The Black Gryphon is set in the same fantasy world as Lackey's best-selling Valdemar series, but no previous experience is necessary; the action of this novel takes place fifteen hundred years before the events described in The Heralds of Valdemar. Urtho the Good, and those who espouse his cause, are locked in combat with the mage Ma'ar (implicitly the Bad) and his dark armies. The war, 'like a creature with a huge appetite', has dragged on for years, and slowly but surely Ma'ar seems to be winning. This isn't that sort of book, though.
The novel centres on four characters. Skandranon, the eponymous black gryphon, is an aerial warrior with immense fighting skills and an ego to match. His friend Amberdrake is a kestra'chern, a kind of therapist who uses sensual massage, sexual healing and a generous dose of Empathy and Healing skills to soothe and heal the mental and physical wounds inflicted by the war. Both Skandranon and Amberdrake have their female counterparts. Zhaneel is a female gryphon who appears to be a mutant, an unwanted by-product of Urtho's magical genetics program. Winterhart is an emotionally repressed healer who remains in a dysfunctional relationship with the mage Conn Levas, unable to accept that she is capable of more. Both must come to terms with who they are and accept their roles in the conflict.
On one level this novel is a simple good-versus-evil fantasy, where the forces of good fight for what they believe in, and pledge their loyalty to Urtho, while the Makaar and other creatures of Ma'ar are motivated by fear and loathing, and demonstrate their moral repugnancy by stooping to torture and foul play. On another level, Lackey and Dixon (her husband) deal with moral and ethical issues such as therapy, emotional dysfunction, betrayal, genetic engineering and child abuse. A light fantasy novel is not the best place for this; while the authors never trivialise these subjects, depth has been sacrificed to simplification.
The Black Gryphon is a book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys Anne McCaffrey's later Dragon books. That is, it's good, positive, happy fantasy, where the images and ideas are drummed home in case you missed them the first time round. The style is occasionally marred by clumsy phrasing ("this plan didn't have the chances of a snowflake in a frying pan of working"), but it's readable enough, and will no doubt please Lackey's existing fans.