Owlflight (1997) is the first book in DARIAN’S TALE, one of the many trilogies/series that make up Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR saga. Though DARIAN’S TALE was first published twenty years ago, according to the series’ internal chronologically it takes place late in the overall story. I had only read four of the VALDEMAR books before picking up Owlflight. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released it in audio format and will release its sequels, Owlsight and Owlknight, in the coming months. I’m hoping this means that the other trilogies in the series that haven’t been published in audio format will be soon.
Darian is an orphan who lives in an isolated village. His parents were trappers who were shunned by their neighbors because of their habit of working in the forest that edges the village. The forest is thought to contain pools of contaminated magic that spawn evil creatures that endanger the village. When his parents disappeared in the forest, Darian was pushed off onto Justyn, the town’s unappreciated mage, and has lived a dull and lonely existence ever since. The townspeople thought Darian’s parents were weird and dangerous, have no love for their son, and don’t care that he knows it.
Darian considers Justyn, the mage who is his guardian, to be an incompetent hack. The man says that Darian has a spark of magic and insists that he groom it through hours of boring exercises, but Darian wonders how Justyn could possibly even recognize a magical gift if he ever encountered it. Darian hates his magical exercises and his chores and resents the treatment he receives from the townsfolk.
But one day trouble comes to town and this sets Darian off on a new path. He runs into the forest and meets a clan of the dreaded Hawkbrothers. They take him in and challenge him to meet his potential in many areas of his life. Under their care, Darian questions what he has previously been taught, matures rapidly, and even has an opportunity to become a hero.
Owlflight is a simple satisfying story that will appeal to younger and less-experienced fantasy readers. The story takes a while to wind up, with Lackey and Dixon allowing Darian to indulge in excessive brooding and self-pity while reminding (almost lecturing) the reader a little too often about how children ought to be raised. When things finally start moving, the story becomes predictable and doesn’t offer much different from the standard fantasy hero tale featuring a young orphan. Its most distinguishing (and pleasant) feature is the bird companions of the Hawkbrothers. There are even talking gryphons. Readers will learn about “hawk furniture” such as perches, jesses, and bracelets.
I suspect that young readers who enjoy fantasy tales where despised orphans become heroes and unloving self-righteous people getting their comeuppance, will love Owlflight. The new audio version by Tantor Audio is narrated by Kevin T. Collins who has a nice voice but whose slow, careful, and precise pronunciation somehow comes off as a bit cynical and smug. The authors’ tendency to frequently mix third and first person POV in the same paragraphs sometimes makes it weirdly sound like Darian and the narrator are talking to each other. Readers thinking about trying Owlflight on audio should listen to the sample at Amazon or Audible to make sure they like it. Once I sped up the playback speed I was fine with it, but I can see others feeling differently.