Magic the Gathering #A5: The Myths of Magic

If you built yourself a myth, you’d know just what to give. Let’s help me to name it The Myths of Magic, edited by Jess LeBow.

Synopsis:

Perhaps the stories are true…

Welcome to a world of rich folklore where angels watch over the righteous, in which sea monsters sink ships, where dark figures lurk under every child’s bed. Now the mysteries of Dominaria are explained.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Myths of Magic has a very interesting premise: telling stories-within-stories, myths and legends which may not necessarily be true for the Magic universe but which are recounted by the people living in the setting.

“Blue Moon”, the first of the tales, is one of the ones which is definitively untrue – it purports to tell the origin of the Null Moon, but we know the real history from The Thran. Even so, it makes for a good story: the classic tale of a civilization grown proud brought down by their hubris. The sorceress Sirimiti with her flying ship was a cool character.

“The Isle of the Lost” is a tale told by pirates of a powerful witch who, though slain by her enemies, with her death laid a powerful curse on her island and the surrounding sea. This story too managed to be compelling, through its depiction of discord among the pirates and the powerful illusions the witch used to hold them at bay.

“Leviathan” is the weirdest of the stories in the collection. For one thing, the narrator is a member of a species of sentient purple crabs, and their race apparently has no writing yet possesses a bureaucracy. Yeah… what? The actual story, about a god-like leviathan which swam the oceans before there was any dry land and how humans originated from merfolk, is decent, but the constant asides and tangents by the crab narrator are really distracting. I’d almost consider this to be the book’s weakest entry, but there’s one which is worse.

“Phyrexian Creations”, on the other hand, is one of the strongest: a look into the mythology and propaganda of the Phyrexians, intertwined with the tale of a man transformed into a Sleeper Agent to preach the Phyrexian gospel and recruit new followers to their twisted ideology. A twisted reflection of the actual events of The Thran is just barely recognizable within the Phyrexian dogma, and the action of the story ties into the attack on New Argive in Invasion. A definite strong and compelling story.

“The Deathbringer” is the mythical origin of an order of assassins, telling the story of how their founder brought the gift of death to the world. Everyone who says that Black is evil because it’s the color of darkness and death, enjoy reading the details of the world before the existence of darkness or death.

“Keldon Fire” deals with the mythical origins of Keld. However, more than just telling the tale of the nation’s founding, it demonstrates how belief in that myth still affects modern Keldon society: the warrior caste emphasizes one part of the story and draws one moral lesson from it, while the doyens emphasize a different part of the story and draw a different lesson. This is one of the stories that lives up to the collection’s full potential: not just telling random stories that exist in-universe, but showing why those stories are meaningful to the characters and societies in that universe.

“The Lady of the Mountain” recounts a dwarven tale about the world’s creation, particularly the origin of dwarves and goblins and the eternal strife between them. Interestingly, though the part about the creation of the world is clearly mythological, the story also tells of the creation of the guardian The Lady of the Mountain by a deity called Fiers. The Lady of the Mountain is known to be a real being, as the dwarves telling the story know of the location where she lies sleeping; and one of the later novels will mention that there is planeswalker by the name of Fiers. Perhaps there is a grain of truth at the heart of the legend…?

“In the Blink of an Eye” is a Benalish tale about a woman who became so fast that she outran death. It’s one of the blander entries in the collection. Nothing much to say about it.

“Hand of Justice” features the return of Sabul Hajeen, first introduced in the story “Angel of Vengeance” in The Colors of Magic. The guild Hajeen belongs to decides to summon a Hand of Justice to persecute their rivals; but since their intentions are corrupt, the being they summon represents not true justice but rather judgement and retribution without love or mercy. Having learned the error of his ways in his previous tale, Hajeen recognizes their mistake and teams up with a rival to defeat the Hand before it destroys the city. Overall, a very strong and entertaining tale.

Finally, “Myth and the Many-Chinned Magistrate” finishes the collection off with what is unfortunately its weakest story. We all know that the city of Mercadia is a greedy and corrupt society which oppresses everyone; and this story tells us that they unsurprisingly have a religion which tells them that they are the gods’ chosen people and it is thus totally morally okay for them to be greedy and oppress everyone, because they’re just inherently better. I think we all probably could have guessed that. “Leviathan” was really weird, but it was at least strange and unique; this one is dull and unoriginal.

The book also contains an excerpt from the novel Invasion; but unlike “The Going Price” getting expanded into And Peace Shall Sleep, this is just a preview for that book. An advertisement, basically. So, I won’t count it towards my final rating.

I ended up enjoying this anthology quite a bit more than any of the previous ones. The majority of the stories were strong and interesting in their own right, and a few even managed to provide a deeper insight into the universe of Magic – something which The Colors of Magic tried to do but failed due to the still-underdeveloped nature of the color pie at that time. Yeah, I give this one a thumbs-up.

Final Rating: 4/5

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Magic the Gathering #A4: The Colors of Magic

You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise, you’re spilling like an overflowing sink. You’re ripped at every edge, but you’re a masterpiece; and now I’m tearing through the pages and the ink. Let’s paint with all of The Colors of Magic, edited by Jess LeBow.

Synopsis:

The brother’s struggel for power has ended…
Argoth is decimated…
Tidal waves have turned canyons into rivers…
Earthquakes leveled the cities…
Dominaria is in ruins.
Now the struggle for the war-torn world is to survive.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Ah, yes, the colors of Magic. In the card game, magic can be divided into five colors, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and general philosophy of life. The pre-revision stories barely acknowledged this fundamental aspect of the game; and even post-revision, it often felt unimportant due to planeswalkers being god-like beings who could cast any spell of any color if they so wished. It wasn’t really until after the Mending (Time Spiral block) that Wizards really started getting firm about color identity and color philosophy: having five planeswalkers in the Gatewatch, each capable of using only a single color of magic, and each having contrasting personalities and ideologies based on their color. Of course, with The Colors of Magic only being a rough first attempt to articulate the philosophies of the colors, it’s not entire perfect in its description of them. Thus, for those of you who are interested, I shall follow up the book’s description of each color with a link to Mark Rosewater’s color philosophy articles, where he much more thoroughly and accurately lays out what each color believes. So, all that said, let’s begin with…

WHITE

White is the color of temptation and innocence, purity and civility. People characterized by this color love life and longevity but do so without excess or grandeur. Some see white as childish – a return to youth – but others know it to be filled with focus and a desire to live an uncluttered life. White is for the honest, the righteous and eager, the decent and civic-minded who will stand up to protect justice and honor. It is the color of the plains and temples, the color of the scholar and the virtuous knight alike. White is for those who believe in a cause and believe in themselves, for those unafraid to stand up in the face of adversity.
The Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater on White: The Great White Way Revisited

And we’re off to a bad start. White is the color of temptation? No, I think that’s be Black: see cards like Promise of Power and Succumb to Temptation. And virtuous knights are White, yes, but scholars? There are (as of me writing this review) seven Magic cards with “scholar” in their name, and six are Blue. And, naturally, the summary only focuses on the positive traits of White, not mentioning that it’s the color of totalitarianism, intolerance, and religious fundamentalism. Because White has knights and angels and is therefore good, while Black has zombies and demons and is therefore evil. Sigh.

