Wednesday, 14 January 2015


Written by William R. Forstchen
Published by Harper Prism, 1994

Our very first Magic novel! All this time we've been told "You are a planeswalker" when we learn the game, now we will finally see what that entails! Right? Well... the story is set in Estark, a city in which life revolves around the yearly festival in which wizards, not planeswalkers, battle in the eponymous arena. The city is nominally ruled by the Grand Master of the Arena, but he must always fight to keep the four great houses (more like wizarding guilds really) under control. The mob, overtaxed and bloodthirsty, is difficult to control as well. So when a mysterious wizard called Garth One-Eye turns up and starts causing fights between the houses, the Grand Master is not happy.

Hrm. So not only is this story not about planeswalkers, all the magic users are scumbags? Okay, interesting choice for your tie-in novel...

We quickly learn that there used to be a fifth house. Not surprising in a Magic novel, though oddly enough the colors of the houses are brown, orange, purple, gray and turquoise rather than the usual five. Also in the "not surprising" corner is the reveal that Garth is one of the few survivors of this fifth house. Twenty years ago the previous Grand Master, Kuthuman, destroyed this house, having bought off the others, and used its mana reserves to turn himself into a planeswalker (Ding ding, we got one!). Now he returns each year to take the winner of the arena battles with him to be taught the secrets of being a planeswalker. Back to the "not surprising" corner: secretly he just kills them all. He doesn't want any competition from potential planeswalkers, using the arena battles to weed out the strongest.

Garth has set his eye on winning the Arena battles to get a change to defeat Kuthuman himself. And while he's in Estark he'll use the opportunity to tear down the leaders of the houses and the Grand Master, in part as revenge for their role in the destruction of his house, in part because they have twisted the ancient tradition of the Arena battles into a "bread and circuses" style spectacle in which more and more blood is spilled just to keep the population from rebelling. Like a regular V (form the Vendetta) he manages to cause a rebellion in which thousands die, but at least all the corrupt house leaders and the Grand Master are killed in the process. Then he and his love interest (there is a love interest. More on her later) are called away by Kuthuman. In the epilogue we discover that Garth has managed to defeat the planeswalker (More on that later as well) and that he and his lover are going far away from Estark while the few non-scumbag wizards have rebuild Estark without all the corruption.

For all my comments on stuff in this book being "not surprising", I had a lot of fun rereading it for the first time in years. Honestly though, large parts of that fun came from picking up references to the card game and a hefty dose of nostalgia. The story itself is a fairly standard tie-in fantasy story, with all the pitfalls those have. But let's start with the good.

Despite the lack of planeswalkers, Arena the novel most directly tied to the game. That´s not a reference to that one scene where Garth goes into a bar and finds a bunch of people playing a card game based on the wizard duels from the Arena. Rather, the various wizard duels in the story are essentially just games written out. They gather mana, they summon Grizzly Bears and Ironclaw Orcs, and if the game goes on long enough one player may summon a Juggernaut or even a Lord of the Pit. It probably sounds a bit basic when I explain it like that, but it's actually quite fun, and exactly what you'd want from the first Magic tie-in novel. Obviously it's not something that would sustain 70 novels, but for now it's quite entertaining. Picking out the references to cards is fun, and as part of the magic battles the references fit nicely in the story, never feeling gratuitous. (One little thing though: at one point a Grizzly Bear is blocked by an Ironclaw Orc. I'm sure that'll set off someone's Vorthos-OCD.)

Oddly enough, after all the fun duels throughout the book, the final battle is rather lacklustre. The house masters are defeated way to quickly, none of them having any cool magical battles. Luckily there is still the Garth/Kuthuman battle to give us a proper climax, but even that is rushed, and we never even get to see the ending! Very much a wasted opportunity.

Moving on to the characters. The novel is very short on inner monologue for the two main characters, Garth and his aide Hammen. The reason for that is simple: both have things in their past that the writer doesn't want to reveal right away. The book is a quick enough read that this doesn't grate much, but it does mean I never got very attached to them. Garth starts out as the cool, mysterious stranger archetype, but never evolves past that. The book is more about his actions than his character. Luckily those actions are fun to read about. He just tears through the city causing chaos for some kind of plan that isn't revealed until the very end of the book, kind of like a heroic version of the Joker. (Now that I think about it, his various explanations about his missing eye are also quite Jokerish... "You wanna know how I got these scars?") The way he is able to start riots could've been developed a bit better, as at times he manages to conjure them seemingly out of nowhere, but we do get some mentions about how tensions within the city have been rising for years, so we'll chalk that up to Garth choosing the right moment for his agitation.

