There are dozens of novels and stories set in Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR universe. Most of these are arranged into trilogies that can be read by themselves without familiarity of the other VALDEMAR trilogies, though there are some overlapping characters and a shared history. The MAGE WARS trilogy (The Black Gryphon, The White Gryphon, and The Silver Gryphon), though published later in the series, takes place before Valdemar and its Heralds and Companions even existed, making it a prequel trilogy.
In The Black Gryphon (1994) we meet a large and powerful Gryphon named Skandranon (Skan for short) who was created by a good mage named Urtho. When the bad mage Maar declares war on Urtho, Skan is injured as he is spying for Urtho. As he recuperates in the healing tents of Urtho’s army’s camp, he is attended by his friend Amberdrake, a special type of healer called a kestra’chern who is a combination of physical therapist, masseuse, stylist, psychiatrist, and geisha. Amberdrake is also attending Zaneel, a suicidal female gryphon who lacks self-confidence and feels like she doesn’t fit in, as well as a young woman named Winterhart who is hiding from her past. As the war goes on, our small group of heroes must use all of their particular skills to help Urtho defeat Maar.
After the exciting opening scene, there’s not a lot going on during the first half of The Black Gryphon. Mostly it’s about getting to know Lackey and Dixon’s characters and listening to them tell their histories, lecture about the importance of healing the whole person instead of just the physical maladies, and teasing each other. If you’re not as enamoured of them as they are of themselves (especially Skan, who keeps calling himself “vain bird”), or if you don’t think their banter is cute or witty, it’ll be slow going, though there are few nice discussions about prejudice, xenophobia, and the ability of people who have suffered to be more empathetic.
Finally things pick up as Skan starts to perceive that his species is being treated by their maker as slaves rather than people. He wants the gryphons to be free, but Urtho holds the secret to their fertility, so if they leave, their species will die. A quest for the fertility secret is launched and quickly resolved. Then, at the end of the novel, the war intensifies and all hands are on deck just to survive.
The Black Gryphon has some pleasant characters that are unique in fantasy fiction, and fans of VALDEMAR will enjoy getting a look at the world before the Heralds and Companions were created.
The book highlights some of Lackey’s writing quirks, such as the tendency to make her animal characters have the same kinds of thoughts and personalities as people do, the tendency to resolve tensions too quickly, and the tendency to over-do the villains almost to the point of comedy. Maar gets off on torturing innocent people just for fun. Most of Lackey’s villains do this; I guess it’s so we’ll know they’re the bad guys.
Something that annoys me is the way that Lackey’s characters help the narrator tell the story, sometimes even responding directly to the narrator. If I was dropped into the middle of one of Lackey’s books without seeing the cover, I’d know it was hers because of this pattern (though L.E. Modesitt Jr does it, too). Here’s an example:
These issues probably wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t view them as pervasive pattern throughout Lackey’s work. I doubt they’re likely to bother most readers.
The audiobook version of The Black Gryphon was produced in 2018 by Tantor Audio and pleasantly read by Gary Furlong.
The next two MAGE WARS audiobooks, The White Gryphon and The Silver Gryphon, have just recently been released in audio format and I’ll read them next.