I’ve had the sequel to Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon’s The Black Gryphon, The White Gryphon, for nearly a decade, and until recently didn’t even now there was a book before it. The White Gryphon was one of many that I bought in college, then ended up too busy and/or distracted to ever finish reading. Recently a friend reminded me of the book and said I really aught to read The Black Gryphon first, and I hesitated. I did believe it was going to be good, but due to my own writing I was stubbornly trying to immerse myself in dragon based novels. However I finally gave in and decided to read it. I’m glad I did. Still, it was a bit of an adventure getting the book. I could have simply ordered it or bought it new at Barnes and Noble, that would have been much faster. More expensive too. If there’s one constant in my life, it’s being somewhere at the bottom of the 99%, and so lately my book purchases have almost always been from used book stores. I hit up several, either not finding it or finding it in such terrible condition that it wasn’t worth any kind of discount. While off on business about a month ago I had a chance to browse another, and thankfully they had it. The spine had been well loved (i.e. abused like the Detroit Lions the past decade) but the front and back cover, along with the pages were in near mint condition. Short story long, I finally bought it, along with Anne McCaffrey’s The White Dragon.

So yes, an Othello purchase.

It looked like that, but bigger.

I’m yet to read any other Lackey novels, so I’m not sure what percentage of this book is her and how much is Dixon, but at least one of them is fantastic at characterization, including several human characters I truly liked. Amazing. This really is a character driven novel with only brief moments of action, including a both disturbing and exciting first chapter, where most of the overriding plot occurs in the background. It’s a simple set up, with an evil mage named Ma’ar, who seems to have a much deeper back story than the authors let on, is at war with our antagonists, and who hates Urtho, a mage who created the gryphons and sees them as his children. Ma’ar in a way reminds me of Voldemort in that he seems to have a history with Urtho where once they were friends but took a turn for the worst.

Despite all of his power, Urtho radiates genuine fatherly warmth and vulnerability. His screen time is limited, but his presence is felt through out, in particular through the lead gryphon, Skandranon’s being. He thinks of him often.

Skandranon himself is a delightfully written mass of feathers. He’s often self defacing, what I feel is a defense to avoid growing too confident, but nevertheless it’s amusing. One can tell he thinks he’s better than he lets himself believe, though he’s comfortable letting others know what he can do. It isn’t to the point of arrogance or being obnoxious, and his own vulnerability and ability to love and be loved by his friends keeps him very likable. He can be quite the smartass too. His bantering with another of the gryphons, Aubri, was priceless. There’s a female named Zhaneel who he begins to fall for after seeing her amazing flight skills, something none of the others can do as she’s designed differently. Literally designed as she turns out to be a new creation of Urtho’s and not the deformed creature others thought. There’s a further and quite creepy subplot involving the other creations but I won’t spoil any of that. The gryphons still mate normally, but Urtho controls their fertility, something Skandranon begins to resent and leads him to do something dangerous.

The gryphons all speak the human language quite well. I loved how their speech was treated where fatigue or anger tends to weaken their focus, drawing out Ss and trilling the Rs in something closer to bird sounds. It’s written out this way and I found it fun to read, not annoying as I would have thought.

Another delight I found came from quality character illustrations beginning each chapter. They were an extra reward for reaching the next chapter. While I certainly enjoy using my imagination, I also like to see how others portray a character, and since the coauthor, Larry Dixon, did the illustrations, it’s safe to say they’re accurate. For that matter, Skandranon’s a real beauty.

I did wish the villains could have been fleshed out more but while reading I began to feel this lack of depth in some cases is okay. It both adds the fear of the unknown and a lack of empathy for them. They’re true monsters from what we see. There seems to be a trend in fiction lately to have good and bad in everyone, and while usually this is preferred as it is more realistic, I can see an argument in the other side. Now whether this was intended, only the authors know.

If I had one serious disappointment with the book, it’s that the authors have several species and terms that aren’t explained. From what I hear they are in other books written previously, but a quick sentence or two could have made understanding much easier. Even dealing with sequels and prequels, an author needs to write as though it is the first experience one has with their world. In this case it was mine. Naomi Novik does this well. One could pick up any of her novels and not be lost.

The Black Gryphon was an enjoyable, fast paced novel with great characters. I look forward to finally getting to the sequel after over a decade.