Melissa Wyatt, Raising the Griffin (Wendy Lamb Books, 2004)

Getting free books by my favorite authors isn't the only reason I enjoy writing reviews for Green Man, though it's hard to beat a hot-off-the-presses advance reading copy of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman or China Mieville's latest work. But being a staff reviewer occasionally provides me with the pleasure of volunteering to review a random book by a new author or one I've never heard of before, on a subject which holds no inherent interest for me, dutifully beginning it, and becoming so caught up in the story that I forget that I'm reading it for any reason but my own enjoyment.

That was the case with Raising the Griffin.

It could have been written as a fairy tale. A teenage boy born and raised in England has almost forgotten that his father is heir to the throne of the tiny and impoverished country of Rovenia, for the royal family was exiled long ago after a Communist takeover. But the Communists are ousted, and Rovenia wants its king to come home. Whether he likes it or not, Alex Varenhoff is also Prince Alexei, and he must leave everything behind, even his beloved horse, to spend the rest of his life as royalty in a country he's never known.

Melissa Wyatt undercuts the romanticism of her premise almost immediately, when Alex sensibly inquires as to why, having overthrown one repressive government, the people of Rovenia would want to return to a monarchy. He is told that the royal family will hold no power, but will act as an inspiring symbol of Rovenia's heritage, and also as a glamorous prop to attract tourism.

Alex is appalled at the idea of spending the rest of his life as a living PR stunt, but his parents are adamant. So off they go to Rovenia, accompanied by Alex's fierce tutor, the former Rovenian Resistance fighter Count DeBatz; an American publicist; and the publicist's daughter, Sophy, a bright but awkward teenager. Though at first Alex is made miserable by the strict routine, lack of privacy, and even the castle's medieval plumbing, he soon discovers that being a prince comes with not only new limits, but new temptations. And new dangers.

The appeal of Raising the Griffin lies in its relentless realism. Alex is no fantasy prince, but a modern one who has to fight off paparazzi and mobs of hysterical fangirls. Nor is he a born idealist who first balks at his new responsibility, then gracefully accepts it once he sees the suffering of his people. Instead, he's as susceptible to the lures of sex, drugs, and adulation as most people who suddenly become famous prove to be. The ins and outs of Alex's life as a prince are as fresh and new to the readers as they are to him, for Wyatt avoids both scenes of tabloid decadence and bootlicking royalty-worship, to present a story as sober and convincing as a documentary.

Though Alex is a compelling character who easily carries the novel, the supporting cast could have benefited from more development. Sophy is easily the most-realized of them, but her character does not benefit by being paralleled with the only other young woman in the book, Isabelle, a sexpot who is clearly up to no good. (The subtext is that girls who have sex are calculating minxes, and Good Girls Don't.) If Isabelle is the whore, that makes Sophy the Madonna. This characterization-by-contrast is ultimately flattening to both characters.

Despite my reservations over that aspect of the story, the novel is a compelling and polished read, and one which rarely goes in expected directions. Wyatt's presentation of Alex's dilemma -- personal freedom versus living up to a responsibility he never wanted -- is fair and thought-provoking, though it's clear which side she comes down on. And if you can put the novel down with only the last few chapters left to go, no matter how late it's getting, you're a stronger woman than I.

[Rachel Manija Brown]

Melissa Wyatt's Web site is packed with intriguing background information
on the mythical country of Rovenia and its royal family