The Black Gryphon

by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Cover image

Series: Mage Wars #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1994
Printing: January 1995
ISBN: 0-88677-643-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 460

Buy at Powell's Books

The Mage Wars series (or the Gryphon series, which isn't its official title but which is in all of the titles) is part of the sprawling Valdemar mega-series, but it's a prequel to all of the other stories. It's also slightly challenging if you're reading in publication order, since it was published simultaneously with the Mage Storms series. If you're following publication order, in theory you should interleave the two series, but I hate doing that. I'm therefore reading it after Mage Winds and before Mage Storms. We'll see whether that was a good idea when I get to the next series.

You could, if you really wanted to, read this series before any other Valdemar book. As a prequel from the deep past of Valdemar's world, it doesn't depend on the other series, and you'll get a rediscovery of lost knowledge feel from later books. The downside is that it's a rather boring introduction, and that order would spoil a lot of the revelatory flow of the other series (particularly Elspeth's adventures in the Mage Winds books).

I'm now getting into the Valdemar books that I've only read once. I've been putting off continuing my Valdemar re-read because this series was next and I remember being rather bored with it the first time I read it. But I'm re-reading for the world-building and background as much as for the characters, and this is a huge chunk of world background that fills in the bones underneath Winds of Fate and its sequels. Here's why Dhorisha is a crater, here's why the Pelagiris forests are such a mess, here's where Ma'ar starts, here's the origin of both the gryphons and K'Leshya, and here, finally, we get to see the legendary Urtho on the page.

The problem with writing novels set in the epic backstory of your universe is that it's hard to live up to the drama that readers have invented for themselves. A lot of The Black Gryphon is background to events Valdemar readers already know will happen, creating a corresponding lack of surprise. I reached the end of the book and said "yup, that's pretty much what everyone said had happened."

Lackey and Dixon do try to do some interesting things here, one of which being the backgrounding of the war. The Black Gryphon starts in the middle of a long-running conflict between Urtho and Ma'ar and doesn't follow the generals or the battles. The protagonists, instead, are a kestra'chern (a type of psychiatrist and spiritual healer who also uses sex, with the expected conflicts of people who incorrectly think of them as prostitutes) and the eventual leader of the gryphons (Skandranon, who is referenced in later books and who provides the title). We get some combat scenes from Skandranon and later another gryphon, but a lot of the book is Amberdrake fighting the effects of the war instead of the details of the war itself.

There's a deep and moving story in that idea, and in some of the attached love stories that play out in the army camps. There's also a great story somewhere around Urtho: a brilliant but detached mage who is way out of his depth trying to run an army but smart enough to gather good people around him. He's also a creator of new life, including the gryphons. The Black Gryphon tries to talk about Urtho's paternalism, the weird emotional currents of his relationship with his creations, and the places Urtho keeps things from others for, supposedly, their own good. If this book had looked a bit deeper at the support structure for an army that's trying to be humane, or at the ways in which Urtho strays far too close to being an abusive tyrant through inaction despite having the best of intentions at every step, I think it could have said something significant.

Unfortunately, that's not this book. This book is full of relentlessly black and white morality (the flaw of much of the Valdemar series) that bleaches away interesting shades of grey. Urtho is good and wise by authorial fiat, and Ma'ar is the same utterly irredeemable force of evil that he is in other books. The story skitters over Urtho's odd tyrannies, making them all better with the pure power of friendship and good intentions. There just isn't much emotional depth, and while I don't expect that of Lackey in general, this story really needed that depth to work.

What we get instead is repetition, as Lackey and Dixon hit the same emotional notes with Amberdrake repeatedly. This is one of those books that makes me wonder if Lackey was trying to write too many novels in a short time than was good for their individual quality. (Collaborations often mean that the lesser-known name is doing all the work, but Dixon is Lackey's husband and the tone of the book is sufficiently Lackey that I don't think that happened here.) It felt padded by Amberdrake turning over the same emotional rocks repeatedly, to largely the same effect.

This is, in short, not Lackey's finest effort, although it does have its moments. As always, Lackey is at her best when writing psychological healing narratives. Zhaneel's story is a bit too easy, but the dynamic between Amberdrake and Winterhart is the best part of the book. And The Black Gryphon does tell the reader exactly what led up to the Cataclysm and why. There are no major surprises, but there are some small ones, and it's a nice payoff for the lore-obsessed (like me).

This is missable unless you want the full world-building behind Valdemar's past, and it's not the best writing. But if you're heavily invested in the Valdemar universe, it's at least readable and provides an important bit of the history.

Followed by The White Gryphon.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-10-26

Last modified and spun 2017-10-27