Magic the Gathering #A1: Tapestries

And all the things that I’ve seen, you will always be part of my tapestry. And all the places I’ve been you will always be part of my tapestry. Let’s weave Tapestries, edited by Kathy Ice.

Synopsis:

A Hurloon Minotaur wailing it’s grief. A dragon whelp’s egg cracking in the firelight. The crashing chaos of armies at war. These are the sights and sounds of the universe of Magic.

MAGIC: The Gathering…

Planeswalkers duel in worlds beyond imagining, while life goes on for the simple folk in a land where the very earth is filled with mana — the power that fires a magicians spell. Each of the dazzling stories in these pages, by David Drake, Morgan Llywelyn, S.M. Stirling & 14 other authors, opens a door into a place called Dominia. If youve ever played the internationally bestselling game, Magic: The Gathering, or even if you’ve never heard of it, you can share the excitement.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In addition to the many Magic novels which were published, there were also eight anthology volumes which collected a bunch of short stories. Notably, the first two were published pre-revision; meaning, like the first ten novels, they occupy a grey area of “not-quite-canon”. But hey, as some of the pre-revision novels have shown, just because some of the early stuff was weird doesn’t mean that some of it wasn’t actually quite good. So, don’t go thinking that I’ll be using that as an excuse to go easy on this volume: like everything else in Magic, it must stand or fall on its own merits. With that in mind, let’s dive right in.

The first story in the collection is “Thief’s Flight”. It’s a pretty basic tale, but I found it enjoyable enough – particularly, I thought the peculiar type of flight magic employed by its protagonist added an interesting element to an otherwise generic story.

Next is “What’s in a Name”, which pretty strongly ties into the Greensleeves Trilogy theme of planeswalkers summoning people and then abandoning them. It felt a little gimmicky, what with the payoff being based around a very literal curse and some questionable semantic interpretation, as well as the premise that everyone everywhere unquestioningly believes that someone who has acquired amnesia from a blow to the head can be cured by a second blow, but it does provide two important firsts for the Magic universe. First, the first interspecies relationship in Magic with a human who is mated to a Cat Warrior. (Yes, Dark Legacy has a human-dwarf couple; this collection came out a year earlier than that book was published). Second and more significantly, it is the first mention of the Panther Warrior planeswalker Lord Windgrace of Urborg, who is worshiped as a god by the Cat Warriors of Kyrrao’s tribe.

Then come some stories I’m not so fond of. “The Brass Man Who Would Sink” is honestly quite bizarre, being deliberately written in a sort of fairytale style. I get what it’s going for, but it doesn’t really appeal to me; I prefer harder fantasy with more defined rules, not the wishy-washy “anything can happen if it makes a good story” magic of fairytales.

After that is “Inheritance”, a coming-of-age story crossed with town-with-a-dark-secret horror, which I honestly didn’t understand. So the Family consists of women who slept with (were raped by?) the Ragman and who kill their children when they transform into new Ragmen? Why is it significant that Mita is the only female child of the Ragman when all the others are male? How exactly does the Family even work – is anyone impregnated by the Ragman sent to join them? But Keil doesn’t speak their language, so she must have traveled from a significant distance away… do a bunch of different countries have the same tradition regarding children of the Ragman? Given that this is based on the card from the set The Dark, the set with cards featuring an Inquisition, angry mobs, and witch burnings, you’d think the populace would demand a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem of Ragman offspring than just exiling the mothers and trusting them to eventually kill their children. No, it just raises too many questions.

Next is “Gathering the Taradomu”, which is fairly cliche: good king is poisoned by evil prince seeking to steal the throne, princess goes on journey to get the antidote, falls in love at first sight with strapping young lad she encounters along the way. It also had a few of what I’d call excessively convenient plot contrivances: Terena suddenly just intuitively grasping how to cast a protective spell despite having no prior training in magic, Beothach’s own spell turning back on him and alleviating the heroes of any need to dirty their own hands, Terena just coincidentally fitting the conditions of a legal loophole allowing her to claim the throne. But what I found most jarring was not actually the rather poor plot, but the use of Celtic trappings for elvish culture in this story. Elves on Dominaria, such as the Llanowar Elves in this story, are usually just treated as generic Tolkein elves – you know, tree-hugging hippies who like archery and consider themselves superior to humans. It was quite a shock seeing the story use terms like Tuatha de Ruadach; I’m no scholar of Celtic mythology, but I recognize a reference to the Tuatha Dé Danann when I see one, and it just felt weird. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded the dissonant flavor so much if the story had turned out to be good… but, alas, it didn’t.

“Smoke and Mirrors” breaks the train of disappointment by actually getting me pretty invested in the travails of a captain conducting a siege where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, culminating in her seeking assistance from a Dwarven Demolition Team which rather unfortunately misunderstands her orders. The ending, though, felt kind of weak: it was basically a punchline, the “wah-wah-wah-waaaaah” sad trombone riff punctuating a comedy sketch. I had actually come to sympathize with poor beleaguered Captain Grinstable and wanted to see her get some closure for her struggles.

