Review: The Thran

The Thran

J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.

The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.

Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.

Review: The Wildered Quest

Throne of Eldraine: The Wildered Quest

Kate Elliot’s The Wildered Quest is a Magic: The Gathering tie-in ebook that reflects a dramatically different game from the last two I’ve reviewed on this blog.

Since I last looked at Planeswalker, a lot has changed in the lore of Magic: The Gathering. The Urza-vs-Phyrexia conflict concluded at the beginning of the 2000s, and then the wheels sort of spun until Wizards of the Coast made a massive change with the Great Mending, an event that reduced planeswalkers from near-divine immortal superbeings to considerably more “normal” people with the ability to teleport between dimensions.

Maybe this is just nostalgia, but I feel like the Mending has turned the setting from something offbeat and distinct into something more generic. It’s gone from two mad scientists-turned immortal monsters fighting a millenia-long war to superhero-wizards fighting some bland dragon-thingy. One effect of the Mending event was to actually make planeswalkers more prominent in spite of depowering by taking away third-party planar travel. So it’s either planeswalkers or having things take place entirely on one plane. Or, in this case, have planeswalkers drop in on what’s otherwise a one-dimension experience.

The Wildered Quest, taking place on the fairy-tale plane of Eldraine, has a lot going for it. It’s written by a successful author in her own right. It’s not too long. The prose is decent. The story of the Kenrith twins is interesting enough.

Yet it still feels like a merely adequate, phoned-in tie in. Of course, a lot of this might be my own biases-I tend to not be that into fantasy- but it still felt kind of just-good-enough. And that’s a type of book I’ve read a lot of. The glass-half-empty view is that it could have been better. The glass-half-full view is that MTG novels have had a sometimes-deserved reputation for being terrible and thus it could have been worse.

Review: Planeswalker

Planeswalker

The second novel in the Magic: The Gathering “Artifacts Cycle”, Lynn Abbey’s Planeswalker is a strange book that succeeds in one way but seemingly fails in its main goal. Where it succeeds, at least to me, is in one of its main characters.

Xantcha, a woman who was created by the technomagic horror plane of Phyrexia as an infiltrator, but who grew to have (mostly) free will of her own, steals the show. I’ll admit that the notion of an artificial almost-but-not-quite human is a fascinating one for me, and Abbey succeeds at portraying her well, certainly better than Urza himself.

Part of the problem is that the rest of the book consists of clunky pushes towards one middling set piece after another. As good as Xantcha’s story is, it gets in the way of the main plot. Furthermore, having the numbers routinely get big – ie “A THOUSAND YEAR journey” actually makes the experiences seem smaller and more mundane. Thus one big part of the book is better than the whole. But that part sure is good.

Review: The Brothers’ War

The Brothers’ War

One of the big games in my childhood was Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game with a surprisingly deep and varied backstory. Having encountered some parts of the backstory when I was younger, I turned my attention recently to The Brothers’ War, a novel by author Jeff Grubb.

The plot features brothers Urza and Mishra as they grow up and turn against each other, eventually leading opposite sides in a war of techno-supernatural contraptions. While passable, the prose isn’t the best, and the descriptions of large events take precedence over character development. The book is also about a third longer than it should have been. I kept seeing more repetition than I felt was necessary, and this comes at the expense of a rushed finale.

Still, you could do worse. The setting is a genuinely interesting one that takes fantasy tropes and builds on them, and while it could have been better, the writing could also have been done more poorly than it was.