The White Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey

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Publication date – March 1, 1996

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Wite Gryphon is Skandranon,the Black Gryphon, who has returned to his natural plumage now that the time of war is at an end. He has taken his people, gryphons and human allies alike, to the coast where they have built an eyrie city in the cliffside. But though the troubles from without have pretty much ceased, wherever there are communities of people, there will be mavericks and rogues with agendas of their own. In exiling one such, a doctor using his patients for his own ends, Skandranon and White Gryphon’s ruling council begin a sequence of events that threatens the future of their entire city.

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I’ve done any work on the Great Valdemar Reread, but now I’m back at it. Can’t let these books languish, after all!

The White Gryphon is the second book of the Mage Wars trilogy, set back in Velgarth’s prehistory. The war itself has ended. Urtho and Ma’ar have been destroyed, and the Kaled’a’in have wandered far to find a new home. Finally they’ve found it, and built into cliff the city they would go on to call White Gryphon, in honour of Skandranon’s new magic-bleached colouring. That’s where this book begins.

It doesn’t stay there long. Most of the book takes place in the lands of the Haighlei, a race of very dark-skinned people from the south, who have a very rigid and intriguing culture. Change can only come when the gods will it, and the opportunity is always at the height of a solar eclipse. Which, coincidentally, is shortly after the White Gryphon envoys make their first appearance at the court of King Shalaman. But diplomatic relations aren’t the only thing they have to worry about. Soon after their arrival, a madman starts visiously murdering members of Shalaman’s court, casting suspicion on the newcomers.

A very typical point of politic intrigue in fantasy novels, but Lackey makes it interesting nevertheless, especially in the setting of a new and — to those from White Gryphon — bafflingly rigid culture.

The tale is told as Lackey tells many of her stories from the Valdemar series – with shifting viewpoints so that we get to see into the mind of nearly every major player in the story. While that does allow us access to information and insight into the characters, it does make it so that very little comes as a surprise, and unfortunately worked against the attempt to build tension. At first the reader isn’t sure who’s committing the murders. Then we’re told. Then the only issue becomes how and when is the murderer going to be caught. But even then, if you’ve read any of Lackey’s novels in the past, you can pretty much predict the ‘when’ of that, because of Lackey’s love of happy endings. I love a happy ending as much as the next person, and it can be nice to read things where you know everything will turn out all right in the end, but when you’re trying to build tension and mystery, that style doesn’t work quite so well.

My main beef with this story is the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief you have to use in order to make all the pieces fit. First, a madman is cast out of White Gryphon, left in the wilds with only a couple of weapons, and common sense dictates that he’s probably going to die, since the lands are warped and wild and he’s just barely equipped to try to handle them. But somehow he travels south in safety, ending in the very same city that Amberdrake and Skan and the rest eventually go. He has no reason to go there. Nobody knows that the Haighlei kingdoms even exist in that area until after he’s removed from the city. And he also has vowed revenge against Amberdrake and the other citizens of White Gryphon, which would have been better served by staying in the area. It’s an awful stretch of the imagination to think that they all ended up in the same place at the same time like that, and that thought nagged at me from the moment that he is revealed as the killer.

But while that is an awfully big pill to swallow, some of it was made up for by the interesting culture that Lackey set up when she created the Haighlei. I’ve always said that one of Lackey’s strongest suits is world- and culture-building, and it shows quite well here. She’s written numerous stories with a fish-out-of-water element to them, but rarely is it on such a grand scale, and it was fun to read about everybody getting baffled by everybody else.

So while this book did have one major fault that I just can’t overlook, on the whole it was still written well, with the same smooth and engaging tone that I’ve come to expect whenever I read any of Lackey’s works. This isn’t particularly an essential book to the Velgarth/Valdemar books as a whole, since I believe the Haighlei get mentioned in maybe one or two other places besides this, and the Kaled’a’in disappear from history for centuries anyway, but essential or not, it was still a good read, and not one that I would voluntarily skip over.

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