Another interesting point about Garth is that he's quite callous about causing riots that kill hundreds. I felt a bit odd reading about that, but luckily there is a scene where Hammen calls him out on it. Here the lack of insight into Garth actually works. He says he tried to come up with a plan to topple the current powers in Estark that wouldn't involve riots and the death, but that he couldn't come up with one. It's left ambiguous whether he really feels bad over this, or if he's motivated only by revenge and just trying to calm Hammen by feigning remorse.

But while the shallow characterization of Garth works, I can't say that about the supporting characters. Take the house masters for example. Each one is given a vice to show how corrupt they are, but the way these vices are portrayed is so blatant it's silly. Worse, it's their only character trait. The fat guy is always eating. The lustful guy has naked women around even when he's having serious meetings. The greedy guy is some sort of human magpie, no longer able to focus on a conversation the moment he gets a new ruby. And the Grand Master himself is the kind of evil tyrant you've seen in a million cheap fantasy stories before, complete with misshapen, snivelling sidekick. They are stock characters, and broadly drawn ones at that.

It gets worse when we look at the women in the book. Get this: at one point Garth helps a Benalish lady called Noreen in a street fight. They go get something to drink, but Garth stupidly takes Hammen with him, who pisses Noreen off with his dirty old man talk. The next day she goes to one of the houses to collect money she is owed. Garth manipulates this event to cause a huge riot. So in the third scene she's in, when Garth has been captured by the Grand Master, what does she do?

She helps rescuing him, because she's suddenly completely and utterly-butterly in love with him.

Eh, what?

So they only met twice, the first time his friend pissed her of and the second time he used her to further his own goals, and now all of a sudden she is in love with him and fully supports whatever he does, even though he has never tells her his actual plans? Some inner monologue about her falling in love at first sight might've helped, but this book doesn't do inner monologue. And really, it might have helped, but not much. Noreen and Garth have zero chemistry, so any talk about love would've felt disingenuous. Luckily Noreen will get to make a solo appearance two books hence that will redeem her as a character, because she's by far the worst part of this novel.

In addition to Noreen there is Varena, a mage who has to test Garth when he signs up with her house. They fight, she is impressed by his powers, they go shower and then have sex. Now I have no problem with the characters having some casual sex, and I quite liked her "It was just a bit of fun" attitude every time Noreen gets all passive aggressive towards her (even though those scenes make Arena fail the Bechdel test quite spectacularly). But the lack of any insight in the characters thoughts really hurt the scene. The sex scene comes completely out of nowhere. Like with Noreen, there simply is no chemistry between Garth and Varena. They just talk about magic and politics, and then randomly bang.

I didn't notice this flaw the first time I read the book, oh... a million years ago? Back then I was to wrapped up with all the cool references to card I owned. But upon rereading the flatness of the characters, especially the female ones, was very distracting.

One final thing that I'd like to discuss, of which I'm not quite sure whether its a good thing or a bad things, is the tone of the book. It portrays the world as one in which anyone who isn't a wizard is a second class citizen, able to be killed with a single spell by those blessed with magical powers. The rulers of the city are all terrible, corrupt people of course. But the muggles themselves aren't portrayed any better either! They are bloodthirsty hooligans, always coming out in droves to laugh at the carnage. Even when that carnage is not an battle in the arena, but one of their own being caught between two duelling mages on the streets. There is some talk about how it was always like this, how the magical duels used to be just one spell versus one spell and how the fallen house of Oor-Tael used to require its mages to go on pilgrimages to help the needy, but even with that in mind the world seems very grim.

On the one hand I like this. The plot is not a straightforward "evil tyrant oppresses the blameless masses" deal, where utopia is just the death of one ruler away. That adds some depth to the story. Which it sorely needed to make up for the lack of depth in its characters. On the other hand... you're asked to write a story about a fun game in which you fight a magical duel, and the result is a story in which all the wizards are assholes and those who like to watch their fights are portrayed as a bloodthirsty, gambling mob? You'd think the first few stories about Magic would all be "It sure is awesome to be a wizard, to gather these spells and fight these duels!", but apparently we've jumped straight to the deconstruction-phase of the franchise, with the writers examining the dark implications of the set up. (And you know what? The next three novels will continue down this path!)

During a fight Garth pulls a "Look over there!" move on a mage trying to cast a spell. It breaks his concentration for long enough to fizzle the spell, and give the guy mana burn. Sorry Garth, that move no longer works! (Does this mean we need an in-story explanation for why mana burn was removed? If so, I'm just going to blame the Mending.)

