*Note: I was given a free ebook copy for the purpose of reviewing*
The Last Guard follows the journey of Sergeant Kearney “Red” Redguard, a proud and loyal guardsman of Liranwee, one of the larger Southern towns of Cymria. Things quickly turn sour as King Caedmon Taranisaii of the North launches an attack, trying to take the South for once and for all. The humans share this fantasy world with the mighty Griffins, magical and aggressive beasts who seek out partnerships with powerful and notable humans to secure their own dominance. Both the North and South have their griffiners, and battles play out both on the ground and in the sky as flesh and feathers clash with steel and magic.
This book fits quite well within the fantasy genre, with many of the hallmarks; a plucky protagonist who seems destined for greatness, a rich world with complex political history, and a powerful supernatural force (the griffins) who are both complicit and apathetic to human conflicts.
Interestingly, the narration shifts quite a bit between Red and Morgan, a northern spy working against him. We even see many scenes from the perspective of King Caedmon and his young son, who are almost sympathetic at times, despite their inherent cruelty and aggression that paints them as the antagonists. Red, by comparison, is the typical hero, risking life and limb to save those he cares about, even after they’ve turned against him.
I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of female representation in this book. Fantasy has a long history of male heroes and female decorations, and this book doesn’t really do anything to change that. The female characters are far and few between, and they fall into old stereotypical roles of motherly concern or pining love interest, when they do appear. There were a few exceptions but these characters were forgettable or simply acted as plot points for the main protagonists. In a story told from so many different perspectives, it just seems a shame none of those were women.
The griffins reminded me of the way many authors write elves; old and wise civilisations, otherwise disinterested in petty human squabbles, and smugly amused by many human conventions. These creatures have their own lore and beliefs and social hierarchies. They don’t quite have the social cognition as humans, and talk in basic, animalistic terms (they’re very into fighting to demonstrate mating suitability). As creatures, I would have liked to see more about their origin, when and why they started working with humans, and more about their apparent affiliation with the Night God of the North—which really begs the question of why any of them are sided with the sun-worshiping South.
A number of backstory details are noticeably missing. Red keeps referring back to a grand adventure he had in his youth, that feels like it could have been a novel in itself. In research after reading this book, I uncovered the author has a number of other trilogies set in this same world, but as I am unfamiliar with those stories, I cannot say if they would have this information. Nothing in my copy of the book made any mention of previous work, although print versions may contain more details. It does seem like much of the plot points are based on events in these previous trilogies, but some sort of foreword summary of the key events would have been useful for readers only discovering this author now, rather than expecting them to have already read the previous six or so other connecting books.
Overall the plot arc leaves something to be desired. It’s clear this is meant to be part of a series, but individual books should be able to stand up on their own, and this story just doesn’t have enough to satisfy this reviewer. Much of the story seems to be a lead up to a grand battle, which is over rather quickly and disappointingly. Nothing is resolved. Questions aren’t really posed. The situation just seems to slide from okay to bad to worse from the first chapter, with little reprieve for Red and his griffin companion Kraego. Still, I am intrigued enough to want to read more. Red is certainly a likeable character, and those with less hang-ups about senseless murder may even like Morgan and the Northern King. Primarily it’s the rich fantasy world that tempts me to return. The prominence of griffins is something I certainly haven’t read before, and definitely makes this one of the more unique fantasy worlds I’ve come across. I highly recommend to all fans of high fantasy.