A long time ago now I reviewed books for a now-mothballed website called Heroines of Fantasy. It put me in the way of books, I’d not otherwise have encountered. When the site shut down, I got on with other things, mostly offline, and let the world of book reviewing carry on without me. I do, however, continue to follow various authors on Twitter and recently one of them, Judith Starkston, got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in reading her book, Of Kings and Griffins. And, as it seemed exactly the type of book that would have appealed to the readers and reviewers of Heroines of Fantasy, I decided yes, I was interested.
A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmanoeuvre foes from these three different worlds?
For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?
Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.
Tesha and her husband, Hattu, are priestess-queen and king, respectively, of a minor kingdom set within the empire of Hitolia. At the book’s beginning, the Great King, Hattu’s elder brother, is dead, and his son by a minor wife has inherited his throne and suzerainty. Mutual distrust exists between this young Great King and his experienced and battle-tested uncle, and indeed within the wider royal family. Domestic tensions are strained further by the relationship between Hitolia and the recently defeated state of Egarya, as well as by an incursion into Hitolian territory by bordering tribespeople in search of resources, which threatens to develop into war by means of both swords and sorcery. Meanwhile Tesha and her sister Daniti must use their very different forms of magic to hold their own against the demands of gods and griffins. [Note: Of Kings and Griffins is the third volume in an on-going series. I found this book a perfectly satisfactory stand-alone story, but, if you’d prefer to begin at the beginning, the first instalment is Priestess of Ishana.]
My first impression was justified: this carefully researched, big picture historical fantasy is exactly the type of book likely to have found its way onto Heroines of Fantasy. It’s a secondary world fantasy, one in which the imagined world closely resembles that of the Hittite empire, but with the addition of gods, griffins and magic. Events encompass both petty family quarrels and a clash of empires, the plot involves confrontations between dark and healing magics, and challenges set by gods to mortals. On the human level, there is a great deal of intrigue and spying and a satisfying measure of realpolitik. The sisters, Tesha and Daniti, are complicated characters, not flawless, capable of error, fully active and engaged with events. They have a loving, mutually supportive relationship and Daniti’s blindness in no way limits her ability play an important part in safeguarding the kingdom, indeed it enables her to engage with the griffins as no one else can.
An immense amount of research has gone into the preparation of the book; its afterword, discussing the parallels between plot and history, is fascinating. If you’ve a bent towards the ancient history of the near and middle east, you may mark how the names of the states and characters echo those of real places and people and how its plot follows much of the interfamilial manoeuvring that occurred around 1274 BCE during the clashes between the Hittites and Egyptians. There’s a nice realism informing its recreation of past mores and manners: Hitolian sensibilities tend towards those of the period inspiring them rather than clinging tightly to the present. The past is indeed a foreign country and people did do things differently there.
I read Of Kings and Griffins with a great deal of curious interest. It’s an ambitious story and, as noted above, one on a grand scale. And yet, despite appreciating the extent of the research (and intelligent conjecture) informing the story, despite admiring the expanding fractals of that story, I found myself a critical rather than a fully engaged reader. Historical fantasy, like Of Kings and Griffins, sets itself the double challenge of both creating a plausible secondary world and recreating an historical one. This book was not, to my mind, entirely successful in meeting this challenge. Often, I felt I was an observer watching from a distance whilst a guide took me through myriad details rather than a participant embedded in the scene. This distance distracted me from the characters and they never quite came alive in my mind. Although each part of the story was satisfyingly complex, the griffins thread unwound largely in parallel with the war and politics threads, rather than all intertwining to make one whole.
I found a huge amount I admired in Of Kings and Griffins but I’m afraid it wasn’t in the end a book that captured my imagination: I read with immense respect for its research and ambition rather than with love for the story. Despite that reservation, I’d recommend you take a look. Taste in stories is as individual as that in food.
Judith Starkston blogs about writing, history and archaeology here; you can find all her books on Goodreads here.