The sequel to The Crystal Gryphon doubles down on stalwart Joisan and damaged Kerovan. Oh, is he damaged. He’s so damaged he won’t even let himself be married to his own wife.
As the story begins, the survivors of Ithkrypt are settled in the Abbey of Norsdale, but Kerovan is gone. Joisan leaves the redoubtable Nalda in charge and goes looking for him.
She’s making a choice here. Duty to her people is one thing, but her priority, first and always, is her husband.
Kerovan has not been treating her well. He’s refused to consummate the marriage, and now he’s disappeared.
Joisan understands his childhood trauma and does her best to forgive it, but she is not giving up on him. She’s not letting him dump her and bolt, either.
Almost immediately after she leaves the Abbey, she meets a pair of Object Lessons: a witch named Elys (who doesn’t know what she is, just that she has powers; people in High Hallack don’t know about Estcarp) and a warrior named Jervon. These two are clearly life-bonded, and are to each other what Joisan desperately wants herself and Kerovan to be.
This is a thing in Norton: the outsider looking in on happy lovers, and feeling sadly left out and rather jealous. It happens to Kemoc and Kaththea in the Tregarth series. It definitely happens here. I find myself wondering if this is something the author herself felt in her life. Hard to say of course, but still.
Kerovan meanwhile is in a sad state. He’s tied completely in knots over Joisan, and feels he’s toxic and should stay far away from her. He’s also obsessed and intermittently possessed by the dream of an ancient gryphon-man named Landisl, who sleeps in a mysterious hall or tomb but seems to be hovering on the verge of waking.
While Kerovan contends with these emotional upheavals, he’s offered himself as scout and ally to a lord, Imgry, who has some hope of uniting the remnants of the Dales against the invaders from Alizon. These invaders are actually just passing through; Imgry has discovered that they’re searching for some treasure in the Waste, which they hope will help them oppose an ancient enemy. Kerovan volunteers, or is volunteered, to venture into the Waste and learn more, and also try to find allies to help Imgry with his war.
Joisan meanwhile travels with Elys and Jervon, and learns a little from Elys about the crystal gryphon and what powers she herself may have—not much, Elys thinks, but Joisan doesn’t give up hope on that score. She works to train and expand such powers as she has, and to discover what the gryphon pendant is and how to use it.
Kerovan alone and Joisan with company foray separately into the Waste. Joisan tracks Kerovan to a mysterious wood. There, we discover, Kerovan has met a stranger and been taken to the hidden fastness of the Wereriders, where he presents Imgry’s case, asks for help against Alizon, but is refused. He inadvertently brings terrible news: that the Thas are moving underground.
Joisan and her companions are caught in a trap and she is swallowed by the earth, where she encounters the evil Thas firsthand. The gryphon helps her somewhat, and also helps her to contact Kerovan mentally.
Kerovan comes out of the Wereriders’ wood to find Elys and Jervon frantically digging for Joisan. Kerovan has been blissfully ignorant of Joisan’s travels, believing that she’s been safe in the Abbey. He’s shocked to discover that she came after him.
And of course he’s convinced that he is not worthy and she should have nothing to do with him. “I was bound to a dark past, perhaps a worse future. She must be free of me.” This is a refrain, just as persistent as her “Nope. I’m staying with you.”
Kerovan is a bit of a drama queen. And really should know by now that Joisan is impossible to get rid of.
Elys helps him to scry for Joisan and assure himself that she’s alive. He goes hunting for her, with the other two for backup—and in the process makes a choice. It’s the same one Joisan made: love over duty. He sets the mission for Imgry aside and goes after his wife.
Joisan in her underground wanderings finds a mysterious cavern full of ancient magic, marked with the sign of a winged orb. The place appears to be of the Light, and she’s compelled to walk around and around it until she passes through what we (but not Joisan) recognize as a portal.
The portal takes her to the ruins of a castle or manor surrounded by gardens and orchards. She has no idea where she is on the map, but the place is a true oasis, protected by good powers.
The place has guardians: a small, cranky bear and a pair of insouciant cats. All of them are able to speak to her telepathically. None of them is impressed with her. They let her know that the gryphon is a “Key,” though they aren’t inclined to explain what they mean by that.
Kerovan, traveling with Elys and Jervon, has a powerful vision of Joisan. This exacerbates his already significant problem with dreams and compulsions, and makes him even more certain that he’s bad news for her and everyone else. Meanwhile, like Joisan before him, he’s half envious and half baffled by the pairing of witch/Wisewoman and mundane warrior. He starts to wonder if it’s possible that Joisan the normal human being might, just might, be able to tolerate Kerovan’s half-inhuman self.
