The Guardian Herd: Starfire, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez – Fred Patten’s book review.
by Patch O'Furr
Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer, submits this review:
The Guardian Herd: Starfire, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Illustrated by David McClellan; map.
NYC, HarperCollinsPublishers/Harper, September 2014, hardcover $16.99 (245 [+ 4] pages), Kindle $8.89.
This is blurbed as, “The first book in a gripping new tween fantasy series about winged horses—perfect for fans of the Warriors, Survivors, and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series.” It reminds me more of older fantasies about magical horses, not officially but pretty obviously intended for horse-obsessed adolescent girls: The June 1988 The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West by Mary Stanton, and its May 1989 sequel, Piper at the Gate; or Meredith Ann Pierce’s Firebringer trilogy (Birth of the Firebringer, November 1985; Dark Moon, May 1992; The Son of Summer Stars, May 1996; and the collection The Firebringer Trilogy, June 2003). Now there is Jennifer Lynn Alvarez’s The Guardian Herd series. Amazon.com is already advertising the second book in the series, The Guardian Herd: Stormbound, to be published in April 2015.
The Guardian Herd: Starfire’s first obvious similarity is in having a large equine cast; in this case, of pegasi rather than unicorns or regular horses (called land horses here). The dramatis personae (this is too serious for just cast) lists 32 winged horses divided into five herds, led off by the newborn Starfire of the Sun Herd. This does not include Stormbound, the protagonist of the second book. There are over-stallions, lead mares, captains, medicine mares (a herd’s doctor), mated mares, single or widowed mares, yearlings, and foals; each individually named and described. If Alvarez intends to write a novel about each, she could go on forever.
Starfire, called just Star, only wants to be an average foal, but he stands out and not in a good way. He is a freak, with giant wings so large, ungainly and heavy that he cannot fly. More ominously, he is a black pegasus, and one of that color is only born once per century. According to ancient prophecy, a black pegasus is destined to grow up to become the most powerful pegasus in Anok, and will either unite or destroy the five herds. Nobody wants to see the herds destroyed, and none of the five individual over-stallions want to risk losing their leadership if the herds unite. The obvious solution is to kill Star when he reaches his first birthday and becomes a yearling; an equine Young Adult. Four of the over-stallions including Star’s own Thunderwing openly intend to do this, while Rockwing of the Mountain Herd, the over-stallion of the Sun Herd’s traditional enemy, offers Star a partnership if Star will unite the herds and make him co-leader. “But that’s not uniting; that’s conquering,” Star objects.
“Star imagined his mother’s gentle white face. Lightfeather had not migrated with him for hundreds of miles and then died giving birth so that he could repay her by conquering the five herds of Anok. She believed that when he received the fire from the ancient, golden star that appeared over Anok every hundred years, he would be a healer, not a destroyer. And she wasn’t the only one who believed it. There were others in Sun Herd who believed it too. Star took a deep breath and shook his head. ‘No, Rockwing. I won’t do it.’” (pgs. 12-13)
Star is an equine adolescent, facing execution by his herd’s over-stallion when he reaches his first birthday. “The Hundred Year Star blazed next to the sun, visible even during the brightest day. It followed him, seeming to stalk him from space, and it grew larger every day. In seven cycles of the moon it would be winter and Star’s birthday. At midnight the star would drop low in the sky, transfer its fire to him, and transform him, maybe into a killer – if he lived that long.” (p. 14) Most of the pegasi of all the herds fear the black foal with the huge wings for what they believe he will become; their killer or their conqueror. Nightwing, a legendary black foal of four centuries ago, was friendly until his first birthday, “and then he’d turned on the herds, attacking them, setting their grasslands on fire, and driving them to the edge of extinction.” (p. 19) Most of the Sun Herd foals, led by Brackentail and Stripestorm, aren’t scared of him but take advantage of his unpopularity to torment him. Only the foals Morningleaf, Bumblewind, and Echofrost are his friends and playmates.
The novel passes through the foals’ rites of passage: their weaning, the Sun Herd’s migration from their summer grazing lands to their winter pasturage, the dangers of forest fires and predators such as bears and cougars. As the foals grow toward their first birthday, Star and his friends are impressed by his maturing, but wonder whether the others really intend to execute him on his first birthday? There are signs that Rockwing’s Mountain Herd is planning to invade the Sun Herd’s lands. As tensions mount, some of the Sun Herd blame every misfortune as due to Star bringing bad luck. He exiles himself, both to bring peace to his herd and for self-protection. But, as the novel splits into parallel stories, both Star alone and the Sun Herd continue to experience dangers. The questions become: can Star survive on his own until he reaches and passes his first birthday, to get the Hundred Year Star’s fire and hopefully “grow into his wings”; can the Sun Herd survive until Starfire can return with his black-pegasus powers; and can Starfire control his power and protect his herd, or will he turn into an unthinking destroyer and annihilate it? The conclusion may surprise you.
The Guardian Herd: Starfire reads smoothly, but raises occasional questions. If most other pegasi are so sure that they will have to kill Star on his first birthday, why don’t they do it earlier while he is younger and weaker? (A reason is belatedly given, but the reader wonders until then.) Why are Star’s friends so sure that they can trust him? Considering Nightwing’s involuntary transformation into a monster, Morningleaf’s belief that Star will remain their friend seems more like naïveté than true faith. How does a horse with wings “[set] their grasslands on fire”? “He [Star] crawled out of the flat blue water and then rolled onto his back.” (p. 20) Horse foals enjoy a good roll on their backs, but a pegasus with wings? Still, if the reader can accept talking, flying horses, these are small problems. The Guardian Herd: Starfire presents glorious pictures for horse-lovers:
“Eventually the sloping path led them out of the trees and revealed the lower plain. Four thousand Sun Herd pegasi grazed in the green valley, their glossy feathers shimmering as they fanned themselves. Compact foals darted between tufts of grass like hummingbirds, their agile wings short and bright. Captains drilled their platoons in the foothills to the west, and fragrant summer flowers dotted the grassland.” (pgs. 22-23)
It’s an attractive book, although its pictures by cover artist David McClellan are small chapter headings, not full-page illustrations. For fans of anthropomorphic and magic horses, especially those who want something more than My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, The Guardian Herd: Starfire should not be missed.