“The Light in the Forest” was likewise a fairly decent tale, if a little anticlimactic with its ending. When Brons recklessly embraced the unlimited power of the Godstone, I was expecting something a little more dramatic than him just popping out of existence. Granted, with the benefit of hindsight, it fits the setup – the Godstone had already accounted for a number of animals, so the lack of viscera splattered over the surroundings meant that nothing too violent could happen – but ending in a quiet little poof couldn’t but be disappointing when the buildup had sent my mind jumping straight to Tetsuo screaming “Kaneda! I can’t stop it!” as he loses control of his powers.

No complaints about “Dochyel’s Ride”. It’s a fine little story about a goblin innovating an improvement to their Rock Sled battle tactics, and features a cameo by Pashalik Mons, of Mons’s Goblin Raiders fame.

“Heart of Shanodin”, on the other hand, is a bleak and depressing tale about two assassins sent to kill a merchant. I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable.

“Animal Trap” I did enjoy. Despite being a rather twisted tale of a merchant who turns people into werewolves in order to kill them and harvest their pelts, I liked the plucky thief protagonist Kolli. The story does make the mistake of saying that the merchant is from Keldon, which is like saying that a man is from Spaniard, but it was good so I’ll forgive it.

Back in the not-good column, “The Theft of Bayende, Heart and Soul”: a violent and bloody tale about a pregnant woman getting stuffed in the fridge. Lovely. Sure am glad I read that.

The follow-up, “Wellspring”, also failed to entertain. It’s not so much a story, as the prologue to a story; the implication that a story worth reading might take place at some point in the future. As is, it’s a dreary affair without a protagonist.

“Dryad’s Kiss”… eh, it wasn’t the worst of the lot, but I didn’t particularly care for it, either. It’s about some dude we’ve never seen before, will never see again, and isn’t interesting enough to make me care in spite of those facts. Nothing much to say about it. Moving on.

“The Lament” was actually pretty decent, but this review has gone on really long and I’m running out of steam.

“Airborne All The Way!” is a comedy story about a Goblin Balloon Brigade and a thaumaturge who accidentally gets dragged along with them. It was pretty meh. It’s one of those stories that seems to assume that goblins acting stupid is inherently funny. Sure, goblins can be funny – the online story “Comin’ Through!” is a great example – but you have to actually put some effort into it. This story was pretty lazy with its jokes, and so I didn’t enjoy it as much as the more serious presentation of goblins in the earlier story about Dochyel. Something that did strike me was that the goblins were serving someone named Malfegor, but it’s probably just a coincidence – the setting doesn’t really fit with Grixis, which is where the better-known Malfegor is from.

“Not Just Another Green World?” was a pretty strong offering, one of the better ones in the book. A planeswalker travels to a world where only Green magic is used, and tries to trick his enemies into destroying its inhabitants in his place, only for the unamused natives to whoop his ass and transform him into a tree. There’s kind of a meta subtext to this one: for a long time, Green was considered the worst color in Magic. Green is “the creature color”; but in “Alpha” the best creatures were White’s Serra Angel and Black’s Sengir Vampire. Green had… Craw Wurm, which didn’t have any form of evasion or Trample, so it could be chump-blocked all day by Drudge Skeletons. So, when the planeswalker is contemptuous towards a world of only Green magic, players of the time would have been right there with him. Then, when the natives turned the tables on him at the end, everyone would be like “Say what!?”. But these days, everyone’s seen James Cameron’s Avatar and knows that the natives who live in harmony with nature triumphing over the arrogant foreign intruder is a foregone conclusion.

And finally, “The Going Price” is just a chapter from And Peace Shall Sleep. That’s exactly what it is. I mean, it’s pretty good, because And Peace Shall Sleep was pretty good, but that’s to the credit of that novel rather than this anthology. Unless… this story was written first and then expanded into the novel? Actually, that seems to be the case, since my edition of the book refers to The Cursed Land as “forthcoming”. Huh! That’s a really good effort, then. Kind of makes me wish some of the other stories from this collection would also get novel expansions. I’d like reading more about Kolli, or Grinstable, or a couple of the other characters. Wait, one of the assassins from “Heart of Shanodin” was from Oneah; and since this was published before Ashes of the Sun, that means this was the first mention of Oneah, which got further developed into that book. …Not the one I would have chosen.

So, on the whole, I found most of the stories in this collection to be pretty underwhelming. Still, there were enough decent ones that I enjoyed reading to give it a positive rating.

Final Rating: 3/5

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Elfhome #1: Tinker

In this spellbound night, the world’s an elvish sight. Or should that be elfin? Elven? Adjectival conjugation aside, let’s walk the elvenpath with Tinker, by Wen Spencer.

Synopsis:

Inventor, girl genius Tinker lives in a near-future Pittsburgh which now exists mostly in the land of the elves. She runs her salvage business, pays her taxes, and tries to keep the local ambient level of magic down with gadgets of her own design. When a pack of wargs chase an Elven noble into her scrap yard, life as she knows it takes a serious detour. Tinker finds herself taking on the Elven court, the NSA, the Elven Interdimensional Agency, technology smugglers and a college-minded Xenobiologist as she tries to stay focused on what’s really important — her first date. Armed with an intelligence the size of a planet, steel-toed boots, and a junkyard dog attitude, Tinker is ready to kick butt to get her first kiss.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Tinker is set in an interesting urban fantasy world where a portal has opened between Earth and Elfhome, a magic-rich parallel universe inhabited by, well, elves. But dark deeds are afoot: there is a third parallel world, Onihida, whose aggressive inhabitants want to build a portal of their own in order to invade and conquer Earth and Elfhome. Our main protagonist is Tinker, a girl genius living in a scrapyard who finds herself the target of their malign schemes.