Eventually they come to an ancient road that offers safe passage through dangerous and magic-ridden country. Kerovan manages to realize that he’s now completely fixated on finding Joisan. “She was all that was real now in my world.”
Kerovan does nothing by halves. Maybe because he’s a halfling, and he never stops fighting that aspect of himself?
While Kerovan obsesses, Joisan explores the ruined castle and discovers that it looks out on the sheared-off remnant of the same kind of road that Kerovan is traveling on. Things are coming full circle, it’s clear.
On the road, Kerovan starts to perceive strange shadows and possibly past travelers. Abruptly Elys and Jervon have to leave—they’re “forbidden,” she says, to go farther. She’s devastated, but she can’t fight the compulsion. Kerovan has to go on alone, at least for now.
Kerovan is pulled onward by a compulsion of his own, until he comes to the ruined castle. He meets the cats, who tell him to wait—and finally he reunites with Joisan.
Joisan meanwhile has been exploring the area and ingratiating herself with the cats, who tell her that dark things are stirring and that this warded place is named Carfallin, and the Waste is more properly called Arvon. The rising of the dark isn’t humans’ fault, they say; it may even be a natural cycle.
In the process of exploration she finds a single intact chamber, which puffs to dust when she opens it, all except a most peculiar cat’s-head ring that she is clearly meant to have. Just as she puts it on, the cats alert her to Kerovan’s arrival.
Their reunion is remarkably passionate. Kerovan hauls himself back, but Joisan isn’t having it. She won’t let him shut her out again. “I have no pride,” she says.
But she does, in her way. She holds to honor and her sworn word, and to love even when its object does his best to drive her off.
Kerovan is fighting himself every step of the way, to keep from giving in. He’s that convinced that he’s not worthy.
They both back off a bit and defuse the situation for the time being by filling each other in on what’s happened since the last time they met, particularly their respective encounters with Elys and Jervon. Since a storm is coming, Kerovan somewhat grudgingly allows Joisan to invite him into the ruin.
Once inside, Joisan continues talking about Elys and Jervon, leaning hard on the fact that they’re totally different, not even of the same human type, but they’re still a couple.
The conversation wanders off to further catching up, until she shows Kerovan the ring. When he touches the hand that wears it, the blue-green armband he’s been using as a defense against the dark and a guide to places and creatures of the light starts to glow. The ring responds by lighting up.
It dawns on Kerovan, as it has long since on Joisan, that he has to stay with Joisan after this. It’s not his idea—he’s being moved around by Powers again—but he more or less accepts it. In a way, it’s a kind of agency: at least he’s making a decision to do what he’s being forced to do. And lord knows, Joisan has more than enough agency for both of them.
Meanwhile Kerovan is fighting the dreams again and the sense of being possessed by another, possibly past self. In his dreams he hears two Old Ones talking or arguing. One, who appears to be evil, is called Galkur.
This, Kerovan learns, is the entity whom his mother tried to summon, but failed. Another came instead, and the result was Kerovan with his cloven hooves and his yellow eyes. Kerovan represents Galkur’s failure, and the second voice in the dream mocks him for it.
Kerovan recognizes the second voice as the Old One he met in the Waste in the previous book, the being called Neevor. Just as he realizes this, he sees again the vision of the gryphon-man asleep, but now he’s about to wake, and Kerovan can almost, but only almost, access the memories of his past life.
When Kerovan wakes, he’s as cruel to Joisan as he ever was, and completely obsessed with finding the Sleeper. They leave the ruined castle together, doing their mutual best to be open about where they’re going and why. Joisan realizes in the midst of this she’ll never go home again. She’s part of the Waste now. She’ll always come back to it.
They’re still not really together, and Joisan is reduced to tears by it. She does learn from the male cat, who has followed them, that the lady who owned her ring “loved deeply” in her time, and the ring is a great gift.
The ring helps Joisan arrive at the understanding that Kerovan can’t give her more of himself right now because he’s consumed by the quest to find out who he is. He is incapable of resisting the compulsion.
Joisan is incapable of letting him leave her behind. He tries to set her free, but she refuses.
Evil attacks wearing the form of Kerovan’s late mother. (She’s called Temphera here; she was Tephana in the previous book. Bad copy editor. No cookie.) Kerovan drives her off, and he and Joisan speculate as to whether hate can endure past death. He acknowledges that Joisan is amazing and that—however reluctantly—he loves her. They actually cling to each other, which is the most physical contact they’ve had.
