Beware, there are spoilers for The Black Gryphon in this review.
The war with the evil mage Ma’ar is over and Urtho is dead, but his people have survived. Spread as far across the world as they can, the Shin’a’in tribes must build new homes after theirs was destroyed in a huge magic explosion. We catch up with the gryphon Skandranon, whose feathers are now white after being bleached by the magic gate he crossed to escape the cataclysm in The Black Gryphon.
In The White Gryphon, we begin ten years after the cataclysm. Dubbed king of their new city, the white gryphon sets aside battle and glory for resolving minor conflicts and meetings. He’s not pleased. Skandranon and his human friend Amberdrake both have children now. They’re out of shape. They are bureaucrats. Ew. That is when a strange ship approaches their city, a ship filled with men and women with black skin claiming the new city is on the very outer edge of their nation. It’s so far away from the people in the nation and took ten years to build, so Skan and Drake are not about to back down. Instead, they go with the foreign people to their nation called Haighlei, ruled by a king. Tradition is key; Haighlei only allows change once every twenty years during an eclipse, so the people can seem backward to the more progressive Shin’a’in.
Shortly after the arrival of Skan’s and Drake’s families, there is a murder in the Haighlei palace. Then another. And another. There weren’t murders before these newcomers, and surely magic was involved, perhaps a kind of magic the Haighlei don’t understand. That’s not possible, though, as the cataclysm still produces aftershocks called mage storms that destroy all spells and make it impossible to use magic. Still, accusations ensue, and Skan and Drake must be careful about ruining their chances of an alliance and maintaining peace.
In my review of The Black Gryphon I complained that I couldn’t tell the cultures of various people apart. Because Ma’ar was conquering loads of land, varied people huddled near Urtho’s tower, suggesting they would not all have the same culture. In The White Gryphon I was pleased to see comparisons between the Shin’a’in and Haighlei — their dress, customs, caste system, ruling class, etc. A servant named Makke, who is more suited to caring for children but was labeled a cleaning woman, is a good example of how Haighlei might need to update their society. Makke can be punished fiercely for losing a single item of laundry, but her closeness to Skan’s family means she provides valuable information for the story.
Although Lackey and Dixon tend to keep their villains in the realm of mustache twisting and mua-ha-ha-ing, this time she gave us someone who scared me. When he had a victim under his control, I never knew if he would talk until help arrived or if he was going to carve someone to pieces. I hadn’t been that worried about the villain since The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, when someone was killing off my favorite characters.
While Makke and the villain stood out, once again the main characters seemed stock. Amberdrake could be any one of the previous Shin’a’in we’ve met in the Valdemar books, and his partner, Winterhart, seems like a standard pretty white lady with good manners. Here, Lackey and Dixon have missed an opportunity. Drake is supposed to play any role that soothes his clients. If they need a friend, lover, good listener, a slap of reality, sternness — he should be able to act, like a character in a play. He’s completely a home base guy, not militaristic, so he should always appear weak physically, to some degree, and perhaps more pacifistic.
Winterhart was very good at playing a role in The Black Gryphon. She hid the fact that she was born a court lady and pretended to be a rough-and-tough gryphon healer. Although she was miserable in her false identity, she was convincing. In The White Gryphon, it’s assumed the Drake and Skan are the leaders of their new city, making them and their families royalty. I would assume Winterhart would revel in delight in her private quarters with Amberdrake, or at least compare her two lives. Instead, she seems like most other female leads in the Valdemar books.
The authors’ writing is redeemed when Amberdrake has to do something rash and brave and he complains the whole time. THAT was what I was looking for! This guy should be so focused on his job as a therapist/masseur/empath that all the murders and political drama should send him running for a hidey hole.
And that is my beef with Valdemar books lately. I see potential. It’s everywhere, and it doesn’t even know it’s potential. You may wonder why I keep reading the Valdemar books. Surely, I can ditch the readalong and convince Jackie to try another series with me. But I don’t want to. Much like rooting for a favorite team that seems to lose too often, Valdemar books fill me with hope. For every shot the characters take and miss, I have a moment of almost jumping up to whoop and cheer!
The biggest disappointment? The numerous painful typos, such as calling Skan “Skin.” What do I look forward to with the conclusion of The Mage Wars trilogy? Well, I have no clue who the “silver gryphon” of The Silver Gryphon is. A new character? Another Skan transformation? We’ll find out.