Even in fantasy, having a non-human main character is unusual. There are plenty of great examples, but it’s far from the norm. Even rarer still is the non-human main character a mythological creature like a gryphon.
Having established gryphons as sentient characters in the Mage Winds trilogy, Lackey and her husband Larry Dixon bring the focus on them in this trilogy while also going back in time in her world a good several thousand years. We see a continent-spanning war between a would-be tyrant and a reluctant mage leading armies due to circumstances beyond his control. However, neither of these is the focus of the books themselves.
Instead, everything hinges on the actions of a gryphon who enjoys being a hero a little too much and his human friends who try to help with disaster control when things go awry. Lackey even includes a love story for the gryphon, a believable and poignant relationship that shows even the most outlandish creatures can love.
This trilogy also highlights, yet again, Lackey’s dedication to bringing diversity to her world. The secondary protagonist (unusual in that it’s not a love interest for the main character) is from the culture which will spawn the brown-skinned Shin’a’in of Tarma from Vows and Honor and the Hawkbrothers, central to the Mage Winds trilogy and integral to several other books and trilogies. Also, in the second book we’re introduced to the Black Kings, a loose confederacy of dark-skinned, culturally equal yet totally foreign people who the refugees of the wars must rely on for their survival.
Date Published: 1994, 1995, 1996
Genre: High Fantasy
Number of Times I’ve Read It: At least 20—I honestly have no idea
Content Warning: Violence, mentions of rape, mentions of magic-induced mental trauma, mentions of torture.
Accessibility: Available in eBook, audiobook, and print as individual books or an omnibus
The Black Gryphon (5/5 Stars)
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 protection of Urtho’s powerful Spell of Silence.
The White Gryphon (4/5 Stars)
It has been ten years since the magical Cataclysm, which destroyed the twin strongholds of the two world’s most powerful Mages, killing Urtho, creator of the gryphons, and sending his forces into exile. Now Urthro’s peoples–human and non-human alike live in a terraced city carved into the face of a gleaming white cliff on the edge of the Western Ocean. Secure at least, …until the fleet of the mysterious Black Kings appears in their harbor, bringing envoys who inform the residents of White Gryphon that their newfound home lies on the northern perimeter of lands claimed by this powerful kingdom. Desperate not to lose their hard won home, Skandranon, along with his longtime friend Amberdrake–agree to accompany the envoys back to the Court of the Black Kings, hoping to negotiate an alliance. …When a high ranking noble who opposes this alliance is found murdered–Skandranon and Amberdrake realize that they are up against unknown enemies who will stop at nothing, even the use of diabolical Blood Magic, to destroy White Gryphon.
The Silver Gryphon (3/5 Stars)
A dozen years of peace have passed in the city of White Gryphon – providing well deserved and much needed security for the people who had lost their homes in the magical Cataclysm which killed the Mage Urtho, creator of the gryphons. But the inhabitants of White Gryphon have not forgotten their long struggles, and have trained an elite guard force, the Silver Gryphons, to protect their city, and if necessary, to join with the army of the Black Kings for mutual defense.
Going back in time before the founding of Valdemar or any other recognizable country in Lackey’s world is a bit of a jolt, but thankfully she eases the transition by having one of the most engaging, and infuriating, main characters out of the entire Velgarth collection. No matter what he’s doing, Skandranon—known through most of the book as Skan—is entertaining while doing it. He is almost as much of a hero as he thinks he is, and his exploits end up saving a large number of people in The Black Gryphon, the first book of the trilogy. His counterpart, Amberdrake, is the introvert to his extrovert in many ways, but he’s also fun to read about as he introduces us to the culture that predates and gives birth to the two we’re familiar with from other books. (Even if you haven’t read them yet because you decided to read in chronological order, the culture is fascinating.)
The other great thing about The Black Gryphon is that we get to see events that shaped the way Velgarth looks in the future, from its magic to its cultures. There are hints of future cultures throughout the book, and the events that lead to the end of the wars literally shake the world to its foundation and change how magic works for centuries at the very least.
In The White Gryphon, we learn about the aftermath of war and trying to rebuild in a totally foreign land. The refugees must send envoys to the Black King who rules the land they find themselves in at the end of the war. There’s refreshingly no racial tension despite the different skin color among all the actors in motion, although there is certainly cultural tension as the culture of the Black Kings is much more rigid and formal than any of the refugees are used to. This causes conflicts that almost lead to disaster.
The Silver Gryphon jumps ahead in time and tells an almost unrelated tale featuring the offspring of Skan and Amberdrake. It is my least favorite of the three, but it does manage to tie in some of the war’s after effects, so it doesn’t feel entirely unrelated. Most of my issues are with the main characters, who I don’t like as much as previous characters. Since Lackey’s books are so character-driven, that’s a problem for me when reading this. Sometimes in a reread I’ll skip The Silver Gryphon altogether, although it’s a decent book with a moderately strong plot. The amount of action in it should satisfy those who like a more action-oriented book. (Now that I think about it, that might be my problem!)
I’d recommend this trilogy to anyone looking for a less Euro-centric version of fantasy. Its mix of skin colors and cultures creates a rich, lifelike tapestry without demonizing any large groups of people, a feat few artists of any media manage. The scope of the stories is large while the narration itself is focused on how individuals affect the world around them, also a selling point in my mind.
I suggest reading in publication order the first time trying to get through all the Valdemar series simply due to the way that she developed some details and how they’re introduced or mentioned in each trilogy. However, that isn’t a requirement, and there are plenty of people who have started chronologically or who just pick up somewhere in the middle.
© Allyson Pauley 2021