I really enjoyed this book’s world-building with regards to Earth, Elfhome, Onihida, and the connections between them. What prevents me from rating the book higher is that it takes too long to lay everything out. A large portion of the book is padded out with, sight, love triangle bullshit. On the one hand, there’s Windwolf, the typically arrogant elf who engages in cryptic shenanigans rather than making his intentions clear and makes decisions on her behalf without consulting her in a way that can come off as creepily controlling or irritatingly paternalistic. On the other, there’s Nathan; who. despite technically being a lot closer in age to Tinker than Windwolf is, manages to be a whole lot creepier about their age difference, and also freakily proposes marriage on their first date. It’s not very compelling – it’s obvious from very early on that Windwolf is going to win, what with Tinker having met him once before as a child years ago and with Nathan racheting up the creepy meter so much so quickly – and it really kills the momentum of the story.

Another thing I don’t like is the elf prophetess proclaiming Tinker to be the Chosen One, the pivot upon which of all of fate turns. Fucking prophecies, man. I don’t recall “chosen one” stories bothering me so much in the past – hell, I liked the Harry Potter books – but the more of them I read, the more it seems like a really lazy plot contrivance. Why does Tinker need to actually build a working gate for the oni instead of lying her ass off and then making a break for it? Well, uh, see, the prophecy says so. Can’t argue with prophecy.

Still, flawed execution aside, I did like the setting and (most of) the characters, so I plan to continue with this series. Hopefully, with Tinker and Windwolf now married, all love triangle bullshit will be dispensed with in future volumes and we can stick to the interesting stuff.

Final Rating: 3/5

Magic the Gathering #0.9: Dark Legacy

The dreams are gone, midnight has come, the darkness is our new kingdom. Let’s shine a flashlight on Dark Legacy, by Robert E. Vardeman.

Synopsis:

A War of Magics

War rages under the double moons of Dominia. It is Minotaur vs. Elf in a bloody conflict of dirty politics and foul magics.

The human orphan Yunnie brings two formidable weapons to the battle. One is the Living Armor, which turns its wearer into a berserk killing machine. The other is the stone idol Tiyint, which once awakened, slaughters with grim abandon.

But Yunnie soon finds there is even more at stake than a kingdom. There is a third relentless enemy under the ground–keeping the war going, and dining on the dead of both armies!

Dark Legacy

Based on The Dark, the exciting expansion set to Magic: The Gathering.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The cards featured on the back of the book this time have defaulted back to Cockatrice and Armageddon Clock from Song of Time. Looks like the image budget ran out and they decided to reuse those pictures instead of coming up with new ones… though it’s odd that they’d go back a book to repeat the cards from, instead of repeating the images from the back cover of And Peace Shall Sleep. In any case, it’s kind of a shame, since The Dark contained a number of legendarily bad cards and oddities that do things they have no business doing in their section of the color pie. Witch Hunter, for instance, is a card from The Dark which I think is thematically appropriate enough to the novel to warrant being pictured on the back; and then I could have had some fun really tearing it a new one. Well, the book may have denied me that opportunity; but what while it taketh with one hand, it giveth with the other. Previous books have had a small line on the bottom saying something like “based on the popular Magic: the Gathering trading card game” or “based on the best-selling Magic: the Gathering trading card game”. This one, however, has decided to change the to“based on The Dark, the exciting expansion set to Magic: the Gathering.” Oh, no. Many, many adjectives have been applied to The Dark, but “exciting” is not one of them. “Massively underpowered”, “One of the weakest sets in the history of Magic”, and “Maybe not quite as bad as Homelands, but it’s down there at the bottom of the barrel” would be closer to the truth.

Ah, at last we’ve come to the final book of the pre-revision continuity. But Serra Angels and ministers of grace preserve us, this one is such a tangled mess of unrelated plotlines that I’m not even sure how to begin describing it. Well, for a start, the character who the synopsis would have us believe is the main protagonist – despite him not being featured on the cover art – is Yunnie, a human from a fishing town who went to live among minotaurs. He believes that the minotaurs’ war against the elves is a senseless slaughter, and wants to stop it. Mind you, he still charges into battle alongside his minotaur blood-brothers and massacres every elf he can get his hands on – but he mumbles feeble protests beforehand, and feels kind of guilty about it afterwards, so that’s obviously alright then. The second group of characters – the ones who actually are pictured on the cover – are Maeveen O’Donagh (the book has a weird thing about repeatedly calling her by her full name in the narration) and Quopomma, soldiers in the service of the eccentric researcher Vervamon. They end up traipsing from one end of the continent to the other in search of the Sigil of Ewset, key to the fantastical treasure of the Tomb of the Seven Martyrs, which doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a big ole wild goose chase. It’s the treasure, I should clarify, which doesn’t exist; the sigil does exist, and they do end up finding it, but they just end up breaking it. So that was time well spent. There’s also the court politics of Iwset: Lord Peemel, the evil king, who wants to wage war against the neighboring nation of Jehesic in order to expand his rule; Digody, the evil advisor, who goads Peemel on to greater evils with the intention of usurping the throne himself once the citizenry rebels against Peemel’s tyranny; and Apepei, the not-as-evil advisor, who tries to reign Peemel in and is secretly assisting the Queen of Jehesic in the war. And let us not forget the evil witch Sacumon, who is secretly commanding forces of Coal Golems to fan the flames of war between the elves and minotaurs with the intention of creating an empire of her own. And finally, there’s the shapeshifting spy Isak Glen’dard, who exists. I mean, he has a fair number of chapters dedicated to his POV, so I kept expecting him to eventually do something, but he never did. I kept thinking that his shapeshifting power would come into play, that at a dramatic moment someone would suddenly reveal themself to be Isak in disguise… but no, he ended up contributing bupkiss.

