Magic the Gathering #0.4: The Cursed Land

Alright, time to find some opening lyrics appropriate for a novel called The Cursed Land. Should be easy. I’ll just go with “The Cursed Lands” by Peter Gundry… oh, wait, that’s just orchestral, no lyrics. Then I guess I’ll try “This Land is Cursed” by Sons of Peridition… nope, still no lyrics. Okay, third time’s the charm: “Cursed Lands” by Decollection. I shall be hostile to my own lands, lifted by the rebel winds. Rebellious son, the godborn one. Master of the arts, spirit of the dark. I am godborn! …Eh, good enough, I guess. Let’s consecrate The Cursed Land, by Teri McLaren.

Synopsis:

A wizard’s greed wounded the land. Can a woman’s magic heal it?

DARK LEGACY

Centuries ago, hungry for power, the wizard Nohr destroyed the Clan Tree of Cridhe, trying to harness its magic for his own uses. Nohr’s deed brought a curse upon his family, divided the Clan – and plunged the island of Cridhe into generations of darkness.

Now a turning point has been reached. Aylith, a gifted but untried mage, has been kidnapped by the cruel Nazir in an attempt to wrest away the last of her family’s legacy. But what Nazir intends to take by force can only be given freely – or the ancient wounds of the Parting will never be healed.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Since no new promotional cards were released with this novel, the image on the back cover has finally been changed away from Arena and Sewers of Estark (which never did get shown with its proper name). Now, it shows two cards thematically relevant to the story: Equinox and Cursed Land. Equinox is kind of an odd duck; it’s in-color flavor-wise (White cares about protecting its things from destruction, including lands) but not quite mechanics-wise (countering spells is Blue). In any case, its power level has sharply declined over the years, since modern Magic features far, far fewer spells that destroy land. Cursed Land, by contrast, was never that good: too much cost for too little effect. It’s fine for Black color pie-wise, at least; give it that.

Now, I’m sure some of you are already objecting to my last paragraph. What do you mean, no new promotional cards were released for this novel!? What about Curse of Nazir:

CurseOfNazir

To the people raising those objections: you clearly have great taste, as you’ve been reading Mark Gottlieb articles such as this one. But you are not so good at checking the date MaGo wrote that article: April 1, 2004. That’s right, the alleged “Curse of Nazir” is in fact nothing more than an April Fools hoax. Sorry to disappoint.

The Cursed Land is the first pre-revision novel to be set on a plane other than Dominaria – or “the Domains”, as it was then called. The setting of this book is a mana-poor plane with only a single leyline of Green mana tied to one special tree, which thus bears the entire burden of maintaining the world’s natural order. When some crazy, drunken fool cuts the magic world-tree down, it triggers you standard apocalypse: the land is split in twain, the cycle of the seasons is broken, the stars come un-moored in the sky, there is darkness and pestilence and famine… all the usual stuff. Cue the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi.

While I found the setting interesting, the actual story came as something of a letdown. You see, it’s about a prophesied chosen one who will restore the tree, heal the wounded land, bring balance to the Force, snooore… oh, sorry, it’s just so boring and cliched that I’m struggling not to fall asleep just writing about it. What is it with all the books I’ve been reading lately and their goddamn lazy reliance on prophecies which are basically just spoilers for the ending? Now, personally, I’d be just about the worst destined hero ever: as soon as I learned I was the Chosen One, I’d just start completely half-assing everything, trusting Fate to cover for me. Hey, it doesn’t matter if I have a couple beers and smoke a few joints right before the big battle if I’m destined to win in the end regardless, right?

Prophecies: the number one crutch for lazy writing.

I liked the setting and I liked certain characters, such as Lorris; but ultimately, the book’s story was too flawed for me to truly enjoy it.

Final Rating: 2/5

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Magic the Gathering #0.3: Final Sacrifice

I will sacrifice all I have in life to clear my conscience. It’s time to make the Final Sacrifice, by Clayton Emery.

Synopsis:

Years of fighting have come and gone–but now the last battle must be faced!

From frozen mountains to an ocean-drowned forest, from war-torn battlefields to the flowing crypts of Lat-Nam, the Archdruid Greensleeves travels with her ragged troops searching for spells to defeat an army of angry wizards and end their reign of terror. While Greensleeves uncovers ancient mysteries, Gull the Woodcutter fights a fierce battle with a Keldon Warlord who holds the key to an awful secret from the past.

With each fight, Greensleeves, Gull, and their outnumbered army realize that only one last desperate spell can save them all. But to unleash it, Greensleeves must be willing to make the final sacrifice.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The promotional card which came with this novel was Mana Crypt – not to be confused with Mana Vault, the artifact Gull and Greensleeves are using in-story. But they probably really wish it was a Mana Crypt, because that card is freaking broken as hell. The potential 3 damage per turn may seem like a significant drawback; but if you’re using this card properly, the game is going to end before it becomes an issue. Someone who puts Mana Crypt in their deck is probably planning something along the lines of turn 1 Island, Mana Crypt, Tinker for Blightsteel Colossus. (For those of you interested in the game, the correct counter-play to such a move is to scoop up your cards and go play with someone who isn’t a massive asshole.)

Speaking of the Mana Vault: what a piece of junk that turned out to be. Gull and Greensleeves have been using it to force evil wizards to submit to them and vow to reform themselves; and it turns out to have worked on exactly none of them. All the wizards promise anything while the magic helmet is actually on them; but the moment they’re out of Greensleeves’s sight, they go right back to doing evil magic and plotting against her.

