The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey

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Publication date – January 1, 1995

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It is an age when Valdemar is yet unfounded, its organization of Heralds yet unformed, and magic is still a wild and uncontrolled force.

Skandranon Rashkae is perhaps the finest specimen of his race, with gleaming ebony feathers, majestic wingspan, keen magesight and sharp intelligence. Courageous, bold, and crafty, Skan is everything a gryphon should be. He is the fulfillment of everything that the Mage of Silence, the human sorcerer called Urtho, intended to achieve when he created these magical beings to be his champions, the defenders of his realm–a verdant plain long coveted by the evil mage Maar.

Now Maar is once again advancing on Urtho’s Keep, this time with a huge force spearheaded by magical constructs of his own–cruel birds of prey ready to perform any evil their creator may demand of them. And when one of Urtho’s Seers wakes from a horrifying vision in which she sees a devastating magical weapon being placed in the hands of Maar’s common soldiers, Skandrannon is sent to spy across enemy lines, cloaked in the protective of Urtho’s powerful Spell of Silence.

Thoughts: The Black Gryphon takes us back into the pre-history of Valdemar, into a time when the world of Velgarth was very different from what readers have grown accustomed to. This trilogy was published alongside the Mage Storms books, each echoes of the other since this trilogy deals with the original Cataclysm and the events surrounding it. Most interestingly, we get to see both Urtho and Ma’ar in their original incarnations, as well as gryphons, and the Kaled’a’in before they split into the Shin’a’in and Tayledras (and the lost clan k’Leshya, of course). It’s an interesting look at the origins of what we’ve come to know and love about Velgarth.

It was interesting especially to see Urtho. In previous books, Urtho has been talked about, mostly by gryphons, as being second only to god. They speak reverently of him, which is to be expected given that it’s no secret that Urtho created them all. But here we get to see Urtho unmasked, as a flawed human who happened to have a lot of magical power and creativity. Particularly interesting was the way he kept the gryphons close to him by keeping the secret of their fertility to himself. Now, I can understand and appreciate Skandranon’s anger at finding this out, and finding out that it was a very simple thing, but what I can’t appreciate so much was his utter acceptance of it later on. He likened it to a parent just wanting to keep their children close, and so that made everything okay, because it was done out of love and affection. As though love and affection can never lead down a dark path, can never yield anything that might be bad or selfish. Urtho was a deeply flawed man this way, in his selfishness. I couldn’t help but think it similar to a parent who never teaches their children what food to eat, in order to keep the children reliant on them and their information. It may be done out of a desire to give the kid a good diet and make sure they eat properly, but ultimately it’s a selfish thing that is in no way good. And Urtho didn’t just have responsibility for one gryphon this way. He held the secret to continuing their entire species.

But as much as I disagreed with Skan and Urtho in their reconciliation over this, I have to admit that I did like seeing a man previously portrayed as the ultimate in everything being revealed to be as flawed as the rest of us, prone to anger and selfishness and other stupid human things. For all he did, for all his power, he was still a man.

Conversely, although we’ve seen plenty of Ma’ar in previous books, and although he’s an ever-looming threat in this book, we see almost nothing of him directly. He shows up at the end, simply in order to die and hint that he’ll be back. Granted, a very disturbing scene, but I couldn’t help but feel that Lackey wanted us to fear Ma’ar based on what we’d read in every other book rather than what’s actually happening in this book. In some ways, it worked, because readers of previous books know what Ma’ar is capable of, and that he doesn’t necessarily have to be seen to be felt. On the other hand, he became a nebulous sort of insubstantial fear here. I was more worried about what Shaiknam or Levas would do than what Ma’ar would do, because I knew the inevitable outcome.

I suppose that’s the downside to backstories. You know what’s going to happen in the end, because you’ve seen the future. It’s hard to create tension about a character whose actions you’ve already seen and whose future path is already written.

Interesting, though, and something I didn’t catch last time I read this book, was something that could be taken as a hint that Ma’ar was the one to start the Eastern Empire in the first place. Now, I can’t find confirmation of this anywhere, but he does say that he’s created an Empire that will last long after he dies, and everybody is fleeing into the west to get away from Ma’ar and his influence… Official word says that it was founded by a bunch of stranded mercenaries after the Mage Wars, but wouldn’t have been easier for them to say, “Ma’ar held all these lands before, and he’s gone now, so it’s our turn,” than to start from scratch. There were, after all, a lot of lands united under Ma’ar’s influence… But that’s just speculation and can’t be proven.

But regardless of speculation, and in spite of the few flaws the book contained, it was quite interesting to take a step back in time and see things as they used to be, before Velgarth as we know it was really formed, and to see characters we’ve really only heard tales on in other books. This turned them from legends into very real characters, people who could know as much as we know anyone in any book, and was a lot of fun to see. Definitely a book that fans of the series should take the time to read, even if you really already know how it will end. Just because we know the big picture doesn’t mean we’re familiar with all the little details that make the story and the world so rich and expansive.

2 comments on “The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey

  1. Thank you. I'm glad you think so; I've always been of the opinion that older books can be just as enjoyable to read as newer books, and there's no reason to slight them just because they aren't as recently on the shelves.

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