Does that mean I thought the book was entirely bad? Not at all! There was plenty of good things in. While the profusion of plotlines was confusing, it also meant that there were lots of different characters to get invested in; and aside from Yunnie, I found most of the protagonists to be interesting. Sure, Isak never ended up doing anything; but I wished he would, because I actually quite liked him. And Quopomma was interesting: I believe she’s the only example of an ogre protagonist in all of Magic canon. The novel visited plenty of interesting places, like the eerily empty and nightmare-inducing City of Shadows; and introduced plenty of interesting peoples, like the strange race of living molten rock called the Niroso. And while I didn’t particularly like Yunnie, I was at least grateful that they didn’t go the whole “rightful king returns” route with him despite having the whole setup where he was spirited away from the capital as a child with a geegaw proving his royal heritage. I groaned when the plot point was brought up, and was all ready to go on an indignant rant about how twenty years gutting fish is not suitable training to become an effective monarch, but the book ended up dodging that bullet. So yes, the book did have its good points.

Mind you, it did keep using the word “insure” when it meant “ensure”; and it used the word a lot more frequently than you might expect. It really started bugging me, after a while. But I’m willing to overlook it.

Finally, a look at references to the novel in the card set. As a continued sign of the novels growing ever-closer to continuity, while Reod from the last book only managed to get referenced on a single card, some of the characters from this book do much better. Maeveen O’Donagh will eventually go on to write a book titled “Memoirs of a Soldier”, which is quoted in the flavor text of six cards. Vervamon is likewise quoted on six others; most notably, on Carnivorous Plant, his encounter with it being detailed in the book.

…And so concludes my look at the pre-revision Magic novels. Sort of. Because before I finally move on to the post-revision continuity, I’m going to take a detour and look at some of the anthology collections, which contain both pre- and post-revision stories. Look, Magic continuity is complicated, alright?

Final Rating: 3/5

Downside Ghosts #5: Chasing Magic

I’ll chase you anywhere. I’ll chase you anytime. You know I’ll chase you. There is no escape. Let’s put on our running shoes for Chasing Magic, by Stacia Kane.

Synopsis:

A DEADLY HIGH

Magic-wielding Churchwitch and secret addict Chess Putnam knows better than anyone just how high a price people are willing to pay for a chemical rush. But when someone with money to burn and a penchant for black magic starts tampering with Downside’s drug supply, Chess realizes that the unlucky customers are paying with their souls—and taking the innocent with them, as the magic-infused speed compels them to kill in the most gruesome ways possible.

As if the streets weren’t scary enough, the looming war between the two men in her life explodes, taking even more casualties and putting Chess squarely in the middle. Downside could become a literal ghost town if Chess doesn’t find a way to stop both the war and the dark wave of death-magic, and the only way to do that is to use both her addiction and her power to enter the spell and chase the magic all the way back to its malevolent source. Too bad that doing so will probably kill Chess—if the war doesn’t first destroy the man who’s become her reason for living.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Someone is spreading tainted drugs through Downside, using dark magic to convert users into mind-controlled zombie Terminators. Naturally, Chess’s ex-boyfriend Lex decides that this is the perfect time to send an assassin after Chess’s current boyfriend Terrible. And Elder Griffin, Chess’s longtime supportive superior and mentor who is on the brink of retirement, has just discovered evidence of some of her serious past misdeeds. It’s been the kind of week that could drive a girl to overdose…

To be honest, I was a little disappointed with how ordinary this book ended up being. The ending of the last book seemed to imply that some big changes were coming to the status quo: Slobag was dead, Lex was taking over and going to war with Bump, Elder Griffin was retiring and leaving Chess in the hands a potentially much less benevolent boss… it seemed like a major shakeup. But what does this book bring? When Elder Griffin learns about Chess’s past crimes, he decides not to retire after all, so that isn’t actually changing; and he decides not to divulge her crimes to the Church, so nothing is changing on that front either. Despite Terrible and Lex ostensibly being on different sides of a gang war now, Chess is still able to call upon either of them for support or drugs whenever she needs to, so nothing has changed on that front either. Despite Lex having put a contract out on Terrible, the two of them are still able to share a room and work together with Chess; it’s only the assassin himself who Terrible actually fights. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.

I don’t want to sound too negative: the story itself was decent. It just wasn’t quite what I expected or hoped for. I suppose it’s a testament to how good the Downside Ghosts series has been so far that it managed to raise my expectations unreasonably high. In any case, I still enjoyed reading it, and still look forward to checking out the future adventures of Chess.

