Before there was the kingdom called Valdemar, before there were Companions and Heralds, there was a world called Velgarth that an evil mage named Ma’ar tried to conquer. After overthrowing a king and usurping his castle, Ma’ar’s forces spread further toward the Tower in which a mighty mage, Urtho, organizes good people to keep Ma’ar back. Using his magic, Urtho creates sentient creatures that resemble deer, lizards, and wolves, but his most beloved creations are the gryphons. In an attempt to keep up, Ma’ar tries to create his own gryphons, but the poor imitations lack the intelligence and flight skills that Urtho’s “children” have. Will Urtho’s people and creatures hold off Ma’ar from overrunning and enslaving them?
The interesting thing about The Black Gryphon by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon is that it’s unclear what each side wants, other than for Ma’ar to have everything and for Urtho’s people to be left alone. It doesn’t go much deeper than keeping Ma’ar and his forces back, and if they come too close, it’s time to leave. The characters of Lackey’s Valdemar series frequently travel and make new homes, so as long as there is land to which they can travel, Urtho’s people supposedly will be fine.
Several main characters are developed in The Black Grpyhon, including the titular creature named Skandranon, whose best friend is a physical Healer and healer of heart and spirit — basically, a combo of therapist, masseur, and lover (as needed). The dialogue is more finely tuned that in past books, especially when grumpy gryphons deliver zingers that had me truly smiling.
Then, when what looks like a mutated gryphon named Zhaneel enters the story, along with a rigid gryphon caretaker named Winterhart, the novel takes on a more feminine feel. Less posturing and juvenile teasing lead to welcome serious discussions about the loss experienced during war and how folks deal with it, and the potential for loss, but also how creatures and people of all builds and genders can support Urtho in this mage war.
Although Lackey has had issues in previous trilogies with keeping her characters unique — every male and each female begin to sound the same — the quartet of lead characters, and the important secondary folks, too — take on distinguishing characteristics. I wouldn’t call them unique, but I wasn’t confusing people, either. The relationships are established slowly, making them more meaningful and at a higher cost to the reader should someone meet a dark end. Just to scare readers, immediately we learn Ma’ar hates gryphons more than anything, as they are a roadblock to his domination. Thus, if he captures one, the creature is tortured slowly. All of this is off page, thankfully, and Lackey and Dixon never write from Ma’ar’s perspective like we saw in The Mage Winds trilogy.
For a story set during a war, there isn’t as much action as you might expect. Characters spend time in camps outside Urtho’s Tower, and from there they discuss what gryphons are. Are they animals? Tools of war? Like humans? The ethical arguments lean toward animal rights protests of today, demonstrating that all living things that think and feel have value and autonomy. Readers may have murky feelings about Urtho when they learn that he keeps the secret to gryphon procreation under magical lock and key, but when Skandranon the Black Gryphon is involved, a motivating speech and case for equity are sure to be made, followed by doing something. I wasn’t always convinced that Urtho’s reasoning was sound, even if well-intentioned, but that’s what makes him more interesting: he’s not infallibly good.
The Black Gryphon was an interesting novel I enjoyed, though I was perturbed that this origin trilogy starts later than I would have liked. What if readers saw the creation of gryphons, out of necessity, and their early treatment, rather than closer to their fight for autonomy? But, the ending comes together nicely in a way I didn’t expect, although Lackey’s penchant for doing something outside the rules of the world she created to make the impossible happen always annoys me. Overall, an enjoyable start to #ReadingValdemar 2020 with Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku. We didn’t miss a post last year, and 2020 is off to an excellent start.
If you’d like to join along, the schedule is below. Consider jumping in on Brightly Burning if you want to try out one novel instead of an entire trilogy.
Great review! I, too, was surprised at how late in the Mage War this book started. I was expecting to learn more about the relationship between Urtho and Ma’ar which led to the end of The Black Gryphon— with that inevitable ending much later in the series.
But I am glad we didn’t see the creation of the gryphons. Honestly, I think that Urtho can be a bit… tedious. I am glad we weren’t in his head, hearing things from his perspective. Perhaps he was better when he was younger, but now… pass. Plus, starting later in Urtho’s relationship with the gryphons makes the ethical debate of gryphon-rights much more compelling! To your own point, seeing that Urtho isn’t infallible and hearing the various sides really made this perspective compelling.