Looking at it objectively, Final Sacrifice has a lot of problems. For one thing, the novel consists almost exclusively of fight scenes. It’s pretty much three hundred pages of combat, with a short break for some battlefield archaeology in the middle. The twist involving Sparrow Hawk is extremely heavily telegraphed: in the first book, he disappeared and was presumed dead; but now suddenly everyone’s reminiscing about him and commenting on the fact they never actually saw his body just when a mysterious new villain in a mask appears? I wonder what the narrative could possibly be hinting at. And finally, the ultimate moral message of the book is kind of confused. It was a mistake to try to spare and reform the villains, because none of them were sincere and they just continued plotting evil, and it’s only by gaining the resolve to fight to kill that Greensleeves is able to prevail over them in the final battle… but then they go right back to deciding to spare and try to reform the remaining surviving villains? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

Also, the title is crying out for a definite article. Isn’t it “the” final sacrifice, or at least “a” final sacrifice?

Despite those problems, though, Final Sacrifice did succeed in appealing to me emotionally. There were quite a few scenes that did a number on the ole heart strings, such as Gull’s army refusing to abandon him even in the face of certain death and Helki explaining to Greensleeves why, even though their anti-wizard crusade was doomed and impossible from the start, it matters to people so much that they’re willing to lay down their lives for it. Hell, they even threw in a touching final scene for Egg Sucker, the damn annoying “comic relief” goblin who was vying for the Jar-Jar position.

So, even though my brain is telling me that this book really wasn’t all that good, I’ve got to go with my heart here. It brings the Greensleeves Trilogy to a moving and emotionally satisfying ending; and really, isn’t that what’s most important? A really bad ending can taint all that came before it and make me curse a series for wasting my time; but a good ending makes me happy I made the journey, even if it did have a few bumps along the way.

Final Rating: 3/5

Wolfgang County #1: Heart of the Pack

Seven days to the wolves; where will we be when they come? Let’s howl for Heart of the Pack, by Jenny Frame.

Synopsis:

Selena Miller accepts a job in Wolfgang County, jumping at the chance to get away from her overbearing family. Crippled by anxiety, she’s determined to start a new, independent life.

As Second of the Wolfgang pack, Caden Wolfgang is used to having her orders followed without question. When the Alpha allows a human to work in the heart of their business, Caden is horrified. Haunted by a childhood tragedy at the hands of a human, Caden makes it her mission to keep Selena from threatening everything they’ve built.

When contempt turns into attraction and passion flares, can their love survive Selena learning the truth of what the Wolfgangs really are?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book marks an important milestone. See, in my long search for good books with lesbian protagonists, I have ended up giving a lot of books bad scores for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it’s because they incurred gratuitous Dead Lesbian Penalties (Paladins of the Storm Lord, by Barbara Ann Wright). In others, it’s because they forced the lesbian couple to separate at the end instead of allowing them a happy ending (Huntress, by Malinda Lo). Occasionally, it’s because the book turned out to have just been queerbaiting all along and had the main character end up in a straight relationship (Run, by Kody Keplinger). But this book has made history: it’s the first time I’ve given a bad score because the book just wasn’t very good.

There’s a one-dimensional villain whose sole motivation is just to commit wanton rape and murder just because. There’s really awkward dialogue like “I swear I will make humans pay for what they have done. They are evil creatures who deserve to die”. There’s a pack of werewolves who are just the absolute worst at maintaining the Masquerade: they’re constantly using wolf terms like “den” for home, “pack” for family, and “cub” for child; they blatantly use their superhuman abilities all the time, they call people “human”, etc… The two love interests hate each other at first sight and immediately start arguing and acting like assholes towards one another – but the old mystic soothsayer Rhea prophesied that they would end up an item, so that’s that. Never mind if actually like each other: Destiny has spoken. It has been fore-ordained. No need to come up with any actual romance or character development: ineffable Fate has decreed that they will become a couple, so they might as well just give in to the inevitable.

This book doesn’t pull any of the classic mistakes that normally make me penalize a lesbian story, and it isn’t an absolute irredeemable garbage fire like the Valhalla series (which we shall now proceed to never speak of again). It’s just kind of flawed in execution, and the problems were a little too severe for me to be able to overlook them and enjoy the story regardless. I’ll be willing to give the series a second chance when the next book comes out; but as it is, as much as I want to like this one, I just can’t give it my recommendation.

Final Rating: 2/5

Beneath the Waves

Under the sea, under the sea; darling it’s better down where it’s wetter. Let’s see if they’ve got no troubles and life is the bubbles in Under the Sea… I mean, in Beneath the Waves by Ali Vali.

Synopsis:

No one has her life more mapped out than Kai Merlin. She’ll succeed her mother Galen and carry out every duty expected of her—the most important of which is to keep hidden the secrets her people have kept for eons.

Vivien Palmer’s life has been just as planned out by her parents, and their dream is for her and her brother Franklin to eventually run the family business. But Vivien’s dreams lie in the depths of the oceans searching for clues to the shells she and Franklin wear around their necks.

A chance encounter as children forever linked Kai and Vivien for life, but can they find a way to be together despite what’s expected of them?