Which raises a question: this book was published in 2012, and there hasn’t been another Downsides Ghosts novel since. Does that mean the series is over? Apparently not: according to Goodreads, while the author’s writing speed has been suffering due to a case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a sixth book entitled Unholy Luck is indeed in progress. Good news, as far as I’m concerned.

Final Rating: 3/5

Magic the Gathering #0.8: And Peace Shall Sleep

Everyone is talking about Sarpadia, Vodalia, Benalia, Keld, Kjeldor, Argoth, Yavimaya. All we are saying, is give peace a chance. Let’s make the bed for And Peace Shall Sleep, by Sonia Orin Lyris.

Synopsis:

What are a few battles among friends?

Reod Dai was being paid big money – elf money – to stir up trouble along the Icatian-Goblin border. And the Havenwood elves were getting their money’s worth. Dragon eggs are ideal weapons in the hands of someone like Reod, who knows just what to do with them.

But when the elves abruptly canceled his contract, Reod found himself low on funds and lower on options. He set off on his way to Havenwood in a desperate attempt to reason with the elves, because he can’t very well reason with dragon eggs. And those eggs have to be used.

And soon.

Or else…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The cards featured on the back this time are Dragon Whelp and Elvish Scout. Dragon Whelp is fairly decent; the only thing odd about it is the sacrifice which triggers if you use its ability too many times a turn. Most creatures with this ability, commonly nicknamed “firebreathing”, lack such a drawback (compare, for instance, the similarly-themed Dragon Hatchling). The novel presents an interesting take on this feature by having Reod pump the dragons full of red mana, causing them to explode like living grenades. Hardcore. Elvish Scout, likewise, isn’t exactly great; but it isn’t terrible, either. I mean, at least he can point and laugh at Willow Elf.

The shift from random pre-revision fantasy towards something resembling the post-revision continuity continues. Rather than being set in a random generic world, And Peace Shall Sleep actually tells the story of a Magic expansion – Fallen Empires. The main character, Reod Dai, even got a nod in the flavor text of the Fifth Edition version of Goblin War Drums.

There are some oddities. For instance, Sarpadian dwarf females apparently gain mind-control seduction powers when they go into heat. Um… okay? I mean, dwarves are Red, and Red is the color of emotion and passion, so inciting and manipulating passion is technically in-color… but I don’t think this is a feature of dwarves that’ll ever be brought up again. And to be honest, it’s always a little creepy when you start mixing mind-manipulation with romance: it raises certain questions about the legitimacy of consent, you know? Oh, this book tries its best not to make it an issue, by pointing out that Reod soon uses his wizardly talent to discern the nature of the seduction spell and could break it if he chose but decides not to… but still.

As for the plot, Reod Dai works as a mercenary. The elves have been paying him to incite war between humans and goblins to keep them expending their armies and weapons against each other rather than turning them in the direction of the elves. When his employers fire Reod without payment, however, Reod suddenly finds himself stuck right in the middle of a hot spot that he’s lately been stirring himself. In the company of some dwarves, he gathers a batch of highly volatile dragon eggs and embarks on a journey to force the elves to re-hire him or else see the eggs that they’re using to make this particular omelette break quite explosively right in the middle of their own laps.

It did, I have to admit, kind of stretch credulity a bit that Reod happened to be present at the seminal incident of the fall of every single one of the major empires: he is at Havenwood when the thallids first rise, at Achtep Keep when the thrulls first rebel against their masters, at Gurn Keep when the orcs overrun the dwarves… he jokes about traveling to Vodalia, but by the end I was legitimately wondering if they weren’t honestly somehow going to tie him in to its fall as well. It really seems like a lot for one man to experience, is what I’m saying. The theme of the Fallen Empires card set seemed to be a slow, long, inevitable decline, not every major city on the continent getting wrecked during one really wild weekend.

Those qualms aside, I found it a really enjoyable read; and I’d rate it as one of the stronger pre-revision novels.

Final Rating: 4/5

Prospero’s War #2: Cursed Moon

Je sentirai la lumière sur ma peau, sans avoir peur de tes mauvais côtés. C’est la lune qui conduit la danse, quand le soleil sera couché dans ton âme froide. Let’s waltz to Cursed Moon, by Jaye Wells.

Synopsis:

When a rare Blue Moon upsets the magical balance in the city, Detective Kate Prospero and her Magical Enforcement colleagues pitch in to help Babylon PD keep the peace. Between potions going haywire and everyone’s emotions running high, every cop in the city is on edge. But the moon’s impact is especially strong for Kate who’s wrestling with guilt over falling off the magic wagon.

After a rogue wizard steals dangerous potions from the local covens, Kate worries their suspect is building a dirty magic bomb. Her team must find the anarchist rogue before the covens catch him, and make sure they defuse the bomb before the Blue Moon deadline. Failure is never an option, but success will require Kate to come clean about her secrets.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

It’s time to face facts: the Prospero’s War series just isn’t doing it for me.

The funny thing is, I can’t quite say why. It’s not like certain other series where there were huge, obvious flaws I can immediately point to. The plot and characters seem more or less fine; there’s a proper climax with adequate foreshadowing, and some ongoing arcs to hint at a greater story beyond the episodic events of the individual novels. Nevertheless, I just can’t seem to get interested in the story or invested in the characters.

