The Black Gryphon was the first book by Mercedes Lackey I read. I love the image of multiple species, even genetically created ones like the Gryphons being able to work together. In this first book of the trilogy you have Humans, Gryphons, and the shy Hertasi are caught in a war as the Warlord Ma'ar seeks to expand his territory.
Urtho, the Mage of Silence, was the banner our good guys rallied around. He's also the one who created the gryphons. The titular character, Skandranon (Skan) Rashkae, is a highly intelligent gryphon who has his feathers dyed black so that he cannot easily be seen against the night sky. He also has more than a little bit of an addiction to adrenaline, and is mildly convinced he's invincible. This results in two main things: 1) He ends up being an idiot and 2) he is Urtho's best operative.
The other main character is a Kaled'a'in Kestra'chern, who goes by the name Amberdrake. As this trilogy is a prequel, the Kaled'a'in are the ancestors of the Shin'a'in and the Talye'edras who feature predominately in later (and earlier) books. A Kestra'chern is a cross between a therapist, masseuse and priest. Their primary job is to see to the mental health of their charges. Probably obviously, Amberdrake is Skan's.
If you are looking for a book with some damn fine character growth, then I have no trouble recommending this one. The only character who doesn't grow and learn is Ma'ar. He is the Magnificent Bastard who through his charisma, no one (read Uther) really noticed he was slaughtering their next door-neighboring countries until it's already Too Late.
Like many of Lackey's earlier books, there is an impressive level of character development and believable change throughout the story. She is a master of bringing racism, homophobia, and general differences between people to the fore, and then showing the characters that aren't nearly so different as they think.
Zhaneel and Winterheart undergo the most obvious changes and growth, but to say more than that would be to give away some of my favorite portions of the book.
Overall, The Black Gryphon is one of the best fantasy books in my personal library.
When I was at Dragon*Con this year, I got to meet Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon after one of their panels. Larry and my dad hit it off majorly talking about classic cars, and my dad's new Fiat 500 Abarth and out of it, I got this print of Skandranon himself. It was the highlight of my time at Dragon*Con.
On the off-chance either Larry or Misty stumble across this blog, thank you. That was my first con, and my interactions with the two of you were absolutely fantastic.