“Angel of Vengeance” is about a mage who summons an angel to use as an instrument of revenge against those he feels have wronged him. Forced to commit acts contrary to her nature, the angel falls from grace; but even so, when a demon threatens to destroy the city, she chooses to sacrifice herself battling it, because she is still a good and just being at heart. A fine story.

“Reprisal” is about a commoner chosen to be an assistant to a king. The king is a drunk and a lecher, and the commoner has to work to preserve the king’s public image. This one wasn’t as good, because it doesn’t have any payoff at the end. The king acts unkingly, the protagonist covers it up, the king acts unkingly again, the protagonist covers it up again, and then the story just ends without anybody really having accomplished or learned anything. Unsatisfying.

GREEN

Green is the balance between extremes. Those who favor green are solid people with easy manners. They aren’t impulsive, as are those who favor red, or withdrawn like those who favor blue. Those associated with green are socially well-adjusted and organic. They are conventional, yet constantly on the go, and have a taste for the good things in life. Green has, on occasion, been associated with jealousy or inexperience, but those who have a broader understanding know that green is natural, fresh, wise, and comforting, and those characterized by it show a sensitivity to social customs and etiquette. Green provides abundance and resources. It is passive and combative at the same time, and calls to those who want to be grounded in their natural surroundings.
The Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater on Green: It’s Not Easy Being Green Revisited

…Alright, this description isn’t so bad. Natural, organic, and grounded is a fine way to approach Green. In fact, my biggest problem is not with the description itself but with the order the book is going. The traditional direction of the Magic color pie is WUBRG – White, Blue, Black, Red, Green. That’s the order the mana symbols appear on the cards. But that’s a really petty complaint, so let’s move on to the stories.

“Versipellis” is about a man who seeks to kill a romantic rival. A malevolent spirit gives him magic to transform into a bear and do the deed, but the man is afterwards killed by the town guard, thus teaching an important moral lesson: don’t transform into a bear. You know, like Pixar’s Brave, only with a much darker ending. This story… isn’t very Green. I mean, the card Grizzly Bears is Green; but if we’re talking about a malicious, deceiving spirit which manipulates and corrupts a jealous man by preying on his selfishness and desire for revenge… that’s Black. Also, the story kind of sucks. I couldn’t get invested in the protagonist, since I knew nothing of this alleged romance between him Riliana which he felt strongly enough to kill over; and all the other characters in the story were caricatures of evil who existed only to be senselessly cruel to Edgur and so drive him over the edge into using the magic. I mean, damn, Joren actually says “I’m too rich to die!”. Scrooge McDuck is subtle and nuanced in comparison to this clown.

“A Song Out of Darkness”, fortunately, is much better. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Argoth, a group of elves have been isolated and are slowly being worn down by some sort of evil, incorporeal undead thing called the Shadow. Unlike the previous story, this one does a good job of presenting the ideology of Green magic, with Temken showing how it is connected to the natural cycle of life and rebirth and opposes the unnatural energies of undeath which exist outside that cycle.

RED

Red is the color of release, the hue of outward expression and excitement. It is hard to be indifferent about red. It may be loved or feared, but it is seldom disregarded. It is characterized as aggressive, vigorous, and given to impulse and mood. Those associated with red are sometimes accused of lacking patience or possessing a quick temper, but red also embodies a fervent passion and feeling for fellow beings. Red is signified by fire, blood, lava, and emotion. It manifests itself as bursts of outward expression and outspoken tirades. Red characterizes those who know what needs to be done and aren’t afraid to do it, for those who want results and action instead of deliberation and debate, for those who like the cathartic pleasures of flame.
The Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater on Red: Seeing Red Revisited

This description of Red is probably the most accurate of all the colors. That’s because Red is not difficult to grasp. If there’s one thing Red doesn’t do, it’s subtlety. As beloved Red character Jaya Ballard put it in the flavor text to Inferno, “Some have said there is no subtlety to destruction. You know what? They’re dead.”

“Goblinology” is the worst story in the collection. This one hurt. The whole thing is built around the joke of goblins playing football, seemingly on the premise that if goblins do it then it must be inherently funny. It isn’t. Worse, it becomes obvious very early on what the punchline it’s building to is, and yet it keeps going on and on. You know when someone starts to tell you a long and rambling joke, and you say “I’ve heard this one before”, but they just keep on telling it, and you say “no, seriously, I’ve heard it”, and they just keep going, and it wasn’t even particularly funny the first time, but now it has become the embodiment of anti-fun, each word killing a small part of your soul? That’s this story. The author appears have recognized it was bad, and thus employed the rhetorical device of an editor putting in footnotes which mock the narrator. This literary technique can be employed to great humorous effect by talented authors; for instance, Sandy Mitchell in the Ciaphas Cain stories, or Brandon Sanderson in “Allomancer Jak and the Pit of Eltania, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty”. In this case, though, it’s just a terrible story which pauses every couple of lines in order to point out how terrible it is.

“The Crucible of the Orcs” is better, even if it does for some incomprehensible reason feel the need to include a reference to “Goblinology”. A Balduvian wizard decides to make use of orcs and goblins as expendable troops in a war against the Kjeldorans, but the orc general decides the wizard is more expendable than he is. It’s a decent battle story, though I wouldn’t call it exceptional in any way.

