The Black Gryphon
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
The Mage Wars: Book 1
These books are kind of a prequel to all the others. The Mage Wars end in the Cataclysm, which shapes the land of Velgarth and warps it for centuries to come. (Valdemar is a kingdom in the world of Velgarth: the Mage Wars precede Valdemar’s founding by about 1000 years.)
The Black Gryphon is the only book that actually takes place during the Mage Wars; the other two take place after. It takes an interesting wartime perspective: it is primarily told by the healer (‘Kestra’chern’, a kind of therapist) Amberdrake and the recuperating titular hero Skandranon Rashkae, the Black Gryphon. The action and drama take place primarily in the warcamp.
The most interesting element of this series is the worldbuilding, especially the bits about gryphon biology. The gryphons are the masterwork of an Adept mage (Adept being the highest level): Urtho, the Mage of Silence. Mercedes Lackey rehabilitates raptors and her bird knowledge really shines in these books. There are different gryphon varieties based on real-life birds. The cat element of the gryphons are largely ignored.
The main trouble I had with these books is that they are largely intended for someone already familiar with the world of Velgarth. We never get descriptions of the intelligent nonhumans that are not either gryphons or the hertasi, lizard-folk. I remembered that kyree are like wolves, but I couldn’t remember what dyheli or tervardi were. Even just one or two short sentences would have erased my confusion. I actually remember pretty well how magic works in Velgarth, so I didn’t have trouble understanding all the different manifestations, but it’s possible someone reading the books in chronological order would be very confused. Another major complaint I had is that the major emotional plot is driven largely by internal monologue, in third person. It was not interesting; I found myself skimming it more often than not, and then becoming confused when characters changed abruptly. Perhaps if I’d read the interior musing, this would have seemed more natural, but as it was, I would have preferred to see it happen, rather than be told.
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
This internal monologue was most damaging for Winterhart’s character. I like Winterhart a lot in theory, an ex-noble posing as a gryphon’s healer, so cold and withdrawn that she doesn’t respect that gryphons are intelligent—but we don’t really see her change. Amberdrake heals her, but we don’t see the sessions gradually opening Winterhart up. We only see Amberdrake summing it up for us, a very weak construction. So when he realizes that he and Winterhart are lifebonded (kinda like soulmates, but only romantically) I just… didn’t see it, and thus couldn’t buy it.
However Skan and his mate, Zhaneel, have a much more believable relationship. Zhaneel is the most compelling of the four main characters because she’s the easiest to sympathize with—probably because we see her problems instead of getting them secondhand, like Winterhart’s. She’s considered to be misborn and worthless because she’s shaped differently than the other gryphons: Urtho modelled her on another kind of bird. Watching her grow from a sad, and sadly funny, wretch to a confidant, brilliant hero is the most satisfying part of the plot. The scene where she misunderstands what it is Amberdrake does and tries to have sex with him is laugh out funny AND cringe-inducing. Skan is attracted to her from the beginning, and they’re not lifebonded: they’re exceptional individuals in an ordinary relationship. Skan from the beginning wants to mate and make children: it seems completely in character for his choice in mate to be Zhaneel—and vice versa.
I definitely question why Winterhart and Zhaneel were not the actual main characters. They changed the most. While Amberdrake’s and Skan’s friendship is wonderful, it undergoes no real change. Amberdrake does have an arc, but it’s not as compelling as the others. This is not to say that Skan and Amberdrake were not good characters: I liked them both. Amberdrake’s archetype is one I’d like to see explored much more in fantasy fiction, and Skan is delightfully earthy and arrogant.
The plot about stealing the secret of how gryphons become fertile made no sense to me. Why not just ask Urtho? Seriously? Amberdrake, Skan and the healers Lady Cinnabar and Tamsin are all on friendly terms with Urtho. Why the heck couldn’t they just ask? When Urtho finds out, he’s just like, oh, ok, I forgive you, you’re awesome people. There are no consequences. I feel like it was just an unnecessary event that was pigeonholed in as an excuse for more gryphon worldbuilding. I include Ke’chara and the room of gryphon prototypes as ‘just’ worldbuilding… while interesting elements, I really feel like they could have had a more interesting plot. I think the easy solution would have been to make Urtho more fearful and less … nice. The man is fighting a in a Mage War, for gods’ sakes!
The antagonists were not very compelling characters, either. We get them secondhand as well. Conn Levas, Shaiknam and Garber are mostly behind-the-stage villains who turn out to be traitors working for big bad Kiyamvir Ma’ar. Not terribly interesting. I wish Winterhart and Conn Levas’s relationship was better explored and nuanced.
As for the Cataclysm and Ma’ar—that felt rushed. To be fair, I didn’t mind. The heart of the drama was Zhaneel and Winterhart healing. The war was just a backdrop. But when we finally see Ma’ar, it’s very uninteresting. He’s caught off guard, he’s destroyed. Bam. That’s it. All we’re left with is the knowledge that he will reincarnate. His later incarnations, in other books, are much more compelling, if I remember correctly. Leareth has better build-up for sure. I wish there had been some better climax, where the characters’ emotional health were tied into the ending. Then I would have felt more invested.
Overall, it was an entertaining read, particularly worthwhile for the worldbuilding and Zhaneel, but not the best of Lackey’s books.