I decided to take a really close look at Kate Prospero to see why I’m just not connecting to her as a protagonist. As a police officer in an urban fantasy world dealing with personal addiction issues, the closest parallel I can draw to a character I actually like is to Chess from the Downside Ghosts series. So, what’s the key difference between them? I think it’s that Kate’s substance abuse issues are in the past, while Chess’s are still ongoing in the present. Chess is an out-of-control addict barely holding herself together; a runaway train that might jump the tracks and explode in a fireball of self-destruction at any moment. Kate, by contrast, has so thoroughly reformed herself that she’s kind of boring: ten years on the wagon, strictly opposed not only to falling back into magic abuse herself but frowning on anyone ever using magic for any reason, kind of a stick-in-the-mud. The narrative keeps forcing her into situations where she needs to use magic to save the day, but I’m just not feeling any suspense. I don’t get the feeling that Kate is just one step away from losing all control and wrecking her life; rather, she comes off as too strict, like she would actually be better off if she relaxed a few of her self-imposed rules. The story seems to even now be implying that her mother’s death from a dirty potion she brewed, the big inciting incident which made Kate vow to give up using magic forever, might not even have been Kate’s fault in the first place. And, unlike Chess, it seems to me that Kate could find safe outlets for her desires: she seems to think that the only way not to hurt people with her magic is to not use it at ll; but couldn’t she satisfy her cravings by brewing potions and then just tipping them down the drain?

So, I guess there’s one reason I prefer Downside Ghosts to Propsero’s War. I could probably puzzle out further buried issues with the series if I were to dig deep enough; but honestly, I don’t care enough to put in the effort at this points. It’s already copiously clear that this isn’t the series for me, and that I should move on and try other things rather than force myself to keep grinding through books that I don’t enjoy.

Final Rating: 2/5

Magic the Gathering #0.7: Song of Time

A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep. Let’s turn, turn, turn the pages of Song of Time, by Teri McLaren.

Synopsis:

COUNTDOWN TO ARMAGEDDON!

A new body in an old grave. An ancient family totem with an unknown glyph. And a sleeping horror that could destroy Dominia. All are pieces to a vast puzzle – a puzzle as mysterious and ancient as the secret society known as the Circle.

Cheyne, a young archaeologist with no past of his own, is determined to solve the ancient riddle before it’s too late. Aided only by his wits, an old music box, and several unexpected companions, Cheyne must find the Armageddon clock – before time runs out and the angry Beast of the Hours wakes again.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Ah, you can tell we’re advancing closer to canon by the fact that the synopsis now refers to “Dominia” rather than “the Domains”. We’re not quite at “Dominaria” yet, but we’re getting closer. Anyway, the cards featured on the back this time are Cockatrice and Armageddon Clock.

With regards to the cockatrice: Green shouldn’t get flying, but otherwise fine. It was a pretty decent creature, in its day. Only decent, though: it’s nowhere near the colossal world-ravaging threat portrayed in this novel. Honestly, there’s an argument to be made that Thicket Basilisk – which is nearly the same card, but without Flying – is actually superior, because it’ll take out more of your opponent’s creatures if you slap a Lure on it; Basilisk + Lure, aka “the creature sweeper”, was one of the original classic combos from Alpha. Of course, the game has moved on and any recently printed creature card would be expected to pack a lot more bang for its buck; but in the environment where it was printed, it was good enough so see play.

Armageddon Clock is a pretty odd-ball card, not generally that great unless you’re specifically building around it with support cards; but it’s fine, as far as such cards go. No major flavor flubs, color pie violations, or mechanical brokenness to complain about.

This book is about the main characters trying to solve a mystery: they must decipher ancient mystical runes, unravel conniving riddles, and discover the truth about the Armageddon Clock and the Beast of Ages. Except, the problem is: we readers already know the answers to all those questions. We know that the Armageddon Clock contains not treasure but an imprisoned Cockatrice; we know how the device constructed by the Collector to release it works, we know the Collector arranged matters so that the Cockatrice could be sealed forever by the magic of Claria’s name-song, we know that the mysterious magical symbol on the name totem which the proagonists are unable to translate is Claria’s name. As a result, the bulk of the book is just us impatiently waiting for the characters of figure out what we already know. There’s no mystery or suspense, because we have the answers from the beginning. In fact, the book can’t seem to introduce a mystery without solving it within a few pages. Someone in the Circle is secret a traitor? Before we’re even afforded the chance to guess, we’re straight-up told that it’s Porros the Raptor. A fresh corpse has impossibly appeared beneath an ancient stone slab that hasn’t been moved for centuries? Before we can even begin puzzling that one out, we immediately learn that Riolla killed him and dumped his body there using magic. There are no surprises to be found in this story, no sir: everything is explicitly spelled out for us and the outcome of the characters’ quest is clearly telegraphed far in advance.

Another problem is that Cheyne is a really bland and boring protagonist. He’s an orphan, the sole survivor of a caravan which was mysteriously massacred when he was a child, possesses a special mysterious talisman, has a strange supernatural quirk (can’t see his reflection in mirrors); and yes, this is all building up to the fact that he’s the long-lost secret true heir to the usurped royal throne. This is exactly the sort of utterly generic fantasy hero origin story that Sir Terry Pratchett parodied with Carrot in Guards! Guards!. And, with all those special traits and trinkets attesting to his secret royal heritage, it seems there wasn’t any room left over for a personality.