BLACK

Black, the symbol of death and despair, can be characterized as morbid, impatient, incorporeal, and stagnant. It is the color of pollution and pestilence, festering swamps. Those who show fondness for this color are not the type to show off. They will impress those worthy of their time by their real subtleties and weight. Black leans on the side of mystery and darkness but can be mighty and dignified. Black is a stark color, the beacon of nothingness, but those who favor this color abhor inevitability. They would hold to the present forever if they could and they will probably try. Black is for those who hide their darker sides behind an air of sophistication, for those who lurk in alleyways and dark corners, and for those willing to pay the price of greatness.
The Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater on Black: In the Black Revisited

Of course, the description of Black focuses on pollution and pestilence and death and despair. Because Black is evil, right? Ah, dame da, zenzen dame da ze. Black characters can be good and non-Black characters can be evil. Black characters are often selfish, true; but Black is also the color of loveable rogues. Han Solo was a smuggler, you know, breaking the law and dealing in illicit substances; he was in it for the money, not the revolution; he wasn’t afraid to fight dirty and shoot first – classic Black. And hey, you know, Stormtroopers? They fight to uphold the authority of the law; they’re weak individually but work together in large numbers; they suppress individuality, striving to be interchangeable servants of the Greater Good… yep, White. I’m just saying.

Of course, the story we actually get, “Dark Water”, doesn’t have any moral ambiguity. Two evil women murder people and feed their souls to an evil demon in a pond, until the demon eventually turns on them and kills them as well. How evil. Yawn. Black also gets shortchanged, only having one story when most of the other colors get two and Blue gets three. Color me disappointed.

BLUE

Blue, sometimes called the color of distinction, is characterized by calm hands and a reflective mind. A natural sedative, blue is the color of deliberation and introspection, conservatism and experience. Blue has almost universal appeal and is considered to be the most aesthetically appealing color. Blue is the color of respect and wisdom. But, those who lean toward blue sometimes use reason for selfish and self-justified purposes. It is the color of control and passive aggression as well as the color of the sea and the sky. Blue is for those contemplative people who exercise caution in words and actions and for those who always weight the options.
The Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater on Blue: True Blue Revisited

The description of Blue is pretty decent, with its focus on deliberation and introspection. All that stuff about Blue’s universal appeal, though, is probably a reference to Blue being for a long time the strongest color in Magic. Right from the beginning, Blue had an advantage, as the three non-artifact members of the Power Nine, the nine most ludicrously broken cards in Alpha, were Blue: Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Timetwister. Future sets just piled on more absurdly good cards, like Force of Will, Tolarian Academy, and Palinchron. And yet, Blue players had the gall to complain when Counterspell was replaced with Cancel… (Even though it’s been many years since I’ve actually played a game of Magic, I may still be harboring just a sliiiight grudge against mono-Blue control).

“Expeditions to the End of the World” is one of the best stories in this collection. Crucias is captain of sea vessel, bitter and disillusioned by the death of his young daughter from a wasting disease, who takes rich aristocrats on sightseeing tours of the Brothers’ War in Argoth so they can ooh and aah at all the big machines and bright explosions. This trip, however, happens to coincide with the apocalyptic Sylex Blast, which blinds Crucias and kills most of his passengers. He considers giving up and dying, but is convinced by a fellow survivor to keep struggling to stay alive. It’s a highly emotional tale which moved me more than any of the others in the book. Incidentally, for the continuity-aware, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Crucias: though he hasn’t become aware of it quite yet by the story’s end, the Sylex Blast awakened his planeswalker spark, and he ends up changing his name to become Bo Levar (seen on Planeswalker’s Mischief and Gainsay).

“The Mirror of Yesterday” is about some apprentice wizards who are attacked by an assassin while awaiting their master’s return. All are killed but one, who uses his cleverness and trickery to overcome the assassin. I liked seeing Damon out-think his opponent; but on the whole, the story was too dark for me. Sure, he ended by overcoming the assassin; but it’s kind of hard to end on a triumphant note when all the other apprentices just got slaughtered – and it doesn’t help that Damon didn’t really have a strong or interesting personality to get me invested in him.

“Bound in Shallows” was another bad one. It was weird and incomprehensible, with a nameless protagonist who participated in magical duels to the death and was forever prattling on about control and luck and the Flow. He was very annoying and I just wished he’d shut up already. Also, while his obsession with control is very Blue, his obsession with luck isn’t (Red is the color of luck and chance and chaos; Blue is order and design and control); and at one point he uses a spell to kill a man by stopping his heart, which is Black (Blue is about control and domination, not death; when it attacks, it strikes at the mind rather than the body). Anyway, I didn’t care for this one.

THE GOLD BORDER

And finally, there’s “Loran’s Smile”, a story about Feldon mastering all five colors of magic in an attempt to bring his wife Loran back to life. He is ultimately unsuccessful. And what a perfect metaphor for this anthology as a whole: going through the colors of Magic one by one, exploring the nature and abilities of each, but producing a lackluster and disappointing end result which wasn’t worth the effort. This collection had a good idea, but it fell flat on the execution. Too many of the stories contained within its pages were bad, some of them painfully so, and good ones tended to be only average, not enough to make up for the rest. Regretfully, I have to give this anthology a failing grade.

Final Rating: 2/5

Magic the Gathering #A3: Rath and Storm

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm. Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown. Let’s open a teapot and let out the tempest within for Rath and Storm, edited by Peter Archer.

Synopsis:

Gerrard’s Legacy

A collection of powerful magical artifacts is the only defense against the forces of evil that are arrayed against Dominaria. Gerrard, the heir to the Legacy, together with Sisay, captain of the flying ship Weatherlight, has sought out many parts of the Legacy.

Gerrard’s Quest

Sisay has been kidnapped by Volrath, ruler of the plane ofRath. Gerrard stands at a crossroads. His companion is in danger, the Legacy may be lost forever. Only he – with the loyal crew of the Weatherlight – can rescue Sisay and recover the Legacy.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Welcome to Rath and Storm, the Magic anthology book which isn’t really an anthology at all but actually a secret main plotline book. Yes, the Weatherlight Saga is the longest-running continuous story in Magic; but while the majority of it is told in the main sequence of novels, it actually begins here, in this side anthology book. Woe be unto him who thinks he can get a complete story just by reading the main novels and finds himself jumping straight from Bloodlines to Mercadian Masques.

But Rath and Storm has a problem. Most of the Magic novels only cover the story of a single set. That way, they have the time necessary to give the plot and characters the thorough exploration they deserve. Later on, when Wizards was reconsidering their publishing model, they started giving one book to every block of three sets. This resulted in some very cramped, rushed, and incomplete-feeling novels. But even they pale in comparison to Rath and Storm, which tries to compress into its pages the plotlines of no less than four sets: “Weatherlight”, “Tempest”, “Stronghold”, and “Exodus”. Enough story to fill four proper novels is being compressed down into one. Something has to give.