The answers lie Beneath the Waves.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Beneath the Waves is your classic tale of star-crossed lovers. They come from two groups which are natural enemies: one from the sunken kingdom of Atlantis, the other from an offshore oil-drilling dynasty. They’re of different social standing: one is a plain ordinary human, the other is mermaid royalty. They first meet as children, before they’re old enough to understand the obstacles facing their relationship. They’re separated for a long time before reconnecting as adults. There’s a vague prophecy of doom that cataclysm will befall the world should they pursue their forbidden relationship. Fairly standard stuff, other than the mermaid thing.

Let’s talk about this book’s mermaids. They do not have half-fish bodies, looking totally human other than their ability to breathe underwater. However, not only are they not human, they’re not even from Earth: they’re aliens from the planet Atlantis (not to be confused with the city of the same name, which they built on Earth and named after their homeworld). One must wonder why they look so much like humans and are even capable of interbreeding with humans if they came from a completely different planet. Also, they possess not only advanced alien technology and psychic powers, but also straight-up magic as well. Because you gotta have that ancient mystic prophecy of doom, right?

Well… no, I’d argue you don’t, since the prophecy doesn’t end up having much of an impact on anything. Oh, they talk about it a lot; but it just turns out to be a case of your standard Prophecy Twist where it comes true regardless of what anyone does but it turns out not to mean what everyone thought it meant due to ambiguous wording. Bleh. I dislike prophecies in general, because they rob characters of their agency – it doesn’t matter what anybody does, things are going to go down a certain way because Fate says so – and these already unusual mermaids don’t really need the added baggage of yet more confusing mystical powers on top of everything else just to have this prophecy subplot.

Speaking of subplots: aside from the romance, this book has three. First, an asshole named Steven is trying to pull a corporate coup within Vivien’s company. Second, Atlantis is detecting a number of strange transmissions from unknown technology in the ocean. And third, Kai is searching for a sunken Viking ship which may be connected to a lost secret of the Knights Templar. The first two subplots end up tying together when it’s revealed that both are connected to a plot by the royalty of Atlantis (Planet) to overthrow the royalty of Atlantis (City). The third one, not so much. It’s just some Dan Brown shit out of nowhere which then gets completely forgotten about in light of the other two subplots. What even was the point of bringing that up in the first place?

Well, despite the book’s occasional awkwardness, the main romance plot was ultimately decent, and I found reading it to be an enjoyable experience.

Final Rating: 3/5

Thrones & Bones #1: Frostborn

When you play the game of thrones and bones, you win or you die… no, wait, wrong series. Unless of course you’re playing against an undead draug; in which case, yes, you’ll totally die if you don’t win. Let’s skate into Frostborn, by Lou Anders.

Synopsis:

Meet Karn. He is destined to take over the family farm in Norrøngard. His only problem? He’d rather be playing the board game Thrones and Bones.

Enter Thianna. Half human, half frost giantess. She’s too tall to blend in with other humans but too short to be taken seriously as a giant.

When family intrigues force Karn and Thianna to flee into the wilderness, they have to keep their sense of humor and their wits about them. But survival can be challenging when you’re being chased by a 1,500-year-old dragon, Helltoppr the undead warrior and his undead minions, an evil uncle, wyverns, and an assortment of trolls and giants.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Frostborn is a pretty standard young adult fantasy series. You’ve got your two protagonists, one male and one female: in this case, Karn the farmboy and Thianna the half-giant. They’ve got contrasting skills and personalities which make them good foils: Thianna obviously excels in physical strength, what with being a giantess, while Karn is very intelligent and excels in the board game Thrones and Bones. And you’ve got the quest which forces them to team up, though in this case they encounter each other while each pursuing their own quest: Thianna has possession of a magical horn capable of controlling dragons, which is being sought by an evil army; and Karn is looking to save his father, who was betrayed to a draug by his evil uncle. Decently interesting plots, both of them.

While I generally liked the book, there is one specific moment which really just rubbed me the wrong way:

Karn wasn’t sure how to answer. Lately, he’d begun to suspect that his uncle might cheat at Thrones and Bones. Cheating seemed to be a form of lying, but he kept his opinion to himself.

Frostborn, Chapter 7: Winternights

So, this is supposed to be another example of how Ori is evil – because consorting with the undead isn’t quite sufficient to establish that; he also has to cheat in board games against children as well to make sure we get the message. The thing is, though, that Thrones and Bones is a lot like chess: no-chance and perfect-information. It’s not like you can roll a loaded die or use marked cards; everything is on the board out in the open where both players can see it at all times. It reminds me of an episode of Sailor Moon featuring a rather silly scene where Berthier is playing chess with Koan and is discovered to have an extra Queen up her sleeve. What’s she going to do, place it on the board and hope Koan doesn’t notice? Pull something like from one of those “Chess with Death” sketches on The Colbert Report where Colbert shouts “Look!” and then switches the pieces around while Death is distracted? In real life, the primary way people cheat at chess is by using computer programs to calculate the best move for them; somehow, I don’t think Ori has a secret iPhone running a Thrones and Bones app.

Funny, how one single throwaway line that isn’t even really relevant to the plot can just completely break my suspension of disbelief and kill my immersion in the story.

Final Rating: 3/5

Godfall #1: Paladins of the Storm Lord

Paladin, paladin, where do you roam? Paladin, paladin, far far from home. A knight without armor in a savage land. Let’s lay hands on Paladins of the Storm Lord, by Barbara Ann Wright.