Hammen at one point puts a coin on a dead friend "For the ferryman". Now never mind that this was published 20 years before Theros block, we need an explanation how Athreos worship ended up on Dominaria!

During one of the battles a wizard summons a Lord of the Pit. Just like Thomil from Roreca's Tale he loses control of the monster, and he gets eaten. Seems old Lordy's flavor made quite an impression on the early authors of Magic, though these stories make summoning one seem like a very stupid idea. You always lose if you cast that bugger! (Also, I always figured when you sacrificed creatures to the Pitlord you were actually doing some satanic ritual. In these stories Pitlords just run around the battlefield stuffing every creature they find down their gullet like some overgrown Atog!)

TheMTGSalvation wiki couples the five houses to two color combinations, with the color of the house matching a combination of two in-game colors. So the Turquoise house Oor-Tael uses green/blue spells, while the Brown house of Bolk uses red/black. This is sort of visible in the book, but its only made explicit for House Oor-Tael, and even then all the houses are not exclusively tied to their main colors. Furthermore, the imbalance between the colors used looks odd. Estark is one of the few places in the canon where the factions aren't balanced nicely along color lines. Perhaps the idea was that all the guilds are evil now, and that was reflected by giving all of them (except the destroyed Oor-Tael) either black or red mana as part of their identity? Hammen does mention that wizards who use black and red mana as the ones most likely to squash any random farmer that looks at them funny. Garth then replies he also uses those colors, which disturbs Hammen, adding to the ambiguous nature of Garth. Later we see that the big bad Kuthuman is also exclusively black/red. Clearly the "black isn't synonymous with evil" attitude hasn't fully crystallized yet. (Over on my other blog I wrote an article on the evolution ofthe color pie a few weeks ago. Allow me to shamelessly plug it here.)

Which raises another interesting question: what colors is Garth? Well, its hard to say because we can't get into his head. If he does genuinely care for the people of Estark, but thinks their freedom is more important than their safety, that's pretty R/W. But if he's just motivated by revenge and really doesn't give a toss about who he hurts to get it, that is B/R. Since we really have no way of knowing, I'll settle on B/R/W, just to be on the safe side. Funny how that is exactly the three colors NOT part of Oor-Tael's color scheme!

Here's one thing for the people that love to grumble about continuity: very first book, and already it has a retcon! Remember Dominia and its Walkers, in which we learned that mortal wizards don't know about the colors of mana? Guess again!

In all seriousness though, Arena actually fits in current continuity surprisingly well. There is the oddity of wizards carrying around amulets in satchels in order to cast their spells and how they wager these amulet during battle, since they only play for ante in Estark. But that's not really a problem. Throughout the canon we see plenty of weird ways in which people cast their spells. In The Gathering Dark it is explained that those are all simply ways of focussing your spell, and that the gathering of mana underlies them all. Hell, in the very next book there will be a reference to "A city in the west called Estark, where they have a weird way of casting spells."

A recurring problem with fitting the Harper Prism/Acclaim stuff in with the later Wizards of the Coast stories is the portrayal of planeswalkers, but that's not an issue here either. They are described as mysterious, otherworldly and immensely powerful. Kuthuman turns up as a face in a thundercloud before manifesting, and it is specifically mentioned that he doesn't normally have a body of flesh and blood anymore. That lines up pretty well with what we later get explained about pre-Mending 'walkers. While in Dominia and its Walkers it was stated Planeswalkers were hard to kill because they can always escape to another plane, Kuthuman states that they are acutally immortal. Even if another planeswalker drains them of their power they will float between plans as empty husks.

The big problem in Arena's planeswalker portrayal is the way you become one. Everyone in the story assumes you just become one when you gather enough mana. The opinion of the mortal mages can be disregarded, 'cause how would they know? But then Kuthuman says the same thing. And he must believe it too. If he knew about the spark, he wouldn't bother with killing all the arena champions, he would know they never had a chance to ascend. But he does. You'd think that after ascension planeswalkers would realize the true nature of the spark, but I guess not. Perhaps Kuthuman is just a bit dense. If Teferi can go a few decades without realising he's ascended, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch for Kuthuman not to realize he's wasting his time with these arena games. After all, he's only been a 'walker for 20 years at this point, That explanation makes Arena a huge shaggy dog story though!

