The Valdemar Reread

Mid-life Diplomatic Crisis: Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon’s The White Gryphon

The White Gryphon is the second book in Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon’s Mage Wars trilogy. It was published in 1997, in between Storm Warning and Storm Rising. While my current interests lie primarily with the Storm trilogy (which has calculus, shorthand, and sandwiches), I believe it is important to read these two series in the order they were published, because they deal with the consequences of the same cataclysm. That cataclysm took place at the tail end of The Black Gryphon, and it ended the Mage war between Urtho and Ma’ar.

The White Gryphon takes place approximately ten years after these events. The people of Clan k’Leshya have travelled far from Urtho’s tower (which is now either the middle of the Dhorisha Plains or the middle of Lake Evandim) to build a new city for themselves. The book’s cover features Skandranon rampant and Amberdrake in his Magical Indian costume: feathers, abs, and a very nice bathrobe. The city in the background uses a lot of blue on its roofs, which makes me think of Valdemar—and was probably the point.

Tragically, this book does not include a map. We still get to have fun with geography, though, because the newly built city of White Gryphon is on the western ocean. AAAAAH, THE WESTERN OCEAN!!! It’s a real thing! At long last, it is confirmed—Velgarth’s rivers have a place to go! THIS IS SO VERY FAR WEST!!! Literally no characters from any other book in the series have ever admitted to seeing the western ocean. And if that were not enough for you, Skandranon gets to make decisions about the municipal sewer system. He finds this tedious. I don’t! Lackey made a point of including flushing toilets in the Arrows series, and I am delighted to know that related technologies predate the Mage Wars. No word on how the city of White Gryphon is funding that infrastructure. My experience with this series suggests to me that it is totally plausible that people are being paid in tokens that can be exchanged for units of reiki and massage therapy.

This city is actually very well-planned. General Judeth, the genius who did all the planning, is my hero. Urban planning is difficult at all times, and is often complicated by the involvement of competing interests, like political machines. I would LOVE to read a book featuring a Valdemaran political machine. Boss Tweed-style honest graft versus Companions sounds like a good time to me. That’s not on the table here because we are way too far west and significantly too early in time for Valdemar. Nonetheless, General Judeth has designed a city that meets the needs of a diverse community and provides universal access for citizens of multiple different species. I would also LOVE to read the book about General Judeth, urban planning genius, her life and struggles, and her lifebonded lover. Kechara, the extremely powerful MindSpeaking gryphon Skan and Zhaneel adopted in the last book, is the telephone and emergency dispatch system. Our friend Skan is feeling old, and thinking about stepping up his exercise program. He’s weighed down by responsibilities. In Skan’s memory, the late Urtho asks “If not me, who?” Skandranon’s answer is “absolutely anyone else, please.” A mid-life crisis is an unbecoming look on a gryphon.

We first encounter Hadanelith, the main villain of this piece, when Amberdrake accuses him of fraudulently presenting himself as a kestra’chern. As Skan reflects, in any diverse group of people you’re going to get some jerks. Hadanelith is into creepy sex stuff. I find this annoying. In the first place, I think making the villain kinky is a cheap cliche. In the second place, I have no interest in reading about it. The good news for me is no one is forcing me to do this. I’m just looking for the clues that will help me unravel the mysteries facing Karal, my beloved creator of sandwiches. No part of this project requires me to read the narcissistic ramblings of a skeezy guy who’s overexcited about The Story of O. I’m going to skip all of the Hadanelith parts. I will acknowledge that we’ve seen another villain whose name ended in -nelith. I refuse to get over-excited about it. It’s only been ten years; It’s way too early for Ma’ar to have reincarnated, even using his personal shortcut, and Hadanelith isn’t a Mage. So you can all calm down now.

Here’s what I am paying attention to: There’s a strange ship coming into the harbor. Be still my heart! People on Velgarth have ships, and they sail them to and from exotic places, across the ocean we’ve never seen before! This is pretty damn exciting. You know what would be awesome? If there were a map. Then we might be able to figure out where the ship is coming from. I mean, I’ll settle. We have a ship. Until this moment, I wasn’t convinced that Lackey believed in those. It’s a ship with black people on it. We’ve only ever seen one of those on Velgarth before. He was one of Kero’s Skybolts. To be fair, any number of other characters could have been black. Lackey doesn’t always describe their skin color. Amberdrake explains that the Haighlei Empire is the only place on Velgarth that has black people. There may have been a later Haighlei diaspora. The assembled leaders of White Gryphon are mystified by their presence; How did these people get so far north? Ships move! It’s what the sails are for.

The crew of the ship is armed and apparently grumpy. They hang out in the bay at anchor, and the people of White Gryphon can’t get out to them because they don’t have any ships of their own. The local fishing boats are all out fishing. How will they get to the middle of the harbor? Dear me, this is a puzzle. After a wait of indeterminate length, the Haighlei give in and pull up to the dock, a display of naval competence that causes General Judeth to burst into spontaneous military planning. These people are dangerously skilled. Once their envoys are on the dock, the Council Leaders of White Gryphon suddenly realize they mostly aren’t dressed for this occasion. This is why politicians wear business suits. Amberdrake takes the lead, not because he’s the most important, but because he’s the most presentable. The Haighlei ask the settlers of White Gryphon to leave, as they’re trespassing on Haighlei territory.