Synopsis:

Surrounded by dead crewmates, marooned above an unknown planet, the bridge crew of the Atlas awakens from a crash with extraordinary mental abilities. When their most powerful member jettisons their passengers to the planet below, they have an unprecedented opportunity: they can become gods.

Two hundred years later, Lieutenant Cordelia Ross is a paladin serving the Storm Lord, her city’s patron deity. Her faith is absolute until her people are attacked by a native species, harmless creatures turned devious by an unknown hand.

Cordelia tries to solve the mystery of their development before they kill anyone else, but the secrets surrounding them are too deep. As orders from the Storm Lord begin to value obedience over integrity, Cordelia wonders whose side her god is really on.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Barbara Ann Wright’s first series, Katya & Starbride, was fantastic: epic high fantasy action featuring lesbian protagonists who get a happy ending. It was exactly the kind of series I’d spent so long searching for and failing to find in other works. So, of course, when I heard that she had written a second series, I knew I had to check it out. Does Paladins of the Storm Lord hold up to her earlier example?

Unfortunately… no, it does not.

From the start, there’s a lack of focus. Katya & Starbride had a very simple system of alternating between Katya’s POV and Starbride’s POV for chapters. This book, on the other hand, starts by dumping a whole wealth of POV characters on us, more than I can keep track of: there’s Dillon the Storm Lord, and Lazlo the Healer, and Cordelia the paladin, and Carmichael the leader of the paladins, and Lydia the prophet who’s off doing her own thing with no connection to anyone else, and Liam and Horace and two different minor villains from two different factions and I’m probably forgetting some. I don’t know which ones I’m supposed to care about; and all the jumping back and forth means that none of them are developed as characters as deeply as Katya or Starbride were.

The setting, also, didn’t quite intrigue me the way Katya & Starbride did. That world’s system of using magic through pyramids struck me as something new and unique, whereas here the magic is just your standard “negative space wedgie gives random psychic powers” – I think that was the plot of the very first aired episode of Star Trek TOS. It just feels kind of wrong that there’s no explanation of what caused them to gain psychic powers or why or the reason the powers are all different from person to person – one of the differences between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is generally held to a higher standard of explanation. Oh, sure, there are exceptions – the highly intricate and thought out magic systems of Brandon Sanderson, the very soft sci-fi of Star Wars where attempting an explanation with midichlorians is worse than saying nothing – but just in general, sci-fi makes me want a better explanation than “eh, I dunno, magic just happens to work that way because it’s magic”.

And then, of course, there’s the Dead Lesbian Penalty. One of the reasons I so loved the Katya & Starbride books was because they avoided that dreadful cliche; I had hoped this book would do the same, but alas, I was destined for disappointment.

Unfortunately, Paladins of the Storm Lord fails to recapture the magic of Katya & Starbride.

Final Rating: 2/5

Magic the Gathering #0.2: Shattered Chains

Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise. Running in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies. And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again. I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain. Let’s break apart Shattered Chains, by Clayton Emery.

Synopsis:

They knew it was powerful. They didn’t know it was alive…

“Spare us from plague, drought, and wizardly duels…”

To common folk like Gull and Greensleeves, wizards were a blight on the land. When Greensleeves discovered her own magical ability, she decided to use it to break the power of the other wizards.

Gull’s army helped, but not much–and Gull wasn’t much of a general. Their mana vault might have helped, but she hadn’t learned how to control it. Then a Hero of Benalia was sent to stop them and their “mana vault” came alive. Things couldn’t get any worse.

Or so they thought until the other wizards caught on to what Greensleeves was doing.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The promotional Magic card which accompanied this book was Giant Badger. It’s a perfectly fine card; not exceptionally good, put playable, and the effect is perfectly in-color for Green. The flavor text is even a reference to events from this novel – okay, there’s a little typo, it should be “a battle” rather than “an battle”; but it’s overall not bad compared the color pie-breaking messes that came before. On the back cover, someone finally noticed the Sewers of Cityname problem… but instead of fixing it, they just airbrushed out the card’s name entirely. That’s some quality work, there.

Though I am numbering the pre-revision novels #0 through #0.9, they were not actually numbered when they were published. Wizards was afraid that if Shattered Chains were to be marketed as the third book in the Magic series (or as the second book in the “Greensleeves Trilogy”, as it came to be known), a number of people might be frightened away from buying it because they hadn’t read the first or second books. By not numbering the pre-revision novels, Wizards made clear that they were all stand-alone books which could be read in any order. Except that they’re not: Shattered Chains is a direct sequel to Whispering Woods, and features the return of Norreen from Arena as well. Anyone picking this book up thinking it was a stand-alone novel would have ended up sorely confused. So, way to go, Wizards. Bullshit book-numbering ambiguity like this is why I keep accidentally picking up series out of order, like reading The Rise of Io before The Lives of Tao or Book of Swords before Empire of the East.