The way Rath and Storm tries to handle this is through a framing device: in the far future, an old librarian is recounting the events of the Weatherlight Saga to a young boy. In between the stories included in the anthology, there are sections where the librarian quickly sums up all the other events which the book doesn’t have time to include. Unfortunately, these brief summaries happen to include some rather pivotal story moments, such as the death of Rofellos at the claws of Gallowbraid and Morinfen. They even have the gall to make what should be the climax of the book – Gerrard finally facing off against Volrath, who pits him against a mind-controlled Sisay in battle – take place in one of these quick summaries, instead of letting us actually read it happen. Yeah, sure was a dramatic climax to this adventure; shame we don’t have time to show it to you. The story really suffers when big chunks of it are just quickly skimmed over with some random guy telling us “oh, and then such and such happened”.

And that’s a real shame, because the stories which are included in the anthology are really quite good. From beginning, stories like “Gerrard’s Story” and “Ertai’s Story” do a good job of establishing the characters’ personalities. There are some oddities, such as “Greven’s Story”, which is presented with the sections in reverse chronological order for no explicable reason; but on the whole, the stories contained in this volume are way better than any of the pre-revision ones.

The exception, of course, is “Karn’s Story”. Karn, as is unfortunately often the case, is insufferable. All he does is stand around like a lump and do nothing while his friends die around him, despite having the power to help, and then justify himself with trite quotes like “Anger is fleeting, remorse is eternal”. In the context of Karn deciding to devote himself to pacifism after having accidentally killed an innocent man, that would be an acceptable statement; but to blithely toss out a quip like that while watching as Tahngarth is horribly tortured and begging Karn to free him? What a dick. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the one single fucking thing Karn manages to actually accomplish in the entire block – negotiating with the Sliver Queen and convincing her to peaceably return the stolen Legacy – takes place entirely off-screen. We’re just told that, oh yeah, he did it, and it was really impressive, and totally vindicated him; take our word for it.

I also must admit that I found the portrayal of Mirri, Cat Warrior kind of cringey in hindsight. She’s supposedly a really big badass, the Weatherlight’s Duelist… but what does she actually accomplish? She fights a shapeshifter, and loses to it, only for Hannah to subsequently defeat it (as seen on Gallantry). She surrenders to the Skyshroud elves. She fights Selenia, Dark Angel, and loses to her, and has to be carried back to the ship. She fights Crovax the Cursed, and loses, and dies. Fuck, for all the narrative talks about what a great warrior she is, did she ever win a fight in her life? Then there’s the fact that she was motivated by her lifelong unrequited love for Gerrard, and that she sacrificed herself to save him, and that the narrator in the framing device talks about how every great hero like Gerrard must have a moment of loss which severs him from his past life as a common man in order to transform into a true hero, and I find myself slowly confronting an ugly truth: Mirri isn’t actually a badass action girl at all. She’s the helpless damsel in distress, the runner-up girlfriend, the woman who gets killed in order to motivate the hero’s character development. God fucking damn it! Mirri was fridged!

Now, I can see how the book tries to do a thing that would make this less awful. It reveals that Mirri, just like Crovax, was prophesied to eventually fall to evil; but that whereas Crovax accepted and surrendered to his fate, Mirri had the inner strength of character to refuse to give in and heroically managed to avert the prophecy through her death. Of course, I’m really helped in reaching this conclusion by my knowledge of cards in the “Planar Chaos” set, which of course did not exist at the time this book was written: Crovax, Ascendant Hero and Mirri the Cursed, depicting an alternate timeline where events followed the opposite course. In practice, the book manages to bungle the execution of this idea. For one thing, see my earlier point about Mirri losing every fight she took part in, making her seem rather lackluster as a hero. For another, the book makes her a passive rather than active participant in her death. Compare what happens in “Mirri’s Story” to events as depicted on the card Curiosity. (Incidentally, that card’s name is a terrible pun. Curiosity killed the cat, you see? Do ho ho ho. That’ll teach her to try and be a strong independent female character.) Anyway, the card says that Mirri wanted to rest, but noticed Crovax sneaking away and decided to follow, thus discovering his treachery and resulting in the fight where he killed her. The book, however, has Crovax attack her in the infirmary, changing her from instigator to victim. And on top of that, the book adds a bunch of gross sexual subtext with its descriptions of Crovax’s attack on her:

Pressed up against the wall of her cabin, with Crovax crouching over her, she whimpered, and then hated herself for her weakness.

[…]

“Don’t fight me, Mirri,” Crovax said. “This is my destiny. I must do this, as surely as you must yield to me.”

She felt his hand on the sleek fur of her nape, and felt his breath on her cheek, as his other arm came round her neck to secure her.

[…]

A great weight was pressing down on Mirri. She opened her eyes. Crovax’s face was inches from her own. His thumb moved across the side of her face. She tried to shove him off, but he had pinioned her hands behind her back, and he had his knee across her thighs.

“Sweet Mirri,” he whispered. “Foolish Mirri, you shouldn’t have resisted me.” His hand continued to caress her, along her face, her jaw.

Rath and Storm, “Mirri’s Story”

There are more lines I could quote, but I expect you get the point. It was just… yuck.

Needless to say, I had a hard time coming up with a rating for this one. If all of the tales within had been on the same level of quality as, say, “Gerrard’s Tale” or “Ertai’s Tale”, then the book might nearly have made it to the glorious full five star rating – but only nearly, for I simply cannot forgive the use of the framing device to skim over large portions of the story. And when you add in the fact that not all of the stories are in fact great; that while most are at least good, a few such as “Karn’s Story” and “Mirri’s Story” in fact have some serious problems… I think the highest that I can honestly give this book is a three. I was honestly tempted to bump it down to a two, because so very much of the story is just cursorily summarized in the framing chapters, presented a brief summary of a story rather than the story itself… But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to put it down that low. Not when the majority of what story we did get was so very good. So, you lucked out this time, Rath and Storm. But no other Magic book better try any of this “using framing chapters to just briefly summarize important events instead of actually writing those parts of the story” bullshit again, because this just used the very last of my forbearance and next time I won’t hold back on cutting down my final rating accordingly.

Final Rating: 3/5

Magic the Gathering #A2: Distant Planes

It all became so lovely, those blue skies above me. So many colors I had never even known. Maybe I’d find myself sitting on that distant plane. Let’s travel to Distant Planes, edited by Kathy Ice.

Synopsis:

In this collection of exciting stories based on the internationally bestselling trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, readers will find baby wizards and demonic tutors, scavenging ghouls and Ironclaw orcs. Mystery and adventure await in a world where magical artifacts abound and wizards are as powerful as gods. Readers, discover the sights and sounds of the worlds of Dominia (and don’t forget to try the barbecued throat wolf ribs while you’re there!).