For me, the story of Zhaneel fell flat. I don’t think we had enough time dedicated to understanding what’s going on here. Once Skan (this is perhaps one of my favorite fantasy names of all time, Skandranon!) discovers how gryphon evolution works we move on. It felt so anti-climactic. I wanted to know more about why Urtho is evolving the gryphons and to what end. Are they imperfect? Is he seeking to create new models or an entirely new species? What is his aim by doing this? And, is he really trying to control the gryphon breeding population? If so, how could giving the gryphons the secret to fertility be a reward if he’s going to dictate to whom you can breed? So many questions.
I didn’t think that the secret to procreation was an award. I thought Urtho was seriously into husbandry, breeding gyrphons who are strong and effective as a “reward” but really trying to mate the best specimens.
I really liked Zhaneel’s character, and I was especially pleased with the whole plot line about the obstacle course she created. It didn’t take her forever to get over her self-doubt; she did something about it, which I don’t feel we see enough of in Lackey’s works, especially with women.
Your comment made me think of something: we don’t see different breeds of gryphons in the future. They must be so cross-bred that they’re all quite similar now. I felt that Urtho was creating different types of gryphons to basically have different types of war planes.
If the novel had started further back, two curiosities would have been sated for me: 1) exactly why is Ma’ar warring? Is he just greedy? When there’s a villain with little reasoning, I just think Pinky & The Brain try-to-take-over-the-world nonsense. 2) Eugenics and breeding are interesting science and ethics conversations that I would have enjoyed that would have taken Lackey and Dixon in a different direction from their previous works.
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I agree– Urtho was seriously into husbandry. He was obviously spending hours figuring out how to breed the best possible gryphons. I enjoyed the scientific aspect of this, but we really only heard about it from Skandranon’s perspective, where he was offered to breed as a “reward”. To me, I saw Urtho labeling it this way to justify why he only bred specific gryphons. If they met all the expectations he held for them then they were obviously good breeding stock.
Ah, but that’s why I think I felt that Zhaneel’s story fell flat. In all the other Valdemar books we get in the heads of characters, male or female, filled with self-doubt. Each of them has an incredible development arc. Zhaneel’s story happened so fast, and we spent so little time with her while her overcame her self-doubt, that it felt forced. Did she really recover that quickly? I wanted more. Lackey might have merely conditioned me to want more, though…
Good point! But Zhaneel is the first of a new species of gryphon. Her genetics must vanish quickly through the gene pool. And are there others? I don’t recall at this point, but I don’t think they were as physically dramatically different from Skan. I wonder what happened to all those unique gryphon traits? Are some breed out forever now? So interesting to speculate!
EXACTLY. What is Ma’ar’s motivation? Is he worse now than he was during Elspeth’s time? Why is he doing all this? Lackey often disappoints me in her lack of focus given to justifying her villain’s motivations. Perhaps she assumed we had all had enough of Ma’ar by now?
I hypothesize we might explore breeding and eugenics a bit more in The White Gryphon. Now that everyone is out on their own, spread across the continent, we are about to establish different communities and ethnicities over time. Honestly, if we don’t explore this a bit, just the tiniest bit. I’ll be sad. So much opportunity!
I had to sit and think about it a bit, but I believe the reason I liked Zhaneel getting over her self-doubt so quickly was that she physically did something to show her worth. A number of the characters basically try to talk themselves into worth, or get a pep talk from someone wiser than they, and they try to remember the wiser person’s words until something inevitably makes the character prove him/herself. Zhaneel wasn’t a waiting type of character.
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Wonderful point! Lackey’s characters tend to spend a lot of time in their head and then magically become the Best-There-Ever-Was. Zhaneel had to work for it, also. She was better than everyone else based on her build, but she still kept working. The only other character I can think who did something physical like this? Kero.
I started The White Gryphon and appreciate that there is a lot of one character thinking at a time, but the thinking is using logic and thus moves forward, rather than being like the angel/demon shoulder thing where it’s just an argument of yes/no.
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