This week I’m recommending `Lord of the Changing Winds’, the first volume in a trilogy by American author, Rachel Neumeier. It came out in 2010 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. If you like the sound of this one, I’d suggest getting the paperback which contains all three volumes under the title of `The Griffin Mage Trilogy’. Neumeier writes for both adults and young adults. `Lord of the Changing Winds’  was published as a novel for adults but might also appeal to patient teenagers – if there are any.

`Lord of the Changing Winds’  is set in a world divided into small realms whose rulers are served by powerful mages. Contrary to the blurb, the novel tells the story of two people – a shy teenage girl called Kes and a young nobleman called Bertaud. Kes, who has some natural skill as a healer, lives with her older sister, Tesme in the village of Minas Ford. She is thrilled by the rare sight  of griffins flying overhead but griffins are creatures of fire who bring the desert with them. A stranger who calls himself  Kairaithin asks Kes to go with him to heal his people. She perceives that he isn’t human but lets him take her. Kes finds herself among a host of wounded griffins who have been driven out of their homeland by the Cold Mages of Casmantium. Kairaithin himself is Lord of the Changing Winds and the only surviving Griffin Mage. He has no ability to heal but he is able to tranform Kes into a Fire Mage. She consents to use her new power to heal the Griffin King, the Lord of Fire and Air, and all the other wounded griffins but discovers that she is the Griffin Mage’s prisoner.

Kes fails to return home and more and more of the land close to Minas Ford is turned into desert by the presence of the griffins. The villagers ask their king, Iaor of Feierabiand, for help. He decides to send troops and an Earth Mage to drive out the griffins but puts his best friend Lord Bertaud in charge. The expedition ends in disaster when the Earth Mage refuses to negotiate with the Griffin Mage and Bertaud fails to trust his own judgement. Kes has felt at home among the griffins but she is horrified to see them killing humans. After healing the wounded Bertaud, Kes runs away from Kairaithin but is captured by the Casmantiums and their Cold Mage, Beguchren. She learns that driving out the griffins was just the first step in a plan of conquest by the ambitious King of Casmantium. Rescue comes from an unexpected quarter, but Kes still fears being used as a weapon. Meanwhile, Bertaud risks losing his king’s friendship and being branded as traitor, when he tries to forge an alliance between Feierabiand and griffin-kind. In the end he is faced with a terrible choice – should he use a power he knows to be wrong in order to save his country?

Some Fantasy novels are admirable for the same reasons as ordinary novels – they may be beautifully written or tell a particularly compelling story. `Lord of the Changing Winds’ however excels at something which only Fantasy and Science Fiction do – the creation of convincing non-human characters. This book is worth reading for the griffins alone. There are hundreds of Fantasy novels about dragons but only a few which give griffins the leading role. One of the human characters in `Lord of the Changing Winds’ describes a griffin as, `Half lion, half eagle, and all killer!’ For much of the story we see the griffins from a human point of view as terrifying metallic monsters who can tear men to pieces with their talons and reduce fertile land to desert with their fiery winds. When Kes and Bertaud become involved with the griffins, we begin to see them in a different light, as beautiful and intelligent creatures who value courage and are fiercely proud. The desert that is so deadly to humans is `a garden that blooms with time and silence’ to the griffins. Kes is adopted as a little sister by one of the female griffins, Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike (all the griffins have splendidly complex names) but these `wild, brilliant-hearted griffins’ always retain a sense of `otherness’ which makes their actions excitingly unpredictable. As the young Fire Mage becomes increasingly  griffin-like herself, she understands more about the human nature that she is giving up.

Some readers have given up on this trilogy because they don’t like Kes, finding her too passive, timid and unemotional. Neumeier has bravely chosen to write about a girl who in our world would probably be labelled as having Asperger Syndrome. Frail Kes is one of life’s outsiders who finds it difficult to understand other people’s feelings or behave according to their expectations. She isn’t fashionably feisty but her behaviour felt more real to me than that of the standard Fantasy heroine who instantly accepts her superpowers and gets on with saving the world. Kes is painfully slow to adjust to her new role and when she is captured by an experienced Mage and a lot of big strong men she doesn’t slash and burn her way out, she’s just sensibly scared. What Kes does do is to think very carefully about the implications of her powers, She starts making her own choices and bravely standing up to the kings and mages who want to exploit her. Kairaithin’s decision to turn Kes into a Fire Mage is crucial to the plot of the entire trilogy but she isn’t a viewpoint character throughout the series. Each volume has different central characters, who provide a new perspective on the people (and griffins) we’ve already met. If Kes doesn’t appeal to you, the heroine of the second volume is a brilliant `Maker’ who specializes in engineering. There aren’t many female engineers in real life and even fewer in Fantasy novels.

The `Griffin Mage Trilogy’ may look like Epic Fantasy but the battles are relatively small scale and Neumeier is more interested in peace-makers than warmongers. One of the things I like best about these books is the lack of stereotyped villains. In `Lord of the Changing Winds’ the Casmantiums are the aggressors and the griffins appear to be injured (though still lethal) innocents, but the Casmantiums are not some evil horde. In Volume Two, the engaging leading characters are both from Casmantium and we see the sufferings inflicted on ordinary people by the continuing war with the griffins. Even Beguchren, the Cold Mage who can kill with ice, shows a more sensitive and vulnerable side in this part of the story. He’s still focused on destroying the enemies of his king and country though. Only those who can see beyond narrow patriotism to a greater good have a chance of stopping the escalating conflicts. A theme running throughout the trilogy is the importance of trusting  people with the freedom to make their own decisions, even if you may not like the result. The plot of `Lord of the Changing Winds’ is full of difficult moral choices, so if you like your Fantasy to be subtle and complex, this could be the trilogy for you. Until next week…..