Monday, January 11, 2021

REVIEW: The Black Gryphon (audiobook) by Mercedes Lackey, narrated by Gary Furlong

The Black Gryphon is fantasy, the first book in Lackey's Mage Wars trilogy but only one book out of her much larger Valdemar series. I checked this out via one of my Overdrive accounts.


This takes place during the war between Urtho and Ma'ar, which began for reasons I can't recall (because Ma'ar wants world domination?). Most of the book is focused on life in one of Urtho's army's camps, far enough away from the fighting that no one there is in immediate danger but filled with humans and nonhumans healing from injuries and dealing with PTSD.

Urtho used his magic to create gryphons to help him in the war, and Skandranon (Skan), the "Black Gryphon," is one of the best of them. His closest friend is a human named Amberdrake, a kestra'chern (an empath/healer who uses a combination of methods to heal others emotionally and physically). The book follows their life and the development of their relationships in the camp, as Urtho attempts to figure out how to turn the tide of the war against Ma'ar.

This was my first time listening to this in audio form, although I had previously read the book quite a few times - it was the first Valdemar book I'd ever read, back when I was a teen obsessed with gryphons, and it became one of my comfort reads, although it's probably been at least 10 years since I last read it.

I was interested to see how well this would hold up after all this time, but I don't know that audio was the best way to do that. Gary Furlong pronounced most of the names and fantasy words differently than I'd imagined they would sound, and his narration gave the slower parts of the book more weight and made them more noticeable than they might have been if I had been rereading my old print copy. It wasn't bad (except for maybe the gryphon hisses - Furlong tried, but those weren't designed for audiobook narration), but it was definitely different.

I remembered most of the characters and their relationships, as well as most of their backstories (Amberdrake was the one character whose backstory I completely forgot). What I did not remember was how little on-page action there was. This was technically a war story, but it was so focused on characters' thoughts and emotional turmoil that it was easy to forget that there was fighting going on elsewhere. For example, Amberdrake tried his best to be everyone's rock while in reality he was one bad piece of news away from completely falling apart, and Winterhart seemed heartless and brittle but was eventually revealed to be a mass of guilt and anxiety.

Lackey spent a lot of time on character relationships: Amberdrake's friendship with Skan (which had some issues because Skan is not the sort to sit down and talk about feelings), Amberdrake helping Zhaneel to increase her self-confidence, and the budding romances between Amberdrake and Winterhart as well as Skan and Zhaneel. It was all blended with information about the war - for example, in an effort to increase her confidence and catch Skan's eye, Zhaneel created and worked out on obstacle courses that led to her being given an important role in one of the battles. Still, there were times I found myself thinking that the story was extremely slow, and I wonder how much of that was this reread (enough time for me to not be so affected by nostalgia?) and how much was due to the audio format making the pacing more obvious.

During this reread, I found myself viewing Urtho's army from more of an organizational leadership perspective. I imagine Urtho had a limited number of people he could promote or demote without risking further problems among his ranks, but there were at least a couple characters who were perfect examples of why it's dangerous to just shuffle toxic employees around. It was frustrating to watch.

All in all, I enjoyed seeing Amberdrake, Skan, and Zhaneel again, but this didn't work as well for me as I remembered. At some point I'll have to reread my paper copy to see if that makes a difference, and then continue on from there to The White Gryphon and The Silver Gryphon, which I don't think I've ever reread.

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