin by K.J Taylor: two and a half stars out of five



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