A somewhat more interesting character is actually the sidekick Ogwater, a formerly-powerful song-mage who became a drunkard after his four magical gemstones were stolen. He has a subplot about accompanying Cheyne in order to steal back his lost treasures from the villains they encounter along the way. The black pearl’s magic can kill, which is fine for Black; the water sapphire’s magic can freeze water or melt ice, which is fine for Blue; and the white firebane can heal poison, which is fine for White. The red ajada, however, creates and commands serpents: an effect which is clearly Green, not Red. Also, what the hell is an ajada? Based on context, I naturally assumed it to be a gemstone of some sort; but I couldn’t find anything of the sort when I Googled it. The closest I can figure is a bizarre misspelling of “red jade”, or else… Wait just a moment here… “red ajada”? Would that be anything like the Red Stone of Aja? In which case…

JoJoReference

This book came out in 1996, well after the conclusion of the Battle Tendency arc, so I suppose it’s theoretically possible… if rather unlikely. NANI!? Could this ajada be the work of an enemy Stand!?

Alright, back to being serious. The final thing wrong with the book is the ending. Sure, the protagonists stop the Beast of Hours from awakening; but they don’t actually manage to defeat any of the villains who were trying to unleash it – most notably, Porros the Raptor, the evil sorcerer who start all this bad business by summoning the cockatrice, betraying the circle, hunting them to extinction over the centuries. He has by the present day lost his mortal form and turned into a living whirlwind. The heroes still have to take him down at some point, right? Well, the final page of the book promises that the story is “to be continued” and that we can read more about their fight against the Raptor in the sequel, Shadows of Time. Except… Shadows of Time doesn’t exist. It was never published. Song of Time was intended to be the first book of a trilogy, but the project got killed in the crib. So, there will never be any resolution to the lingering unresolved plot points.

…sigh.

Final Rating: 2/5

Magic the Gathering #0.6: Ashes of the Sun

Now realize: the stars, they die. Darkness has fallen in paradise. Let’s gather the Ashes of the Sun, by Hanovi Braddock.

Synopsis:

NOTHING TO LOSE?

Ayesh knows that danger lurks in the Miritiin Mountains, and danger is just what she wants. With her beloved cities of Neah turned to dust and rubble in the goblin wars, with even their memory fading to legend, what reason does she have to go on living? She’s ready to die – as long as she goes down killing goblins.

But the Miritiin minotaurs have plans for Ayesh, plans that don’t include her death–yet. And as Ayesh becomes entangled in the inticate web of Miritiin poitics, she realizes that allies can be even deadlier than enemies.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The cards featured on the back of the book this time are Labyrinth Minotaur and Goblin Sappers. Labyrinth Minotaur is a pretty unusual card, as minotaurs are primarily found in Red rather than Blue. Goblin Sappers fits fine in the color pie, but is just a really quite bad card: it sucked when it came out, and the decrease in the relevance of the Wall creature type has only made it worse over time. But the novel is indeed about minotaurs and goblins, so at least they’re relevant picks?

With Ashes of the Sun, the phrase “too much of a good thing” comes to mind. When I read The Prodigal Sorcerer, I commented on how refreshing it was to have a novel which focused on politics and culture rather than just another generic hero’s quest narrative with a few big fantasy setpiece battles. Well, Ashes of the Sun has decided to go even further down that path: now it’s all about politics and culture. Thrill at the byzantine political intrigues of the eleven Mirtiin (not Miritiin; the back cover misspells it with an extra I) houses as they engage in complex maneuvers intended to tip the balance of power between the liberal and conservative factions one way or the other. Learn more than you ever needed to know about the customs, culture, and debates over arcane points of religious orthodoxy of this one obscure tribe of minotaurs who will never show up again. You’ll be on the edge of your seat for the intense, pulse-pounding meditation scenes!

Ashes of the Sun seems to have swung so far in the direction of wanting to be about more than big dumb fantasy battles that it’s forgotten that a Magic book should still be about Magic. At the very least, it should feature some magic. There are no wizards in this book, no spells; nothing more magical than a flute which is easier than usual to learn. There’s making fantasy races relatable, and then there’s straight up taking the fantastical out of fantasy.

Oh, don’t get me wrong; the novel had its good parts, too. But on the whole, I feel the previous book struck a better balance between the cerebrally engaging in-depth examination of fantasy culture and the viscerally thrilling battles of wizards and warriors.

So, ultimately, I have to say that Ashes of the Sun is an interesting but flawed story.

Final Rating: 3/5

Magic the Gathering #0.5: The Prodigal Sorcerer

Run away, run away, like a prodigal! Run like you’re being chased by the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on! Let’s lob a holy hand grenade at The Prodigal Sorcerer, by Mark Sumner.

Synopsis:

When peace is the prize, what price is too high?

BEHIND THE MAGEWALL

For centuries, the magewall has isolated a battletorn valley. There, three races live in perpetual strife fueled by prejudice and fear. The Viashino hate the Garan, the Garan loathe the Humans, and the Humans despise them all.

But a new day is dawning. Tagard Tarngold, a human leader, has a plan that could bring harmony to his war ravaged home, and has enlisted the aid of Aligaurius, a sorcerer from the Institute of Arcane Studies, in his efforts. Peace may be on the horizon at last.