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Here we come to the second volume in the Magic anthology series. Like the previous anthology volume, it takes place pre-revision; but whereas Tapestries was released after The Final Sacrifice and before The Cursed Land, this one was released after Dark Legacy, making it in a sense the final pre-revision book. So let’s dive right in.

Incidentally, the version I’m reading from includes a number of illustrations. They’re just basic black-and-white line drawings, but they’re unique images which immediately set the mood and let me know that more work was put into this volume than the previous one. I thought that was worth pointing out. Okay, now let’s dive right in.

The first story, “Insufficient Evidence”, is , to my great surprise, a sequel. Yes, it’s the return of Loot Niptil, who previously appeared in the story “What’s In A Name?” in the previous anthology. I didn’t think that story to be among the better ones in the volume; but I have to admit, this story makes Loot grow on me. Maybe it’s because I know most of the stories in the volume are going to be about random schmucks who I’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again, so having a familiar face who actually has some history helps me quickly get invested. I also like Loot’s cleverness and quick wit a bit more this time, maybe because it’s used in the context a mystery investigation rather than wordplay with an overly literal curse. I actually find myself really liking Loot, and wishing I could read more stories with him: his amnesia and unknown former identity is a pretty obvious dangling plot thread. Unfortunately, what with the revision looming, I don’t have high hopes of ever seeing him again. It’s a real shame.

Next is “Festival of Sorrow”, about an ogre seeking a sorcerer to perform some resurrection magic; and oh boy, is it time for the “diminished impact of character mortality” talk? Sure, in the Magic card game, bringing back a deceased creature is as simple as casting Breath of Life; but in terms of narrative stakes, one tends to want death to carry a bit more weight than that. Typically, then, death is portrayed as something even godlike planeswalkers cannot overcome; sure, they might reanimate creatures, but only as ghosts or zombies – mere echoes of their former selves. This story, however, features genuine back-from-the-grave resurrection. Yes, it’s made clear that Eorra is not quite as good as new, having lost some of her life-force; but it’s also made clear that she’s living and breathing and speaking, not a mere animated husk. And even if Gormank the ogre isn’t pleased with the result because Eorra no longer has the physical strength to fight in combat, there are plenty of characters motivated by the tragic deaths of loved ones who would happily embrace such a method of resurrection were it available. So I think it’s for the best that the revision would take this story out of continuity and reserve true resurrection from death for super-special-fucking-snowflake characters like Ugin. (Because sure, time travel always ends in utter disaster whenever anyone like Urza or Teferi tries it, and supposedly damaged the Multiverse to the extent of necessitating the Mending; but if it’s for Ugin’s sake, the laws of reality will promptly bend over to kiss his scaly ass. …But I digress.)

Then there’s “Chef’s Surprise”, the story inspired by the flavor text of Granite Gargoyle. In this tale, we learn how the infamous Underworld Cookbook came to be written by the tongue-twistingly named Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar. It is based on extremely black humor, what with the premise being centered around Asmor (as she is more easily called) being forced to come up with recipes which use the flesh of sentient species to sate the unholy hunger of a Lord of the Pit. And while not all of the story’s attempts at humor land (to contrast our human protagonist’s excessively overwrought name, we get a demon lord named… Vincent? Really?), I did end up enjoying aspects of it: the Cookbook’s failure in the Underworld but surprising success in the Overworld, the result of Asmor being hunted by unhappy members of the sentient monster species featured within, and Asmor’s sick and twisted but karmically just suggestion for a means of vengeance at the end… Also, like the previous volume’s “Not Just Another Green World?”, this story contains a meta joke. In this case, it’s that all of the dishes prepared by Asmor for her fiendish lord feature species portrayed on various Magic cards… all except one, the extremely rare and delectable Throat Wolf. No such card as Throat Wolf exists – but this being published before the Internet age, readers had no way of knowing that. Players who recognized the other featured creatures from the cards in their collection would then assume that the Throat Wolf must exist as well, and start hunting for this extremely rare and elusive card… Well, as someone who wasted more money than he’d like to admit on cardboard in his childhood, I’ll take any excuse to laugh at those even more gullible than myself.

“Foulmere” is a story that I really want to like, but ultimately can’t. It suffers from the short story problem of having no real ending: it drops all this lore and characterization on me, and gets me extremely interested in where it’s going, except it’s not really going anywhere because it only has a limited number of pages and then it just stops and I’m never going to read anything about these characters or events ever again. I got invested in Vram and Mao, of the struggle of a single-mother planeswalker traveling between worlds with her daughter and struggling with an unhealthy addiction to Black mana… then the swamp explodes and the story ends and it’s not even clear if Vram died in the blast or was merely thrown out of this world. I of course hope for the latter, because I really want to see Vram return and reunite with Mao and get some closure with regards to her issues… except, even supposing she did survive, we’re never going to see her again because this is just a one-shot. And the new and unique races we spent so much time learning the history and lore of, such as the dobéhmi and the Eub Hlut? Gone now; they were created for this story, and since they don’t appear on any physical Magic cards, no other authors are interested in using them. The result is a story that was enjoyable to read while I was reading it, but felt like an incomplete, unsatisfying, waste of time once I’d finished.

“God Sins” contains what I’d consider the first example of a post-revision planeswalker: not merely a mortal wizard who knows a spell to enable them to walk between worlds, but an immortal entity so powerful as to be indistinguishable from a god; capable of altering their form and reshaping reality around them on the merest whim. That aside, it’s a simple but enjoyable story about a planeswalker looking to retire to a simple life and wishing people would stop worshiping him. No complaints.

“A Monstrous Duty” did nothing for me. A soldier is angry at a king for starting a senseless war that killed her family. A witch puts a curse on the king. The soldier decides that the king isn’t so bad after all and breaks the curse. It’s Beauty and the Beast, except it sucks.

“What Leaf Learned of Goblins” is good. A wise elderly elf is saddened by the constant, thoughtless violence between elves and goblins, and wonders if it might not be possible to make peace between the races. To her regret, she ultimately reaches the conclusion that it is indeed impossible: that goblins are too inherently violent and treacherous, too inimically opposed to the values held by the elves, for them to ever coexist peacefully.

I liked “Dual Loyalties” as well. Not for all the complex stuff about the characters’ theology regarding the sun god and the moon god, and not for the protagonist Helana being another lazy Chosen One who is imbued with divine power just because; but for the complex interpersonal relationship which develops between Helana and the exiled demon Illith as they work together to rescue Helana’s father from a Hell, both knowing all the while that their fragile half-truce can only inevitably end in betrayal.