A worse problem is the way he is finally defeated. When he faces of against Garth, the latter manages to somehow use a spell to steal the ability to walk the planes! Even worse, later novels claim that he actually had all the powers of a planeswalker for a while! That needs an explanation, or else Garth should've been captured and dissected by Phyrexians days after Arena ends. We could say that Garth just happened to have the Spark himself, and his duel with Kuthuman activated it. It's possible, but unlikely. Only one in a million people are supposed to have the spark, and only one in a million of those are supposed to have it activated, so two sparky people turning up in the same city, even a thousand years apart (Kuthhuman was almost a millennium old before ascending!) is a bit of a coincidence. General consensus among the storyline community seems to be that Garth was a special case, a sparkless person who somehow managed to steal a whole bunch of powers of a planeswalker, but not the spark itself. That is also a bit of a plot hole in the long run though. When we get to Mirrodin we'll see that -SPOILER WARNING- Memnarch converted all of Mirrodin into a machine to steal the spark of an unascended potential planeswalker. And he still failed! That really hammers home that stealing the power of a planeswalker should be incredibly difficult. Perhaps Garth was just lucky he was facing a novice planeswalker who was fighting with several other 'walkers at the same time?

In the end you'll just have to pick the explanation you like most. I'd say both options above are good enough to explain Garth's pseudo-ascension, though some parts will always grate a little. It would be a shame to strike the very first Magic novel ever from canon for this one inconsistency however.

Going by the information in Arena alone we can only place it sometime after the Ice Age, which is consistent with the claim from last week's timeline that the novels happen "about 4000" years after the Brother's War. We can actually pinpoint the precise year in which Arena happens, but we need some info from the next trilogy of books for that, so stay tuned!


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  2. Oh man, you're already reviewing the comics and I'm only here.

    Heh. Now that you brought up Athreos, the spiritual beliefs of the people of Kush are an interesting topic...
    I know, it was just a joke, but not to confuse the readers, the ferryman in the Arena wasn't ever named and even if he was considered as a real spiritual being, he probably wasn't supposed to have a god status either, at least not in the beliefs of the locals. My reasoning? People like Hammen, Garth, Zarel, some of the Masters of the Houses and even Kuthuman often enough spoke of The Eternal (and not much anything else in terms of religious beliefs). They used the name in many expressions like: "only the Eternal knows why", "The Eternal be with you", "for the sake of the Eternal", "Thank the Eternal", etc. They also believed that the Eternal created their world (while Kuthuman and Garth extended that belief of creation to the whole of the Multiverse/reality: "I [Kuthuman] was intoxicated with the power. I thought the legends were just that, mere legends. Or at worst there were others who had slain each other and the universe was now empty except for the power of the Eternal."). Zarel also mentioned the belief in their version of the Apocalypse - "[...]He [Kuthuman] is terrible in his power; for how else would he control such power? He answers to no one but the Eternal and even the Eternal is held at bay until Ragalka, the day of destruction and woe." Kuthuman hinted at it: "For once here there is no choice. It is either to grow or to be driven into the void, stripped of all powers with all eternity before you or until the Eternal stirs and draws the circle closed. So there is no choice, no choosing. The struggle goes on without rest." In the end, after he decided to live as a mere mortal, Garth expressed his belief in his God's providence and in the eternal soul: "We’ll have our years. And in the face of eternity, what is immortality? I’ll leave that to the Eternal. I think the way He set things up is good enough for us. "

    What the author clearly meant to show, was the belief of (both good and bad) people in Kush in the one God, who is the prime-mover and controller of the whole of reality, who has plans for it and the souls in it, who will bring the end of time and an eternity in the afterlife (and although no specific conditions were mentioned someone said "I'll see you in hell", so behaviour definitely mattered). In short, what I'm pointing at is that W.R. Forstchen kinda pulled Narnia on the readers ;). Almost - Arena is much more subtle. It's not the last time W.R.F. emphasises his own religion in a novel in some way (I also read his One Second After). I'm not holding it against him (not in the Arena, anyway), just pointing it out. Hm. That reminds me of the mention of Allah in the Arabian Nights comics... I doubt they'd print it today ;P

    And I'm not so sure what the consensus is or was on the status of Garth (and Kuthuman for that matter) - I had this discussion far too many times... I have just written a long, "final" analysis of it, and you're tempting me to spam you with it. ;P

  3. In the meantime, few more comments.
    I don't really find the Bechdel test any useful. It doesn't even say if the portrayal of women was good or not (why are we even supposed to disregard their intelligent conversations with men? Now isn't that a sexist test? ;P). While I'm all for diversity, sometimes a setting may also limit woman characters from playing a significant role (though that was not a case with Arena). Besides, really awful (even sexist) books or movies could easily pass this test. Even porn can pass it :P

    I didn't reread Arena, only some fragments, but where is the information inside the book that places the events after the Ice Age? I've never got an impression that Arena on its very own gives so specific information - it's just focused on the local events surrounding Houses and the Festival, and some of its history. It seems to me it's the other way around - only with external sources it becomes easy and undeniable (the later Greensleeves trilogy puts it far after the Brothers' War and then the timeline from 4th Ed. Pocket Player's Guide makes it obvious).