But the terrible price of Tagard’s peace may be more than his people can pay.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The cards pictured on the back of this book are Prodigal Sorcerer and a basic Swamp. Prodigal Sorcerer is a classic and iconic creature of Magic. Fondly nicknamed “Tim”, after the character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he is a staple creature who has seen much use and been reprinted many times over the years. Which makes it kind of awkward that he’s completely out of place, color pie-wise. Pinging players and creatures for direct damage isn’t Blue; it’s Red. Prodigal Sorcerer’s level of prestige may have been partly to blame for the long delay in correcting this problem, but the correction has at least been made: Blue no longer gets direct damage, and Prodigal Sorcerer has been color-shifted into Prodigal Pyromancer. As for the Swamp… I guess it’s a reference to Suderbod being in a swampy area? Seems kind of weak. What with the novel’s big focus on the Viashino, you’d think a more appropriate choice would be a card like Viashino Bey.

…Hmm? That particular card hadn’t been printed yet when this book came out? Alright, a different Viashino, then. Like Viashino Warrior, that was one of the first Viashino cards…

Wait, what? There weren’t any Viashino in Magic at the time this novel came out? The entire Viashino race was an original creation by Mark Sumner, and the Magic creative team liked it so much that they added it to the card game? …Huh.

Surprisingly, the titular Prodigal Sorcerer isn’t the main protagonist of this book; in fact, he’s nothing more than a minor supporting character. The real main character is Princess Talli Tarngold. Even then, the book isn’t about her going on a heroic journey or fulfilling an ancient prophecy, like the protagonists of the previous pre-revision books. No, this book is about intrigue: about Talli’s father finally completing his six-year war of unification only to discover that making peace is harder than making war. It’s about people trying to put aside old grudges, to accept that they are now allies of those who they have so long hated and demonized and campaigned against. It is about subterfuge and treachery: those who are unwilling to accept a conquest that does not end with a massacre of the conquered, and those willing to manipulate the resentments of others on order to fulfill their own dark ambitions. It explores the nuance of Viashino culture, and the unusual Garan elves, and the difficulties experienced by the human kingdom trying to achieve peace and maintain alliances with them.

It’s the best yet of the pre-revision Magic novels.

Seriously. After the last book was a cliched, “you are the chosen one, you will save the world, now get to it” snore-fest, I was begging for something more unconventional; and this book delivered. To be honest, it’s a lot better than I was expecting any of the pre-revision books to be. If I can find any flaw in it, any flaw at all, it’s that having the swamp kingdom of Suderbod turn out to be the ultimate antagonists ties into the unpleasant “Black is the color of Evil” cliche that pervades much of Magic… but even then, I have to cut the story slack: this is still pre-revision, after all; and even post-revision, it would take Wizards themselves a long time to stop pigeon-holing Black.

It’s probably a bit early to really delve into the whole “Black is Evil” thing; I’ll save that rant for when Xantcha is introduced. For now, suffice to say that The Prodigal Sorcerer is the first truly great Magic novel.

Final Rating: 5/5

Thrones & Bones #3: Skyborn

Go into the sand and the dust in the sky. Go now; there’s no better plan than to do, or to die. Let’s take flight with Skyborn, by Lou Anders.

Synopsis:

Find the Horn. Free the City.

The chase continues for the legendary Horns of Osius. Thianna and Karn’s quest to retrieve the horns from those who wish to abuse their power takes them to Thica, an ancient land where two tyrant queens reign supreme and where years earlier Thianna’s mother was labeled a traitor. Soon the two heroes are caught up in an epic battle for control of the kingdom, one that puts their very lives at stake. The only way to overthrow the queens is to beat them at their own game. But with an entire empire against them, how can Karn and Thianna hope to compete—or better yet, survive?

The novel includes instructions for playing the board game the Queen’s Champion, a Thican timeline, and King Herakles Hammerfist’s recipe for the Best Spanakopita Ever.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The third installment of Thrones & Bones brings us to the distant land of Thica, Thianna’s mother’s homeland, which overflows with all sorts of new races and fantastical creatures inspired by ancient Greek myth: minotaurs, dryads, hamadryads, gorgons, empusa, arachne, sphinxes, kobolds, and of course the terrible Mega Hydra. One of my favorite things about this series has been seeing its take on various fantasy creatures, so I loved these additions to the universe’s lore. Some were explored in more details than others, but I found all of them interesting. As I read, I found myself wishing there were spinoff books about the adventures of characters from each of these weird and wonderful races. Always a good sign, when a book makes me hungry for more.

The addition of Desstra to the main cast last book, and the resultant diminished focus on Thianna had me worried about how screentime would get allotted this time around; but happily, my fears proved unfounded. Each of the main characters got enough focus to keep me satisfied, with still enough room left over to spotlight some of the newly introduced side characters.

Goodreads calls this the conclusion of a trilogy, but I wouldn’t mind reading more books set in this universe. Karn and Thianna have destroyed the two known Horns of Ossius; but do the legends not state that Ossius originally forged three of the infernal devices?

Whatever the case may be, I can say with certainty that this novel currently holds the distinction of being the best of the Thrones & Bones books.

Final Rating: 4/5