“Distant Armies” is a very strange story about a distant future where various fantasy races such as orcs, dwarves, and elves live in harmony, no longer believe in the existence of magic, and don’t dream. Some of their children start for some reason start having dreams in which they relive an ancient war, ultimately dying from the injuries sustained in dream-combat. It’s bizarre, and nonsensical, and not very good at all; and even taken in the context of pre-revision continuity, it’s so non-canon it hurts. I say skip it.

“Better Mousetrap” is a better story, about the artificer Teeka getting annoyed about a planeswalker stealing away her artifact creatures to use in battle and so creating Teeka’s Dragon to protect her creations from further unauthorized summoning. It’s a fine little tale, even if it ends on something of an eye-roller of a joke.

“The Face of the Enemy” is a story basically built around a twist. You know: the tomato in the mirror, we have met the enemy and he is us, the dog was the mastermind the whole time… that sort of thing. I liked some of the fantastical descriptions of the inside of the wizards’ keeps, but other than that this story fell kind of flat for me.

“Horn Dancer” is about a minotaur who gives a pregnant human shelter in his home while preparing for the ritual combat minotaurs use to earn the right to mate, and it is very long and very boring. It’s all about the elaborate details of minotaur culture; but believe me, between Ashes of the Sun and Dark Legacy, I’ve had more than my fill of minotaur culture. I really don’t need to be regaled with the minutae of minotaur mother-worship another time. If this isn’t the longest story in the anthology, it certainly feels like it: it just keeps going on and on and on…

“Shen Mage-Slayer” is a story which is interesting not because of what happens in it, which is pretty much nothing, but because of the shift it represents in how the mechanics of Magic are represented in lore. For in this story, you see, summoned creatures are not the actual creatures themselves, but mere insubstantial magical copies which only exist for the duration of a duel and then fade to nothingness afterwards. The titular Shen Mage-Slayer (who never actually slays any mages) even sees an exact duplicate of herself get summoned. This is a pretty seismic shift from the previous stories in this collection, many of which have made a big deal about planeswalkers summoning actual, real living people and thus ripping them away from their homes and stranding them in foreign planes. In fact, given the lack of anything actually happening, I might almost think that this story was commissioned solely to demonstrate that shift in lore, rather than to tell a story.

“Defender” is basically just a joke about a Granite Gargoyle meeting a Shivan Dragon. See, the Shivan Dragon can spend one Red mana to get +1/+0, but the Granite Gargoyle can spend one Red mana to get +0/+1, so they cancel each other out. Get it? Isn’t that hilarious? Certainly worth dedicating an entire story to, right? …Yeah, this story just makes the punchline of “Better Mousetrap” retrospectively far funnier by comparison.

“The Old Way to Vacar Slab” is about a bunch of deranged lunatics who, due to the dictates of their religion, need to transport a prisoner to a holy site in order to execute him. Said holy site is so inconveniently located, in the middle of a highly hostile desert, that all but one of the guards escorting him die along the way. And yet the ending tries to have the last surviving guard realizing the truth and value of this inane and self-destructive religion? Not buying it. This story mostly interested me because of the way the tribe needs to mummify their dead to prevent them from returning as zombies is strongly reminiscent of the Curse of Wandering which plagues Amonkhet; and because it’s the first time a story uses the name “Dominaria” rather than “Dominia”. The revision’s nearly here, folks!

Once again, though this anthology had its share of flops, there were enough good stories contained within its pages that I found it a worthwhile read. And I do truly wish that Loot Niptil and Vram could have gotten their tales expanded into full books like that lucky bastard Reod Dai did; but as it is, I have to sadly wave them goodbye and leave them behind in the purgatory of really interesting characters who never got to fulfill their full potential.

Final Rating: 3/5

Empire of the East #4: Ardneh’s Sword

Draffut ain’t nothing but a hound god, healing all the time; Draffut ain’t nothing but a hound god, healing all the time. Draffut ain’t never hurt no human, and he ain’t no enemy of mine. Let’s slice into Ardneh’s Sword, by Fred Saberhagen.

Synopsis:

It’s been a thousand years since the time of Ardneh, the transcendent being that saved humanity from the vicious archdemon Orcus. It was a legendary battle between magic and technology that killed them both, but left behind tales of Ardneh’s heroism and newly found hope for humanity. But in the passing years only a few remain that actually believe these legends as truths.

Chance Rolfson comes from a long line of Ardneh’s followers, descendants from Rolf, the illustrious warrior who fought in Ardneh’s name for humanity many years ago. A young man plagued with vivid nightmares, Chance hopes to clear his head by joining a forest expedition that seeks physical proof of Ardneh’s existence. Their goal is to discover the great vault prophesized to hold the savior of humanity’s secrets to his own power and wisdom. But the dangers are high in the dark forests, rife with bandits and demons that no magic can stop. And as Chance’s dreams become clearer, he soon realizes these are not merely dreams but visions, and he alone holds the key to unlocking Ardneh’s greatest gift, known to the followers as Ardneh’s Sword.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

A mere 33 years after the last Empire of the East book, Fred Saberhagen wrote a new novel in the setting. The wait between A Song of Ice and Fire books doesn’t seem so bad anymore, now does it?

I wish I could say that the book was a spectacular return to form, a culmination of all of Saberhagen’s many years of writing experience into a product that far surpasses his earlier efforts. But it really isn’t. Whereas the previous books in the series were about epic clashes between the forces of East and West, this one is just about a single caravan getting waylaid by some bandits. A good portion of the book is spent just sitting in a cave hoping to wait the bandits out. Though at least that part’s livened up when Draffut shows up; always good to see the old boy.

The real purpose of the book, of course, is to serve as a connection between the events of the two series Empire of the East and Book of Swords. To that end, it seems to have been more interested in dropping references to those series than in actually telling an interesting and coherent story of its own; for instance, Chance having a random prophetic dream of Draffut one day standing among the Gods and wielding a Sword. And even in its explanations, the book is often lacking. For instance, we learn that the anti-demon incantation “In the Emperor’s name, forsake this game!” which will be so frequently used by Mark in Book of Swords originated from an inscription on a wall in Ardneh’s Workshop. Except… why exactly was that phrase inscribed there? Did Ardneh know about the Emperor? I thought it was established that John Ominor was the only Emperor at the time and it was only thousands of years later that the title came to be applied to the figure who was Emperor in Book of Swords. Even presuming that the Emperor was around in the time of Ardneh (plausible, as life-principle had already been discovered pre-Change) and already using the title of Emperor (much less plausible, as John Ominor would not likely tolerate anyone in the East using his own exalted title, and anyone in the West would likely view such an honorific as charitably as we view “Fuhrer”), what use would Ardneh have for the inscription, given that only children of the Emperor can use the invocation? And, of course, while this book may finally provide an explanation as to where the Gods come from, it just makes their sudden evaporation at the end of The Third Book of Swords even more inexplicable.

