CanLit for Little Canadians Review - The Griffin of Darkwood

Reviewed by: Helen Kubiw

It's not unusual for there to be hints of secrets untold in Becky Citra's novels for young people.  Two past Forest of Reading nominated books, Never To Be Told (Orca, 2006) and Missing (Orca, 2011) are two perfect examples in which there are personal mysteries that need to be solved.  While The Griffin of Darkwood splendidly plays on this same theme, as well as that of loss, Becky Citra takes on a whole new dimension in her writing: fantasy.  And she draws you in that story effortlessly with the expertise of a seasoned writer.

Twelve-year-old Will Poppy and his mother Adrienna are writers.  They even have their own Muses: a knight and a woman from Ancient Greece respectively.  But just after Adrienna finishes her book, The Magical Night, and Will deposits it with her publisher, Mr. Barnaby, Adrienna dies and Will is spirited away unceremoniously by nasty Aunt Mauve to a castle called Sparrowhawk Hall with its two equally-scary servants, Mr. and Mrs. Cherry.  Except for his mother's pencil box, which always seemed magical to him, and a package containing a photo of his mother's parents and a piece of  cloth with the words "The Griffin of Darkwood" woven into it, Will brings little with him to Sparrowhawk, though, with his desire to write having disappeared, he needs little.

Sparrowhawk is a quaint, old-fashioned English village of cobbled streets and alleys, and Will soon discovers the bookstore of Favian Longstaff, Ex Libris, and meets the energetic Emma Storm and her dog Peaches and Emma's friend, chef-in-training Thom Fairweather.  Through his new friends, Will learns of the centuries-old griffin's curse–there are stories of a young girl dying and a murder–which explains the rather unwelcoming welcome Will and his aunt get from many of Sparrowhawk's villagers. 

But, the mystery only begins there.  Even though Will refuses to write, he is still a writer and he keeps his eyes open and has a lot of questions. Why does his aunt seem to be keeping important mail from Will?  How could she afford the castle when they were all as poor as church mice?  Why is Mr. Cherry sneaking around looking for a secret passageway? Should Will heed the predictions of poet Vespera Moonstone and Granny Storm?  And what of the magic he seems to witness: book characters come to life at the bookstore, the eye colour-changing Macavity the cat, falling into a crystal ball, and the light emanating from his mother's pencil box?  With a host of new friends and a lot of magic, with a little writing mixed in, Will finds that he is the solution to this mystery in ways he could never have imagined.

Though a contemporary story, there's an Old English feel to The Griffin of Darkwood that readers and lovers of medieval history will appreciate. From the castle with its tower, great hall and keep, as well as the story-telling tapestries and the village of Sparrowhawk, Becky Citra sets an atmospheric tale of mystery, deceit and redemption.  From a poor orphan who has lost his will to write and under the "protection" of a selfish aunt, to evil servants with malevolent intentions, and a mysterious creature, sight unseen,  that dominates the landscape, The Griffin of Darkwood is itself a tapestry.  The tale is rich in characters and setting and plot, all the essential components of a great story.  The Griffin of Darkwood will fill a reading void for early and middle-grade readers who are in want of a Harry Potteresque fantasy without the truly scary bits and a huge page count, and who appreciate the far-too-rare triumph over evil in our own world.  

This review originally appeared on CanLit for Little Canadians.

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