From the start, I felt like Shattered Chains wasn’t quite as good as the previous two books. The first immediately apparent problem was the plot structure. Whispering Woods also had a meandering plot with no immediately clear end-goal, but it benefited from a tight focus: it was clearly Gull’s story, focusing on his adventure and his trials and triumphs. We may not have known where Gull was going or what he was going to do when he got there – half the time, Gull himself didn’t know – but we knew what the story was about. Shattered Chains, by contrast, takes the same slow pace and unclear objective, and throws in a profusion of different subplots. Gull is now trying to whip the extremely ragtag group of rebels who have joined his anti-wizard crusade into an effective fighting force, and mostly failing at it, but he’s no longer clearly the center of the story. There’s also his sister Greensleeves, who is seeking to develop her power as a wizard under the mentorship of the elderly druid Chaney; and Norreen, aka Rakel, whose son is kidnaped by evil Benalians (…wow is it weird writing that, when post-revision Benalia is pretty much the shining beacon of all that is good and true) in order to blackmail her into infiltrating Gull’s army and assassinating him and Greensleeves.

Another aspect of the book that I didn’t like was implication of a romantic affair between Gull and Norreen. Gull already has a romantic interest in the form of Lily, and Norreen is already married to Garth. You do know how I really hate it when characters who are supposed to be protagonists cheat on their significant others, right? Of course, the book tries to justify it by saying that Lily and Garth both became distant and emotionally neglectful due to their obsessions with magic. Which brings me to my second point: you do know how I really hate it when characters who are supposed to be protagonists justify their cheating as not actually being cheating even though it totally is, right? The book doesn’t make it explicitly clear whether Gull and Norreen actually have sex, always cutting away after they share emotionally intimate moments, but it is very definitely cheating. Gull, I’ll give some slack, both because it’s unclear how serious his relationship with Lily was (they weren’t married or engaged) and because he didn’t know Norreen was married; bur Norreen? Seriously? You do remember that you and Garth are married with a child, right? Say, where is that child right now? Oh, that’s right, he’s been kidnapped and is being held hostage as leverage to make you assassinate Gull. And instead of either trying to complete the mission or trying to rescue him, you’re going to give up on him and start romancing your target? For shame.

But the thing that finally pushed me over the edge was the Dead Lesbian Penalty. Yes, really: this book introduces and then kills off a lesbian. I know, I was surprised too: I thought that Magic didn’t introduce a lesbian character until the Shadows Over Innistrad story “Under the Silver Moon”, published online in 2016. However, it turns out that this book, published all the way back in 1995, features Captain Ordando: a woman in Gull’s army who has two wives. Of course, the book has to go and kill her off, because no lesbian can ever be allowed a happy ending; so it’s not too progressive. And you can’t really credit this representation to Wizards, since the pre-revision Magic novels were farmed out rather than done in-house. And, in fact, it actually speaks rather badly of Wizards that, once they started exerting greater creative control over their product, it took them twenty years to feel comfortable introducing additional lesbian characters. And yet there are people who complain that Wizards is too radical with its diversity, accusing the company of selling out to “social justice warriors”. The mind boggles.

Finally, some continuity notes. This book really amps up the references to the Brothers’ War; but it’s clear the author didn’t quite know what he was writing about. For instance, at one point, Chaney claims that the wizard Haakon has rediscovered the lost Mightstone of Urza and is wielding it against them. That is, of course, impossible, since the Mightstone is located inside of one of Urza’s eye sockets. If you really want to try to shoehorn the pre-revision novels into post-revision continuity, you can just say that Chaney isn’t actually as wise as everyone assumes and is actually just talking out of her ass. For one thing, she claims to be a planeswalker; but she’s also dying of old age, and Arena already established within the pre-revision continuity that planeswalkers don’t age. It was kind of a whole thing, how common wizards can only push about a thousand before life-extension magic ceases working for them and that only planeswalkers know true immortality; the head of the Purple House was a lady so old that regular rejuvenation had stopped working for her and so she wanted to become a planeswalker. Admit it, Chaney: you’ve only just vaguely heard about the Brothers’ War and are just dropping the few names you know in order to sound cool.

Final Rating: 2/5

Magic the Gathering #0.1: Whispering Woods

My mind repeats the scene. I can’t forget it and it’s torture. That was before, but not anymore. I’ve left it behind. As much as I lost, once I’m across I’ll find I’ve found the strength to grow so much more. A whisper to a roar. No more crying, it’s time for me to soar. Let’s arm and ready ourselves for Whispering Woods, by Clayton Emery.

Synopsis:

Wizards are nothing but trouble. Ask. Gull. He works for one.

HELP WANTED: WIZARD’S ASSISTANT
Must be willing to relocate in space and time…

Gull should have known better than to take the job. But with his village destroyed and a half-wit sister to look after, what choice did he have? At least the pay was good.

But this wizard was even worse than the ones he’d heard about. Between the tavern brawls, the magical battles, and taking care of the strange artifact that turned up, a guy could barely find time to catch his breath.

And now, with his sister beginning to gather her wits, Gull really has his hands full.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The promotional card which accompanied this novel was Windseeker Centaur, a reference to the pair of centaurs who appear in the novel – though the female centaur pictured on the card is wearing armor, while the female centaur in the book is topless and has her nipples described in loving detail. This card isn’t quite as bad as Sewers of Estark, but it still bends the color pie pretty badly: centaurs are usually Green, and Vigilance (“attacking doesn’t cause this creature to tap”) is usually White. Oh, and speaking of the sewers: despite the promotional card offer having changed for this book, the back cover still depicts Arena and Sewers of Estark – sorry, I mean Sewers of Cityname.