Naturally Kerovan can’t let this moment last. He has to drive her off again, because he’s a bad person and he’s bad for her and he has nothing to give her.
Joisan, yet again, isn’t having it. Kerovan, yet again, has to admit that he’s outmatched.
Finally they come to the big denouement that’s been building since the first book. There, the conflict played out between Kerovan and his mother and cousin, with other powers working through them. Here, at last, the powers come out in the open.
They find themselves at the same dead end in the road as at the end of the first book, but this time Joisan is able to use the key she’s had all along: the crystal gryphon. The globe shatters and the gryphon flies free—through the mountain, drawing the two humans with it.
They find themselves in the hall of Kerovan’s dream. The Sleeper wakes and acknowledges Kerovan as kin, and tells Joisan the gryphon’s name: Telpher. Then he takes them through a portal to yet another ancient stronghold.
Neevor shows up at this point. This is the culmination of a very old conflict, and he’s here, more or less, as a referee. We discover that the gryphon man, Landisl, foiled Galkur’s attempt to take human form through Tephana’s summoning, and that Galkur has been helping the Hounds of Alizon destroy the Dales and make their way into Arvon.
Neevor doesn’t take credit for sending Kerovan and Joisan to wake Landisl. That did that themselves, he says. But now it’s time for Neevor and Landisl to take over.
In the conflict that follows, Kerovan and Joisan have a role to play after all. Joisan feeds him strength, and he pulls out a piece of ancient blue-green metal (it’s called quan-iron, we’re about to learn) that he found in the Waste.
But Galkur knows how to manipulate Kerovan through his own insecurities. Kerovan is of the dark, he says. It’s as obvious as the hooves he stands on.
Joisan fights to keep him from giving in, but he throws her off. He tries to kill himself, but Landisl reminds him at the last instant that only a creature of the light can wear quan-iron.
Galkur keeps leering and mocking, and Kerovan gets mad. Finally—finally he catches on to the truth. “You are you alone. What you make of life lies within you.”
And there’s Joisan, whom he finally has enough sense to choose over the dark. He defies Galkur, who keeps calling him “son,” and faces him down.
This is a fight for possession of Kerovan. Galkur keeps pushing long after he’s lost, until Landisl points out that Kerovan is his own individual self, and Galkur has broken the “Law” of the Old Ones in trying to meddle in human affairs.
A battle ensues. Joisan is wounded, which maddens Kerovan. Kerovan’s wristband blasts minions of evil. Good, led by Landisl and aided by Neevor, the gryphon, and Joisan, wins the day. Landisl and the gryphon give their lives; Joisan grieves mostly for the gryphon.
Neevor offers Kerovan a choice. He only gets it once. He can inherit Landisl’s power, or he can choose to be an ordinary human.
Kerovan chooses ordinary—and Joisan. Neevor gives them his blessing, and admits them to “the world of your choice.” (Interesting echo here of Simon Tregarth finding the world of his heart through the Siege Perilous, and taking to the Witch World in the first book of the series.) And then, at long last, Joisan and Kerovan manage—chastely—to get it together.
This is a rather frustrating book. Joisan is relentless in her determination to stay with Kerovan. Kerovan is one long whine and moan of “I am not worthy.” By the halfway point I was ready to smack him silly, and ready to smack Joisan for not doing it on her own account.
He has an excuse of sorts. He really needs to find out who he is and what he is. He manages that, and comes out ahead: he’s more than the sum of his parts, and he’s better than his peculiar genetics.
Meanwhile we get a grand tour of the Waste and the realm of Arvon, and we have an encounter with telepathic cats. Andre was a cat person—she used to say she was owned and operated by a herd of them—and here we meet two very opinionated members of the species. They’re ancient and apparently immortal, and humans to them are mere children. But the male at least takes to Joisan, and tells her what she needs to know about her magic ring.
This isn’t the heart-book that The Crystal Gryphon is, but it rounds out the story nicely, and after far more foot-dragging and self- and Joisan-flagellating than strictly necessary, Kerovan actually surrenders to the inevitable. He’s a sexual being, or a romantic one in Andre’s straitlaced terms, and his true lifemate is right there.
He really is nasty to her. But as I said, he has an excuse—more or less. And he makes up for it in the end. More or less. He’d better treat her right is all I can say.
Though that’s a story for another book. I am not going to discuss the collaborations for the most part, but Gryphon’s Eyrie was on sale when I happened to be checking ebook ads, and collaborator Ann Crispin was a dear friend and we miss her greatly—cancer took her far too soon. I’m going to do that reread next, to finish off the story of Joisan and Kerovan. Then off to the other tales of High Hallack.
Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.