The Valdemar Reread

Ancient History: Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon’s The Black Gryphon

The last book I blogged for the Valdemar Reread was Storm Warning. Usually, this would mean I would go on to reread the rest of the Mage Storms trilogy, in order. And I am very excited about reading it—there are not a lot of books that feature teenage male protagonists who take notes in shorthand and invent the sandwich. Did I mention that Karal invented the sandwich? Valdemar has had hot-water heaters for over 700 years, and has yet to invent the steam engine, so inventing the sandwich potentially represents a major leap forward in Valdemaran technology as well as a revolution in Valdemar’s pie-centric local cuisine. I can hardly wait to read more about Karal and his adventures in using careful record-keeping and the assistance of his cadre of psychic animals to save Valdemar, Karse, possibly Iftel, and, if my dreams come true, Menmellith, from the relentless onslaught of magical storms from the distant past!

But I am waiting. The Mage Storms and the Mage Wars trilogies were released concurrently, starting in 1994. The Mage Wars books were first by a few months and were staggered with the Mage Storms books. The historical origin of the storms in Storm Warning suggests that a complete understanding of this story requires me to examine it the way readers would have encountered it when the books were first published—a little chunk of ancient history, followed by a little chink of “modern” Valdemar. I’m a little bit backwards, because I read Storm Warning first. I don’t regret this; I’ve been making Karal-inspired sandwiches. But I feel it’s important to take on the remainder of the series in the proper order, which is why this blog post is about The Black Gryphon.

Like many of the Valdemar books, this one opens with a map. Because this book is set before the creation of the craters I know and love, it’s nowhere I recognize,. I’ve worked very hard to address my disorientation by making one of the rivers match the Terrilee, but this speculation is not well-supported by the available evidence. We’re in new, uncharted territory! Lackey and Dixon waste no time explaining that gryphons, magically created by Urtho the Mage, are intelligent and amazing creatures. Their counterparts, the makaar, were created by the evil mage Ma’ar. The titular gryphon, Skandranon weeps for them, because they will never know love. And then he sticks a talon into an enemy’s eye socket and it goes squish.

A lot of the story is like that. We learn some things about stuff way back in the deep depths of Velgarth’s history, and then there’s an interlude with some gripping action. This is not a bad way to present the truly enormous amount of world-building that Lackey and Dixon need to cram in here. We’re meeting characters who are new to us, in a place that is new to us, in a time no one has ever talked about. Some parts of The Black Gryphon feel like a vocabulary lesson. One with lots of apostrophes. At the beginning of chapter two, Skandranon the stealth gryphon returns home gravely injured so we can start the lengthy process of learning what a kestra’chern is. And that is an amazing process of discovery.

We need to know what kestra’chern are because Skandranon’s human friend Amberdrake is one. He and Skan share the services of the hertasi, Gesten, which suggested to me that they might be lovers. I mean, when two intelligent beings share strong feelings for each other AND a household employee, I feel it’s logical to suspect that they might share a close partnership of more kinds. Later events reveal that humans and gryphons are not sexually compatible because of their size difference. So apparently Skan and Amberdrake are just very close friends who share a lizard servant and think of each other with a great deal of affection. I’m disappointed, but not too distracted to take note of clues—kestra’chern earn enough to hire domestic help. Gesten also handles Amberdrake’s professional appointment schedule, supplies, and billing.

Kestra’chern are in high demand for what they do, which includes, but is probably not limited to: massage, chiropractic care, psychotherapy, makeovers, wearing fancy clothes, feeding their clients fancy treats, and having sex with clients for money BUT ONLY if that meets the therapeutic needs of a human client. Amberdrake has Healing powers, which appears to be a little bit unusual—most people with Healing powers are Healers rather than kestra’chern. Many kestra’chern are also Empaths, although it’s not entirely necessary. Non-empath kestra’chern are trained in reading the subtle body language signals that reveal their clients’ emotional states. Amberdrake’s powers are truly exciting; At one point, he heals a client’s ruptured disc.

Kestra’chern are distinct from Healers, who also deal with injuries and illnesses and are also often Empaths, but do not provide massage, chiropractic care, or sex. They are also distinct from trondi’irn who provide day-to-day physical care and some Healing for gryphons. And, of course, kestra’chern, Healers, and trondi’irn are all different from perchi, who are prostitutes. The health coverage Urtho offers to his forces includes traditional Healing for injuries and trondi’irn for routine care (gryphons only). Kestra’chern and perchi are out-of-network. Kestra’chern services can be purchased by individuals, and are also available to members of the military who are being rewarded for valor. I think there were some battles or something that took place while I was working all that out, but if you’ve been following this re-read you already know that I’m far more interested in the health plan.

The war is going badly for Urtho’s forces, who have lost their stronghold in the previously secure territory in the Pass of Stelvi. Ma’ar’s forces have new and terrible weapons, and a penchant for torturing gryphons. Urtho is a man of peace, who has been forced into military command by the weight of circumstances. He would prefer to focus his time on his philosophy and his inventions. Ma’ar is a power-hungry totalitarian. In his youth, Amberdrake was a student at a medical school in Ma’ar’s native country. He was there when Ma’ar rose to power through assassination, and witnessed the beginnings of Ma’ar’s nationalist campaign against outsiders. Amberdrake was protected by his teachers until he could escape, but by that time, his family had disappeared.

Urtho is also concerned about the strength of his people, and of his gryphons, but carries out this agenda by controlling gryphon breeding. The gryphons are a genetically diverse population. Skandranon is a good example of the conformation expected of the breed, but Urtho has also created Zhaneel—the first gryphon to be more like a falcon than an eagle. Zhaneel’s physical differences made her an outcast. After she kills three makaar, she realizes her own potential and trains herself to use her unique abilities. Once she recovers from her emotional issues, she’s fierce.

Skandranon’s interest in Zhaneel catalyzes his quest for gryphon reproductive freedom. Gryphons can mate all they want, but without a secret spell performed by Urtho, they can’t breed. Urtho is a great guy—kind, caring, and very thoughtful. But that doesn’t mean Skandranon wants Urtho to handle his reproductive decisions. Skandranon and a small group of conspirators sneak into Urtho’s tower to steal the spell and spread word of it to other gryphons.

The story doesn’t drag at any point. There are compelling relationships and interesting bits of action and foreshadowing, and a sense that the plot is developing quickly all the way through. Despite this, all the meaningful action takes place in the last fifty pages. Ma’ar nearly kills Urtho, Skandranon delivers a bomb that nearly kills Ma’ar. Not-quite-dead Ma’ar kills himself promising to return, and then everyone but Urtho takes magical Gates out of Dodge. There are craters now! The final series of explosions and Gates unleashes the wild magic that will create the Uncleansed Lands. Here, the story starts to sound familiar. We already know that the Kaled’a’in people will divide themselves into the Shin’a’in, who ride the Dhorisha Plains and avoid magic, and the Tayledras, who live in Vales and pursue environmental hazard abatement and better living through Magery. The moment of division is about three major crises and a vast ocean of apostrophes away.

The not-entirely-final crisis magically bleaches the color out of Skandranon’s feathers, which sets up the title for the next book in publication order, The White Gryphon. I’ll be rereading that soon. What’s the most interesting thing about Urtho’s army? Tell me about it in the comments!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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