General Judeth asserts the city’s right to exist in situ, as there were no territory markers on the cliffs when the Kaled’a’in arrived, and no sign of settlement for two days flight in any direction. How did these things become a matter of international agreement? When did the various and assorted people of White Gryphon become party to those agreements? And what’s the appropriate thing to wear while asserting your sovereignty to an embassy from a hostile empire? Most of the assembled city council members slink off to put on proper clothes, and they call in Lady Cinnabar. I didn’t pay much attention to her in the last book, because I’m a slacker. Cinnabar is a Healer with roots in the nobility. She can heal your wounds AND use the correct fork. Just the person you want handling your highly sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Judeth puts on thigh-high leather boots. That’s awesome honey, but no matter what the authors say, they are the mark of a dancing queen, not the mark of a cavalry commander. You need full range of motion through the knees if you’re going to ride a horse.

On their second, more formal, meeting, the Haighlei envoys are more conciliatory, and suggest that their emperor might be amenable to an alliance that would secure his northern border. An embassy from White Gryphon decamps to the Haighlei capital to pursue treaty negotiations. Circumstances favor their cause; Silver Veil, Amberdrake’s mentor from his training as a kestra’chern, is on the scene. Silver Veil fled Ma’ar all the way to the Haighlei, where she is providing services and advice to the Emperor. She fills the delegation in on the importance of tradition in Haighlei culture. The Gryphons’ cleaning lady fills them in on the Haighlei taboo against MindSpeakers. This might have been good to know about before the White Gryphon embassy set sail with a bunch of MindSpeakers, and not Lady Cinnabar. Oops. Haighlei culture emphasizes natural cooling systems, warm colors, tradition, afternoon naps, and an iron-clad caste system. From any other authors, I would expect these competing forces to lead to a revolution, but in this context I think the contrasts are primarily decorative.

Negotiations are underway when the Haighlei palace is shaken by a murder. We don’t know the victim’s name. For once, not because I forgot. Lackey and Dixon have not provided that information. Skan is going to investigate this murder of a person who doesn’t even rate a name. Three and a half pages after a murder is announced, we learn that the victim, still unnamed, is female. Two more victims are killed in the next week. All we know about them is that they were opposed to the treaty the White Gryphon delegation is negotiating with the Haighlei. We get to find out about both of them when Skan is informed about murder number three, because murder number two doesn’t rate an individual discussion. We are working with an English country village level of desensitization to violent crime. Meanwhile, the Emperor has invited Amberdrake’s lifebonded partner, Winterhart, to walk in his gardens with him, a move that scandalized the court. What happened with that? I’m sure it was boring. Anyway, now that three nameless opponents of the Haighlei/k’Leshya treaty have been brutally slaughtered, we’re suddenly someplace completely different meeting Kanshin the thief. I like thieves. They’re plucky. I also like coherent narratives, but you can’t have everything in one book. Unfortunately for me, Kanshin the thief is not charming OR plucky. He’s working with a renegade Mage who goes by the name “no one.” So that’s the murder mystery solved. Oh look, Hadanelith is here.

I’m skipping those parts, but let’s just take a second to talk about how ridiculous this is, because the process of getting Hadanelith over to the Haighlei Empire required our nameless Mage to scry him out and then send a very fast, very secret boat to pick him up, and I’m not sure how the communication for this project was managed. And to be clear, I’m not sure because I wasn’t paying attention. Because I don’t care. This part of the story is a hot mess that has no larger significance in re. the magical cataclysm. It is resolved very quickly because the Emperor’s court includes a Truthteller. The White Gryphon delegation has been suspected of these murders, but all they need to do to clear their names is tell the Truthteller they didn’t do it. We need to look elsewhere for drama.

The Emperor has failed to realize that Winterhart is lifebonded to Amberdrake. He’s progressed from talking with her in his garden to proposing marriage. Silver Veil is in love with the Emperor herself, but Haighlei tradition keeps them apart. Tradition can only be changed in the Eclipse Ceremony, which happens once every twenty years. To my lasting regret, I don’t know enough astronomy to understand the kind of solar system that produces lunar eclipses in the same terrestrial location once and only once in a twenty year cycle. No one has reported any eclipses in Valdemar in any of the earlier books in the series. That’s a somewhat more interesting question an how the plot of The White Gryphon is going to resolve itself. Ultimately, that will involve two abductions, some long distance phone calls, the Emperor’s disgraced brother, and an exciting moment when Hadanelith soils himself. It ends well for the good, and Skan decides to give up politics and lead the Silver Gryphons, White Gryphon’s police force.

The baroque intricacies of the plot are only interesting to me for what they reveal about the cataclysm that is also happening in the Storms trilogy. Herald Myste’s gift of acting as a human Truth Spell is similar to the Haighlei Truthteller’s. There may still be another Empire with sympathies for Clan k’Leshya that could conceivably stand with Valdemar against the Eastern Empire. And, most significantly, we now know why the gryphons insisted that Elspeth learn to use small lines of magic, and not just the powerful lines and nodes she’s capable of channeling. The magical cataclysm destroyed all of these, leaving Mages to struggle with weak and unpredictable sources of magical energy. Blood magic was unaffected. It’s highly unethical, but likely to be tempting for Mages who are witnessing the collapse of civilization as they know it. I read Storm Rising and the rest of the Mage Wars and Mage Storms trilogy roughly twenty years ago, and I can’t remember them well. I’m looking forward to discovering which of these issues will become relevant when I am reunited with Karal, my favorite Karsite ambassador ever, in Storm Rising.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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