4 out of 4 stars
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High in the mountains, shrouded in austerity, lies the kingdom of Gryphonia, ruled by the majestic winged gryphon females and opinicus males. The flightless keythongs and kryphons make up the intricate caste system that they reign over, at the bottom of which are found the ostracized winged horses and their hybrid offspring, the hippogryphs. The Gryphon by Paula Grover gives a glimpse into a fantasy world devoid of humans but rich in the lore and tradition of the gryphonic society.
The Gryphon is centered on Sunsky of the Mountains, the future premier queen of her people, as her life changes drastically, and she must make a decision that will determine the course of her own future, as well as that of all Gryphonia. When she is hurt in a storm during a solo flight, she is confined to a cave, unable to fly away. She is rescued and nursed back to health by an unlikely companion: a winged horse named Nightsky. Though the horses are enemies of the gryphons, Sunsky mates with her savior, heretically producing a female hippogryph offspring.
A scandal of this degree leaves Sunsky with few choices as she is brought before the Gryphonic counsel: will she relegate her daughter to the Valley of Outcasts so she can become the premier queen, or will she face banishment to be able to raise her child herself. After receiving an encouraging prophecy from her clan’s oracle, she makes the impossible decision to leave her people and rear her daughter with the help of the queen of the hippogryphs, her daughter’s own half-sister. Now, in her absence, Gryphonia will be changed forever, but what does Sunsky’s future hold?
On its surface, The Gryphon checks all the boxes of a classic fantasy, though I have personally never read a novel like this before, where the main characters are mythological creatures existing in their own complex society. Grover gives the gryphons, not just a hierarchy and government, but their own legends, mythos, and even swear words. It can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around the intricacies, especially since it is devoid of human vestiges, but to me it almost makes Sunsky’s tribulations more relatable, as the reader is forced to become intimately aware of her society’s moral code and ideologies throughout the plot.
The thing I liked most about the novel is the way the characters demonstrate true emotion and decision-making. I think that too many times fantasy stories are laden with the task of complex plot and world-building, only for the characters to get lost along the way or turn out one-dimensional, making decisions solely for plot progression. I really enjoyed this novel, because that is not the case with Sunsky, or even with the minor characters. Talona, her treacherous cousin, is especially well-written. They act as individuals, making personal progress within the framework the author sets up for them. This is especially noteworthy, in my opinion, because Grover is able to make non-human players come to life in a way that some authors struggle to do with simpler characters.
The thing I liked least would be the descriptions of mating between the creatures. I do think this stems from my own discomfort, and it is not an indication of the writing. Though presented with very little to no detail, the narrator does follow Sunsky as she mates with multiple partners, and it was difficult for me to enjoy those scenes. The novel is not vulgar or graphic in any way, and I actually think it would be suitable for some younger readers, if this is not something that would bother them. I did not have any other qualms than this, and that is why I am giving this book 4 out of 4 stars. It is an incredibly intricate, extremely well-edited novel. Though the ending provides closure, it also lends itself well to a sequel, and I hope Grover continues Sunsky's story.
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