In the past book, the author tried to give it a Magic feel by referring to generic fantasy creatures with Magic-specific names: Llanowar Elves instead of just elves, Ironclaw Orcs instead of just orcs. This book has adopted a new strategy: using Magic card names as curse words. Invectives spouted at various points include “Bell of Kormus!” “Shivan Dragon!” and “Lord of Atlantis!”. Incidentally, the names of Urza and Mishra are also mentioned in curses; so, in case anyone’s interested in reconciling the pre-revision novels with the post-revision continuity, they’d have to take place after the Brother’s War.

When a wizard summons a creature to do battle for him, where exactly does that creature come from? Is he simply creating a magical construct, something that bears the image of a living creature but is not truly alive and exists only for the duration of the fight? Or is he actually pulling an existing being across the multiverse to heed his call, something or someone that has an independent life of its own both before and after the summoning? Magic lore has actually gone back and forth on this question quite a bit; and the very second novel ever published marks the first flip-flop. In Arena, the summoned creatures were purely magic: created at the instant a wizard summoned them, and evaporating back into magic when they were slain or dismissed. In Whispering Woods, by contrast, all the summoned creatures are actual living beings who have been summoned and enslaved, ripped from their homes and forced to fight on a wizard’s behalf only to be wantonly discarded once the battle is done. The change makes sense, given the change in theme of the novel – the first book had a wizard as protagonist, and thus didn’t want to make him look too bad; whereas this one has an ordinary villager whose quiet life is destroyed by uncaring wizards as protagonist, and thus wants them to look as bad as possible – and is easily forgivable given that the pre-revision novels were farmed out to a third party. The fact that the books would still be going back and forth on this issue as late as the Zendikar novel, published 15 years after this one… that’s less forgivable.

Finally, on to the plot. One of the ways this book is strongly differentiated from the previous one is by the status of protagonist. Garth One-Eye was ultra-powerful wizard with the primal cosmic forces of creation at the tip of his fingers, and walked into Estark as the biggest badass in the city – strong enough even to take on a planeswalker. Gull, by contrast, is nothing more than a normal, ordinary woodcutter – in fact, you might even say he’s somewhat less capable than average due to an old knee injury that makes him walk with a limp. This also has a large impact on the nature of the action in the story, which follows a much slower and more meandering path. Garth was an extremely active protagonist: a man on a mission, who knew what he wanted and wasn’t going to let anyone stand in his way. Gull, on the other hand, is extremely passive, spending most of the book being dragged along in the wake of circumstances beyond his power. His home village is destroyed as collateral damage in a titanic clash of magic between two mighty wizards who didn’t even notice that there were civilians on their chosen battlefield, for all non-wizards are as mere ants to them; he joins the traveling caravan of the wizard Towser simply because he doesn’t know where else he could go or what else he could do; and he doesn’t understand where Towser is going or what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is not until near the end of the novel that Gull finally expresses his agency: upon discovering that Towser has been recruiting people with unrealized wizardly potential, including his sister Greensleeves and his love interest Lily, with the intention of sacrificing them to increase his own power, Gull rallies a number of Towser’s other enslaved servants in rebellion against their master.

Despite the radically different approach of this book, Whispering Woods has its own kind of appeal. For the record, I liked Arena’s fast-paced action and strong end goal to Whispering Woods’s more casual pace and lack of overall direction; but I found Gull a more sympathetic and relatable character than Garth’s fairly cliched brooding badass with a mysterious past shtick. So, in the end, they’re fairly level with one another.

Final Rating: 3/5

Magic the Gathering #0: Arena

The arena, the arena, this is our world stage. The arena, the arena, this is our death cage. Break out the moxen, because I’m starting off a look at the extensive literary universe that sprung from the collectible card game Magic: the Gathering. And here’s where it all began: with Arena, by William R. Forstchen

Synopsis:

Even the greatest fight-mages will learn to fear the one-eyed stranger.

WHERE MAGIC AND MAYHEM MEET

Festival will never be the same again.

For even as the fight-mages of the four great Houses prepare for their annual battle in the Arena, a stranger arrives for Festival. Who is Garth One-eye, and where did he get his powerful spells? What is his interest in the fifth House, destroyed a generation ago? And why is the Grand Master of the Arena so afraid of what Garth might do?

The answer may bring about the fall of the four Houses – or Garth’s death.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Magic: the Gathering, created by Richard Garfield, is one of the most popular trading card games in the world. As a young teen, I, like many others, was ensnared by its sticky web and goaded into spending an ungodly amount of money on small pieces of cardboard. Now, I was never actually that good at the game itself – whenever I tried playing my casual mono-Black Zombie tribal deck, I’d inevitably get crushed by some asshole packing a deck stuffed full of every Urza-block bomb to ever hit the ban list. What I loved more than playing the game itself was the art and flavor text of the cards: the world, the characters, the story, the lore. I had endless hours of glee discovering cards which could be lined up to tell a story: for instance, Sudden Impact, Abandon Hope, and Broken Fall telling the story of Gerrard miraculously surviving a fall from the Weatherlight; or Repentance, Vhati il-Dal, and Diabolic Edict telling how Greven finally got fed up with his underling Vhati and dropped him to his doom. That makes me what Head Designed Mark Rosewater would call a member of the Vorthos psychographic, I guess.