It wasn’t terrible. I still enjoyed reading it. But it isn’t exactly an epic capstone to the series.

Final Rating: 3/5

Empire of the East #3: Ardneh’s World

He’s got the whole world in his hands. Let’s explore Ardneh’s World, by Fred Saberhagen.

Synopsis:

The planet was Earth. The time was fifty thousand years from now. Magic and witchcraft worked and the Old Science didn’t.

Why this was so nobody knew – it had always been that way during the long tyranny of the Empire of the East. During that same period there had always been little bands of rebels using fragments of white magic against the demonic armies. Rolf was the latest of these rebels – and he had on his side the mysterious power known as Ardneh.

The meaning of Ardneh, the climactic showdown of fifty millennia of cosmic contention, and Rolf’s part in it, combine to make a thrilling adventure that continues the struggle between the Old Technology and the New Demonology, begun in The Broken Lands and The Black Mountains.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Ardneh’s World marks the conclusion of the original Empire of the East trilogy. Unfortunately, it cannot rise to the same high-water mark set by The Black Mountains.

The largest and most glaring problem is that the protagonists’ lack any agency. Instead of pursuing their own goals of their own volition, they’re reduced to just doing whatever Ardneh tells them to, just because Ardneh tells them to. It makes it seem like Ardneh is the only character whose decisions actually matter, and that everyone else is just a bunch of puppets dancing to Ardneh’s tune. One gets the sense that it’s no so much an epic final clash between the protagonists and the antagonists, as Ardneh playing a game of Solitaire.

Another problem is that, while the books have done a good job establishing the mystery surrounding Ardneh and building him up as the ultimate Big Good of the setting, there hasn’t been any such buildup for Orcus to take the role of Big Bad. Even in this very book, it’s Emperor John Ominor who is the primary antagonist for the first half – and Ominor himself wasn’t all that well built up as a threat in the previous books. I mean, obviously the Empire would have an Emperor, but we didn’t even get so much as a glimpse of him to start building our expectations. It’s not really a climax if there isn’t any buildup to it.

Finally, there was no resolution to Lisa’s character arc. Last book ended with her in a shocked daze after discovering that she was originally Charmian’s sister Carlotta, who had her memories erased, her appearance altered, and her hair turned into a soul jar for the demon Zapranoth. I expected that to be in some way followed up upon, but nope: with Zapranoth having been destroyed, her role as a living MacGuffin is over, and so Rolf doesn’t so much as think of her once for the entire novel. And my complaints about Saberhagen not handling female characters well coming roaring back to the fore…

Speaking of which, should I even try to start unpacking Charmian’s fate? Because I have the feeling that it’s probably really misogynistic in some manner I can’t quite put into words; but I honestly don’t care to dig deeply enough into matters to confirm my suspicions. I mean, throughout the entire trilogy, Charmian has been nothing more than – to quote the Goodreads plot synopsis of the previous book – “the Bitch Goddess”. She’s frankly more than earned any possible horrible comeuppance you could care to name.

Don’t get me wrong: despite all the complaints I’ve listed, I still found the book good. It just has too many flaws for me to put it on the same level as The Black Mountains.

Final Rating: 3/5

Empire of the East #2: The Black Mountains

Now I see fire, inside the mountain. I see fire, burning the trees. And I see fire, hollowing souls. And I see fire, blood in the breeze. Let’s climb The Black Mountains, by Fred Saberhagen.

Synopsis:

The Demon Lord Zapranoth will devour you, if the Beast Lord Draffut cannot save you – but either way the Bitch Goddess Charmian will have your soul…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Wow, that synopsis sucks. Shame, too, because this book is the series’s best one yet.

Having consolidated their control of the Broken Lands, the Free Folk now take their war East, into the Black Mountains, where they plan to attack the demon-infested citadel of Som the Dead. Along the way, Rolf hopes to find news of the fate of his sister Lisa, missing since the destruction of his home by soldiers of the Empire. But only about half the book is actually about our heroes. The other half is devoted to Chup, a soldier of the East, giving us our first proper internal view of the politics and power structure of the evil Empire. In the first book, the Empire was just generically evil, as fictional Empires often are. This book really fleshes them out, the test they pose to Chup to make him prove his devotion having that really sadistic personal touch which turns them into not just antagonists but true villains.

Also, this book is the official first introduction to Draffut, the loveable dog-god who is one of my favorite characters from the Book of Swords series. It’s an impressive build-up, first implying that the inhuman Lord of Beasts is one of the Powers of the East until Chup finally meets him and discovers his true nature.

All in all, I found myself more invested in this story than in any previous, reading the whole thing straight through from cover to cover without putting it down once. I have thus far rated every book in Book of Swords and Empire of the East a moderate three out of five, but I always held on to the hope that Fred Saberhagen to do better if he really put his heart to it; and at last I’ve found a tale which I believe deserves to be elevated above the others. Congratulations, The Black Mountains.

Final Rating: 4/5

Empire of the East #1: The Broken Lands

These rivers run too deep, with schemes of men for days that lay ahead. They sell their souls so cheap, they breed mistrust and fill my heart with dread. From where I stand, I see a broken land. Let’s set sight on The Broken Lands, by Fred Saberhagen.

Synopsis:

The passing of thousands of years left the planet Earth a series of broken lands…a mutated world of distant alien empires and near-at-hand rapacious satraps.

The hunted common people were sustained by one last legend – that some day one would come who would “rise the Elephant” and thereby bring back the Golden Age.

This is the gripping novel of the young rebel who found out what the legend really signified, and of how he sought to use that banned knowledge in the very heart of the satrap’s stronghold of alien magics and well-guarded scientific mysteries.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In a post-apocalyptic world now transformed by magic, the Free Folk of the West war for survival against the evil Empire of the East. In a ravaged wasteland known as the Broken Lands, the rebels struggling against the advancing Imperial invaders desperately search for a treasure known as the Elephant – a nuclear-powered technological war machine from the past age which could tip the balance of power in their favor.

In a lot of ways, it’s your typical Hero’s Journey: Rolf starts off as your unassuming farmboy, gets swept up in the Rebellion when Imperial Stormtroopers destroy his home, figures out how to operate the Elephant despite being a primitive man-animal, and so on. Is there a scene where he gets captured by the villains and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for their amusement?, you may be asking. Yes, gentle reader; yes there is. But execution counts for a lot, and Saberhagen pulls the story off well.

