The Guardian Herd: Landfall, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Guardian Herd: Landfall, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Illustrated by David McClellan; maps.
NYC, HarperCollinsPublishers/Harper, February 2016, hardcover $16.99 ([xvi +] 328 [+ 4] pages), Kindle $9.99.
The adventure grows more desperate in this third volume of The Guardian Herd saga. It might be described as a My Little Pony with savage teeth and razor-sharpened hooves in it.
The multicolored flying pegasi of Anok are divided into five rival herds that the young Starfire has been trying to bring together peacefully. As he said in The Guardian Fire: Starfire, first novel in the series, when the over-stallion of another herd proposed making an alliance and forcing the other herds to join them, “But that’s not uniting; that’s conquering.” The Guardian Herd: Stormwind, the second novel, ends with Star learning that Nightwing the Destroyer, the crazed, all-powerful black stallion of 400 years ago, is flying back to Anok to conquer the herds and kill him. But the five herds are still fighting among each other; Star is still untrained; and Star fears that he may turn as crazed and deadly as Nightwing is.
Landfall begins, not counting a dramatis personae of 40 important pegasi, with a 16-page battle to the death between Nightwing and Starfire. And Star dies! Horribly (but not too horribly; this is a Young Adult book). He’s saved by a ghostly deus ex machina that tries to make us believe that he wasn’t really dead, y’know, just in an exceptionally deep suspended animation.
Umm … no. Sorry; this isn’t believable. I’ll buy the talking, flying horses, but I won’t buy Starfire being not really dead. He’s killed too definitely, and his salvation by the equivalent of Tinker Bell showing up and waving her magic wand is too cheesy. It further destroys the suspense by showing that whatever hardships Star suffers in the future at the hooves of Nightwing, if they get too bad we can expect an unexpected deus ex machina to bring him back to life.
Aside from that, Alvarez keeps up the suspense very well. Star’s friends hide his body giving him time to “heal”. Nightwing meanwhile consolidates his supremacy.
“‘The herds are hiding from him [Nightwind], right?’ asked Bumblewind, his eyes trained on his twin sister.
She snorted. ‘It’s the opposite,’ Echofrost took a gulp of air, staring at the pegasi around her, waiting for all mumbling to cease. Then she spoke. ‘They’ve answered his call. All of them.’
The gathered pegasi shrank from her words. ‘No,’ whispered Bumblewind. ‘That can’t be.’
‘It’s worse than that,’ she said. ‘Nightwing knows he injured Star, that his body is so damaged he’s dead, or as good as dead. He says his connection to Star’s mind has been severed, and he …’ Echofrost glanced at Morningleaf, grimacing.
‘What is it?’ breathed Morningleaf.
‘He’s offered to make a pact with the first steed who’ – Echofrost lashed her tail and tears raced down her cheeks – ‘who brings him Star’s head.’
‘His head!’ Morningleaf staggered sideways, and Bumblewind caught her in his wings.
Echofrost nodded. ‘Yes, to ensure that Star can’t heal himself. That he’s truly dead.’” (pgs. 51-52)
The two dozen or so of Starfire’s followers who become his guardian herd – Silverlake, Dewberry, Sweetroot, Hazelwind, Redfire, Ashrain, and others – vow to keep Star safe from Petalcloud and Frostfire, who have taken Nightwind’s offer, and the armies of thousands of pegasi that Nightwind has given them to find Star and his tiny herd.
Star eventually awakens from his long unconsciousness, but he is still grievously wounded and in need of nursing back to health. Landfall splits into two stories in alternate chapters or pairs of chapters: those of Star and his United Council of core followers hiding in the Trap, a narrow valley in northwestern Anok filled with spruce and pine trees so thick that any pegasi in it can’t be seen from the sky; and the adventures of Morningleaf, Shadepebble, and Brackentail, three yearlings who leave the Trap to lure Star’s enemies far away from them.
During this time, the holdout from Nightwind’s tyranny among the other Herds gather secretly around Star’s United Council.
“The dark bay mare [Ashrain] cocked her ears forward. ‘River Herd steeds fight best in the open sky, but Jungle Herd understands tight spaces. We know how to fight in the tree.’ She looked directly at Hazelwind. ‘We’re offering to show you our ways , and I’ve spoken to Redfire of Desert Herd and Birchcloud of Mountain Herd. They also want to share their knowledge. Desert Herd will teach us their ground-fighting techniques, and the Mountain Herd mares will teach us their aerial formations, in case we’re lured into the sky. I propose we form a United Army now, before our enemy arrives. If we train together, we’ll fight together better, and we’ll hold out longer.’” (pgs. 119-120)
It’s what Star has wanted; to bring the Herds together. Now they have a common cause; a more martial one than he’d wanted, but one that works. Star slowly heals and learns at the same time.
“That’s true,’ said Star, feeling grateful and hopeful. He would learn the warrior ways of River Herd, Jungle Herd, Mountain Herd, and Desert Herd. When in the history of Anok had there been an opportunity like that?” (p. 121)
Star and the others learn how to fight, including sharpening their hooves.
“Each pegasus took a turn examining Clawfire’s hoof. When it was Star’s turn, he lowered his head and peered at the hoof’s edge from all angles. He noticed that the very front of the hoof slanted into a thin, crisp edge. The sidewall was thick and smooth to support Clawfire’s weight. ‘Can I touch the edge?’ Star asked.
Clawfire nodded, and Star felt the rim of Clawfire’s sharpened nail with his wingtips. The severe edge sliced right through Star’s end feathers. He jerked his wing away, and the watching pegasi nickered in amazement. ‘That’s sharp,’ Star said, whistling.” (p. 134)
The pegasi can use their wings as supplely as hands. “The other warrior [one of Petalcloud’s scouts] wiped the sweat rolling down his brow.” (p. 68) “He wiped his face with his wing […]” (p. 158)
The inevitable massed battle, when it comes, lasts about sixty pages. Nightwind stays above it and sends Frostfire and his Black Army and Petalcloud and her Ice Warriors army to destroy Starfire and his United Army. It all makes me think of King Harold of England during 1066: first racing from London with the English knights to meet the invading Norwegian Vikings at Stamforth Bridge, then turning and racing to Hastings to meet the invading Normans. Harold was killed at Hastings, but Starfire doesn’t die and this series doesn’t end (except for Landfall on a cliffhanger). Volume 4, The Guardian Herd: Windborn, is due in September.
As before, the pegasi are described in very colorful terms. Crystalfeather is a small chestnut mare with bright-blue feathers, two front white socks, and a white strip on her face. Flamesky is a red roan filly with dark emerald and gold feathers. But David McClellan’s illustrations are only small chapter heading portraits of pegasi; and frankly, in black-&-white, all the pegasi look too similar. His dust jacket is attractive, though,