Series: Owl Mage #1
Published by DAW Books on 1997
Source: my personal collection
Also in this series: Owlsight, Owlknight
Also by this author: The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Home from the Sea, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, House of Four Winds, The Fairy Godmother, The Lark and the Wren, From a High Tower, Owlsight, Owlknight, Closer to Home, Hunter, Closer to the Heart, Take a Thief, A Study in Sable
Apprenticed to a venerable wizard when his hunter and trapper parents disappear into the forest never to be seen again, Darian is strong-willed and difficult--much to the dismay of his kindly master. But a sudden twist of fate will change his life forever, when the ransacking of his village forces him to flee into the great mystical forest. It is here in the dark forest that he meets his destiny, as the terrifying and mysterious Hawkbrothers lead him on the path to maturity. Now they must lead the assault on his besieged home in a desperate attempt to save his people from certain death!
Owflight takes place after the Mage Storms trilogy (Storm Warning, Storm Rising, and Storm Breaking), and while it’s not necessary to have read the previous books set in Valdemar, it helps. This book is set in and near the village of Errold’s Grove, on the northern border of Valdemar.
The book makes use of several time-honored tropes: the orphan youngster of low social status, disdained by the villagers; his master, the village mage; and disaster in the form of an attack by northern barbarians, accompanied by monsters. But Lackey departs from the stereotypes almost immediately. Justyn, the wizard, may be well-intentioned, but he’s not a very good mage, nor well-respected in the village, and Darian frequently rebels against him. He certainly doesn’t fit the “wise old teacher” archetype. When the village is attacked, Justyn proves to be a hero, while Darian sees events unfold from a distance – and runs away. As Lackey points out, this is the best thing Darian could do under the circumstances; he’s neither a warrior or a mage, but still a child, which hardly puts him in a position do to anything constructive.
All of this is just set-up for the real meat of the novel, which could be subtitled “Darian Becomes a Hawkbrother.” Darian is rescued by and finds a new mentor in the Tayledras scout Snowfire, who is not a wise old teacher but more of an elder brother. The Tayledras, also known as Hawkbrothers, a people who mentally bond to genetically-engineered, intelligent birds, take him under their wing (pun intended) and Darian begins to heal, not only from the death of his parents but from the trauma of the barbarian attack and Justyn’s death. But when he discovers that not all his fellow villagers escaped capture, Darian and the small band of Tayledras must find a way to take on an army.
As usual, Lackey is a skilled storyteller, creating interesting and believably flawed characters while moving the story along at a good (but never rushed) pace. She has a keen eye for detail, bringing the forest and the Tayledras culture to life. Darian and Snowfire are the POV characters (the book is written in third-person limited), and Lackey switches between them skillfully, depending on the needs of the story.
If I have any complaints, it’s that Owlflight lacks some of the complexity and tension of the Mage Winds and Mage Storms trilogies. Yet not every story can focus on a threat to the-world-as-we-know-it, as both those trilogies did (boy, did they!) In this book, Lackey steps back to tell a more personal story, one with a more localized danger, and does so pretty well. Owflight wasn’t originally marketed as YA, but it has a YA flavor – not a bad choice for a younger teen’s first introduction to Valdemar. (Note: If you do give the book to a younger teen, you should be aware that the sequel is more mature-teen in its outlook.)
When I first read Owlflight, fresh from reading Storm Breaking with its complexities and drama, I gave the book 3 stars. I’ve revised that to 4 after several readings; there’s more there than I thought, and it has grown on me over the years.