As regular followers of this review blog should know, I come into this series already having read the Book of Swords series; so I’m a bit spoiled with regards to some things that this volume only even begins to hint at, such as Ardneh and the Change. You’ll also recall that I was not particularly impressed with Saberhagen’s characterization – finding his female characters in particular to be flat cliches of either the doe-eyed love interest or the cruel, harsh shrew – and that the thing I enjoyed most about the stories was the interplay between the Swords: their unique powers, downsides, and interactions. I will confess that I entered the Empire of the East series with a bit of trepidation; worrying that since it didn’t feature any Swords, it might lack that crucial element which attracted me to that series. Happily, however, this book contains two interesting magical artifacts of its own: the Thunderstone and the Prisoner’s Stone. Seeing the characters interact with them and discover their formidable powers and surprising weaknesses brought back fond memories of the Swords clashing.

Also, the way Rolf ends up defeating Ekuman is pretty clever, so chalk up some bonus points for that.

Ultimately, I can say that The Broken Lands is a promising introduction to Empire of the East, and that my hopes and expectations for the subsequent volumes have risen accordingly.

Final Rating: 3/5

Railhead #2: Black Light Express

Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere. Let’s get our tickets punched for a ride on the Black Light Express, by Philip Reeve.

Synopsis:

Zen and Nova have ridden a train from one world to another before. They come from the Network Empire, whose stations are scattered across half the galaxy. But this time it’s different. They’ve passed through a gate which shouldn’t exist at all. They did terrible things to open it, they don’t know where it leads, and now they can never go back.

Chandni Hansa has just been defrosted from the prison freezers by the new Empress of the Great Network. When railwar erupts around them, the two find themselves running for their lives. But where can they run, when nowhere is safe?

And all the while, the mysterious Black Light Zone is calling them. But as their lines separate and intersect, among trainsong and engine-roar, battle cries and gunfire, will they find a way home? If home even exists any more…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

When we last left Zen and Nova, they’d traveled through a new K-Gate which took them beyond the systems of humanity. They now find themselves riding the rails of a new interstellar network, hundreds of strange new worlds inhabited by a wide variety of fantastical beings. But meanwhile, all is not well back in human space: the ascension of young and inexperienced Threnody Noon to the position of Empress has convinced the Prell family that the time is ripe for them to launch a coup d’etat.

Not only is the setting of this book much richer than that of its predecessor due to the alien Web of Worlds, the plot is far more substantial as well. The previous book spent the whole time building up to the construction of the new K-Gate, but then ended before we actually got to see what was on the other side. Not only does this book provide that, but it also contains the payoff to its own mysteries – the nature and fate of the mysterious Railbuilders, and the contents of the dreaded Black Light Zone where no alien train dares travel – rather than trying to delay them to a third book by means of another cliffhanger.

So, I really liked this book. In fact, I nearly ended up giving it a perfect score, except that the ending struck a sour note for me. After spending so much time developing the relationship between Zen and Nova, having them break up at the last minute and pairing Zen with Threnody just felt completely wrong. I mean, I know Zen and Threnody had some chemistry back in the first book, but they barely even interacted in this one; whereas a significant amount of time was spent exploring the nature and depth of the bond between Zen and Nova. It just doesn’t work for me.

But other than that small but significant detail: good book.

Final Rating: 4/5

Greatwinter #3: Eyes of the Calculor

When a moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore. Let’s toss a pie into the Eyes of the Calculor, by Sean McMullen.

Synopsis:

In Sean McMullen’s glittering, dynamic, and exotic world two thousand years in the future, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, there is no electricity, fueled engines are banned by every major religion in Australica, humanity has split into two species, and intelligent cetezoids rule the oceans.

In space, the enigmatic Mirrorsun has begun to spin. Immense solar sails are pushing vast amounts of energy into its ancient orbital band, energy that could tear it apart–or be directed down at Earth. Already the hypnotic Call has ceased, and all electrical machines have been reduced to molten metal. A religious prophet has risen and is attempting to bring together the entire continent of Australica under her rule.

Meanwhile, her diesel-powered sailwing shot down by religious fanatics, the American princess Samondel is forced to set aside her trade-seeking mission and disguise herself as a student. Her only friends are a disgraced monk who is a member of the secret police and a beautiful young librarian who is a dangerous and unstable psychopath. From these unlikely friendships she must form an alliance between two continents and two species, and prevent ultimate war.

Fundamentally, unexpectedly, things are changing everywhere. As catastrophe looms and civilization begins to crumble, the Dragon Librarians of Australica have just one means left to hold their world together: to kidnap every numerate person on the continent and rebuild their out-of-date human-powered computer–the Calculor.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Right off the bat, the book gets off on the wrong foot by making the villain this time around be Jemli, Lemorel’s sister. Yes, we’re ripping that old wound open again. In the first book, Jemli was a protagonist, albeit a very minor one. In the second book, it was stated that she’d betrayed Glasken; but I felt that was wholly justified, as Glasken had cheated on her, just as he cheated on every other woman he ever claimed to love. And now, in book three, Jemli has turned into a full-blown insane psychopath. It’s Lemorel all over again, except stretched over three books instead of compressed into one: Glasken wrongs a woman, but she’s treated as being the monster while Glasken is the hero. It makes me sick.

Speaking of which, Glasken returns as a protagonist for this book, too. Of fucking course he does. It was too much to hope for even one of these without him in the role of hero. I knew it was coming, of course, just as soon as the Mirrorsun saved a back-up copy of his mind in the previous book; but still I tried deluding myself into believing it wasn’t coming, that he wouldn’t be back. I live to be disappointed.

The final cherry atop this shit sundae? You recall Bronlar and Serjon, the two protagonists from the previous book who I was actually able to get kind of invested in? Yep, they return in this one having turned evil and genocidal as well, because heaven fucking forbid a single character I like make it through this series without at some point abruptly transforming into Hitler. Remember my review of this previous book where I said that I was worried it was going to pull a Lemorel on Bronlar and was grateful when it didn’t in the end? Way to retroactively ruin that book as well.

This series started with everything going for it – a unique and interesting setting, a wide variety of intriguing characters – and it managed to fuck it all up. As though the author had a personal vendetta against me, characters I liked all transformed into insane, psychopathic villains, while characters I disliked were treated like heroes and continually had their praises sung no matter what immoral deeds they committed. What a disappointment it ended up being.

Final Rating: 1/5