In any case, with my liking the story more than the game, it was only a matter of time until I stopped collecting the cards themselves and started collecting the novels telling the Magic story. And now that I’ve started this book review blog, I figured I should put my love of the setting to use by reviewing them. All of them. All 42 novels and 8 anthology collections. (I’m still on the fence about the published comic strip collections; because even an uber-fan has to have his limits).

You may be wondering why I have numbered this book as #0 in the series, when series traditionally begin at #1. Well… Arena isn’t exactly in the main Magic: the Gathering continuity. You see, before Wizards of the Coast began publishing Magic novels themselves, they farmed the license out to Harper Fantasy. The result was ten books known as the “pre-revision” continuity, aka “wow, get a load of the weird stuff that people wrote before the creative team decided to step in and set down some standards for the property”.

So, given that Magic: the Gathering is a fantasy game, how do you write a book that feels specifically about Magic rather than just generic fantasy? Well, obviously, there’s the simple method of name-dropping cards at every opportunity: every protective spell is a Circle of Protection, all elves are Llanowar Elves. Ideally, though, you’d want something a bit deeper, a bit more integral, than that. And bless them, they try everything they can think of to reflect game mechanics in the story. In Magic, you get mana to play spells from Land cards, so the wizards in the book draw on their ties to distant lands in order to cast magic. At the time, tapping land for mana and then failing to spend it would result in taking damage called manaburn; and this is reflected in the story when a wizard draws on mana to cast a spell but then changes his mind – though it’s not exactly the best depiction, the way he starts yelping like he stubbed his toe or got a particularly bad ice-cream headache. A future book will give a much more compelling description of the experience of manaburn when Jodah has a close call with it during his training. Finally, back in the day, Magic had ante rules allowing the winner to take one of the loser’s cards; this is reflected in the story by any wizard who wins a duel claiming one of the loser’s spells. How, you may be wondering, do you “take” something abstract and intangible like a spell? If you’re picturing something like a Highlander quickening, prepare to be disappointed: it seems that, in this world, every spell is linked with a physical token: an amulet or a totem or a magical thingamajig. Which just goes and raises all sorts of questions – since a standard Magic deck contains 60 cards, I’m now picturing each wizard hauling a huge piece of luggage behind them containing a bunch of random assorted knick-knacks and brick-a-bracks.

Now, you’d think one of the easiest mechanics to reflect in the story would be the color system. Magic is well known for its color wheel, where all magic is divided into five colors which represent different elements, abilities, approaches, and philosophies: White, Blue, Black, Red, and Green. So, when it’s revealed that the city setting for Arena contains five noble houses, it’s pretty clear where they’re going with that, right? Yes, each house has its own distinctive heraldic color, and they are… Grey, Turquoise, Purple, Orange, and Brown? Eh? Was there an accident in the laundromat which resulted in the tones getting muddied? Well, it’s said at one point that the Turquoise house used mana from forests and islands, and turquoise is a blue-green color, so I guess they could represent multicolor combinations. In that case, Grey would be Black/White, Purple would be Black/Blue, Orange would be Red/White and Brown would be Black/Red, I guess. Not that it matters, since it doesn’t really seem like any of the wizards are strongly linked with specific colors: a wizard will cast a zombie-summoning spell (Black), win an ante of a fireball spell (Red), and then be able to cast the fireball with no difficulty. And as for the color pie philosophies, with Red being the color of passion and instinct versus Blue being the color of intellect and calculation? Well, I’m not sure such clear distinctions even existed at the time – it took a while for the color pie to really settle into its modern form – but if they did, this book really failed to articulate them. The houses may be supposed to represent different colors, but all the wizards basically act and behave the same as one another.

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate way to make it a Magic: the Gathering book: have characters in the fantasy world also play Magic: the Gathering.

A number of patrons were gathered around a table, watching as two of their compatriots played a card game which represented the fighting of magic users.

Arena, Chapter 3

It’s Inception, folks. We need to go deeper.

One last thing I’d like to talk about before moving on to the book’s actual story. When the pre-revision novels were first coming out, Wizards marketed them by releasing a small number of promotional cards which you could only get by purchasing the books. The back cover of Arena proudly depicts the two promotional cards you could obtain with it: Arena and Sewers of Estark. Now, Arena is actually a pretty decent card, and even got a reprint in the “Time Spiral” block. Sewers of Estark, on the other hand… well, it’s kind of shit. It has a high cost for a very weak effect and is completely out of color pie (making a creature unblockable is usually Blue, while preventing a blocking creature from dealing or receiving combat damage has been in White, Blue, and Green). And, it seems, the design for Sewers of Estark wasn’t quite complete at the time Arena went to print… for, in the image on the back cover, the card is titled “Sewers of Cityname”.