    1. The Bechdel test certainly isn't the be-all and and-all of checking whether a work is sexist, but works that fail it generally leave something to be desired.

      About my timeline comment: you're right, the story itself doesn't give any dates. I was talking about the presence of places like Benalia, which we know is founded after the Ice Age. But I guess that still involves looking at outside sources. Sorry for being a bit vague there!

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    3. Nah, Bechdel test only measures the presence of women not talking about men, not even if it's sexist or not. That's my point, it's way too simplistic. The test should actually be about how diverse was the story AND if it was sexist - and if so, how much and in what direction? AND how important were the female characters for the story. AND if they were not, if that's a bad thing in that story's context.

      I've seen quite a few movies that failed the test and I didn't really find them lacking (with that test in mind). The Amazing Spiderman 2 basically failed the test although there were many, important, wise (if some of them not genius) female characters. The Social Network failed, and I don't see the significance of the test here either; The Lion King; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Up (for the Eternal's sake!); WALL-E; Misery; The Road; Seven Psychopaths (which even lampoons the test); The Shawshank Redemption; Agora (about a great female thinker from Alexandria); Gattaca; Cast Away; Se7en; Franklyn; Let Me In; The Thing; Biutiful[!]; Memento; Forrest Gump; Lord of the Flies; Pi; AI; The Lord of The Rings trilogy; Gravity; Grave of the Fireflies, The Truman Show; Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and soooo many more.

    4. "About my timeline comment: you're right, the story itself doesn't give any dates."
      It's not even about the dates, it simply doesn't mention the world's chronology in any way as far as I know. Nothing about the Ice Age (even colloquially phrased), or the legends from the past (Urza, etc.).

      Oh, and another "not surprising", and kinda weak of author's choices was to have Garth sign up to every of the Houses, one by one, even if he just caused a lot of trouble in the last few. It had some logic to it, but in the end I guess it goes along with the clichΓ© Masters.

    5. I'd say that the fact that there are so many movies that fail the Bechdel test is kind of the point of the test. It's not that any work that fails it is sexist, but that it is kinda sexist that so many movies have so few women, or no women in the lead. But the fact that Arena fails the test so blatantly (with two women who are introduced as a kick ass warrior and wizard only being able to bicker about a man) mainly interested me because in more recent years Magic has been very good at representation in its storyline.

      As for the timeline, Garth does use Urza's Glasses at one point, so it has to happen after Urza's birth at least ;)

    6. the Bechdel test is meant as one minimal, disqualifying bar to clear - not the only one, or even the most important

      not that "a work is good and non-problematic if it passes this test", just that if a work *doesn't* then it's highly likely bad/problematic.

      it's like saying "if you don't know the difference between lands and mana, you're probably not good at magic." obviously there's a lot more to being good, but jeez what a minimal first step to fail!

  4. On the topic of pre-mending planeswalkers, From MTG salvation
    it mentioned that, as one explanation, that the spells used to "ascend" could just simulated the powers of spark in some extent.
    I like to think that Kuthuman wasn't actually a planeswalker, and that the spells just gave him the powers of one, which could explain why he has to constantly replenish his mana to stay a paneswalker.
    I also like tho think that Garth was the only true planeswalker.
    But that's just me, so I guess my comment is just food for thought

  5. Geography trivia: a lot of the places which here are simply name dropped will find their way on the Domains' map (among them Esturin, Varnalca, La, Kish and Muronia).
    Interestingly enough, in the novel the name Estark is never used. The name of the city is also never stated explicitly: in one instance Zarel is called High Baron of the City of Kush. Probably at first Kush was the name of the city; only later Kush became a country, and the creative team needed a new name for the city itself.

    1. The name Estark may not be used in the novel, but it did originate from it: you could get the Sewers of Estark card as a promo with this book. Maybe there was some miscommunication over what the name of the city would be, which was later solved by making one of the names refer to the country?

  6. The Houses in Arena represent the enemy color pairs, which is why all but one use either red or black mana (but never both). The missing House is the UG house.

    I find this odd, since early Magic tended to prioritize ally pairs over enemy pairs. Maybe this is just another example of how mechanics and story diverged.

  7. You've probably seen this already, given how invested you are in Magic, but since I can't find anything about it on the blog, I thought I'd let you know - in 2021, an article stated that Garth's spark ignited from gaining vengeance against Kuthuman, rather than it being some weird spark stealing