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.