Finally, we get to the story. Here I’m guessing the author had a lot of free reign; unlike modern Magic sets, where the story is thought up in tandem with the set and carefully woven into all aspects of the cards, the early sets were just a random assortment of whatever the developers thought up. A set like “Arabian Nights” may have a loose theme, but there aren’t any real characters or storylines running through it. The story they’ve chosen to tell here is a basic revenge narrative: Garth One-eye, a badass with a dark and mysterious past, rolls into town looking for vengeance against the corrupt authorities; and his plan involves entering into the local fighting tournament, where he will have to battle many other powerful fighter-mages in order to reach the top position. Pretty standard stuff, but at least it’s well-executed: you’ve got your motley crew of supporting characters to keep things interesting, such as an elderly thief and a Benalish Hero; the villains are kind of flat, but are played up as entertainingly over-the-top caricatures of vice to make up for their lack of depth; Garth is kind of overpowered compared to the foes he faces, but does encounter enough setbacks to prevent the completion of his quest from becoming a boring foregone conclusion. I do have to note that the story contained a large number of what I’d consider juvenile pandering: gratuitous female nudity, bragging about implausible sexual conquests, someone getting pissed on while hiding in a sewer – Magic’s primary demographic is early teenage boys, and I suspect someone wanted to write down to their level. I find this notable because the post-revision books feature far, far less sex, or even discussion of sex. I suppose when Wizards assumed direct control over their product, they got a lot more concerned about keeping it family-friendly.

Finally, I guess I’ll close out with a few notes on continuity. Arena includes integral Magic concepts such as planes, planeswalkers, and the multiverse. However, it seems to imply that anyone who accrues enough mana and learns the proper spells can ascend to the rank of planeswalker; whereas in post-revision continuity, only those born with a spark can awaken as planeswalkers. Other stuff can be handwaved away: like, there’s a bunch of talk about some god called the Eternal, who has no actual place in proper Magic cosmology; but you could just say that’s just a local religion on this “Western Continent” of Dominaria. (The plane is never called out by name; but the references to locales such as Llanowar and Benalia mean the story is indeed set on Dominaria).

All in all… better than I expected. I assumed that the pre-revision novels would be cheap dreck churned out just to make a quick, as opposed to the post-revision books expressing the storyline and expanding the lore of Magic, but Arena turned out to be a good read.

Final Rating: 3/5

Greatwinter #1: Souls in the Great Machine

Angels and Demons circle above my head, cleaving through thorns and Milky Ways. He who does not perceive his calling, does not know true happiness. Watch in awe, watch in awe! Heavenly glory, heavenly glory! …A soul in the great machine is like a ghost in the shell, right? Let’s perform some calculations on Souls in the Great Machine, by Sean McMullin.

Synopsis:

The great Calculor of Libris was forced to watch as Overmayor Zarvora had four of its components lined up against a wall and shot for negligence. Thereafter, its calculations were free from errors, and that was just as well-for only this strangest of calculating machines and its two thousand enslaved components could save the world from a new ice age.

And all the while a faint mirrorsun hangs in the night sky, warning of the cold to come.

In Sean McMullen’s glittering, dynamic, and exotic world two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren “Call” lures people to their death. Nevertheless, the brilliant and ruthless Zarvora intends to start a war in space against inconceivably ancient nuclear battle stations.

Unbeknownst to Zarvora, however, the greatest threat to humanity is neither a machine nor a force but her demented and implacable enemy Lemorel, who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past: Total War.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Greatwinter trilogy is set in a post-apocalyptic world… but not one of those boring apocalypses involving boring cliches like zombies. No, human civilization has risen again, in strange and interesting forms: a society where the trains are powered by wind, where steam power is banned for religious reasons, where librarians wield immense political power and carry dueling pistols, and where everyone carries anchors set to clockwork timers as protection against the mysterious irresistible Call that occasionally sweeps over the land and draws people to walk insensately to their doom. Meanwhile, in the skies above, relics of the technological past live on: great automated war fortresses aim EMP cannons down towards any electronic signals detected from the ground, and a massive terraforming machine pursuing a now-obsolete mission threatens to cause a new ice age.

Now that’s what I call a setting.

Not only is the book’s setting exceptional, but the characters as well. Overmayor Zarvora, the brilliant scientist who revolutionizes the world. Lemorel, the woman fleeing a bloody past who finds rapid elevation to power in Libris. Dolorian, the librarian who Lemorel trains in sharpshooting. Darien, the mute linguist who encounters a party of raiders from across the desert. Theresla, the brilliant and eccentric woman seeking to find the source of the Call. I could go on. Suffice to say that I found every character in the book to be interesting and compelling… save one.

The one character I didn’t like was John Glasken. He came off as an utter asshole, a lust-driven moron who was continually lying to women to seduce them and then cheating on them, yet for some reason was loved and cheered and regarded as a hero by everybody. Each section with him as main character left a foul taste in my mouth. And the ending to his plotline, where he goes to live among an entire town of women willing and eager to engage in polyamorous debauchery with him in order to bear his genetically superior offspring? It read like something out of a terrible porno, or a self-insert fanfic. I don’t mind telling you, I was rooting for Lemorel against Glasken.

Speaking of which, I really don’t understand Lemorel’s character arc. At the beginning, she was one of my favorite characters; then all of the sudden she turned into the villain? I never quite caught the point at which “rescue Nikolai from slavery” turned into “conquer the world and crush all resistance beneath my iron heel”. It always leaves me feeling awkward when I start off really liking a character but it gradually becomes increasingly clear that they’re the antagonist of the work and that I’m supposed to hate them, not adore them. But seriously: I’m supposed to boo Lemorel when she shoots at Glasken despite being under a flag of truce? The dude was bragging about how he seduced her, cheated on her, then seduced her sister and cheated on her sister as well. I’m going to come down on the side of Lemorel being totally justified on that one.

But yeah, my distaste for Glasken’s lechery and confusion about Lemorel’s motivations aside, this was a really interesting book, and I’m interested to see where the sequels go.

Final Rating: 4/5