Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Shattered Chains

Shattered Chains
Written by Clayton Emery
Published by Harper Prism, 1995

Several months have passed since the end of Whispering Woods, but Greensleeves and Gull aren´t getting anywhere. They are attracting plenty of people who are willing to fight wizards, but barely any of them are combat trained, so the army just keeps stumbling from one narrow escape to the other. Still, their fame has spread, and the rulers of Benalia decide to nip this crusade in the bud before it can get its act together. Luckily for our heroes though, the leading politician decides to mix some personal revenge into the plan. Noreen (from Arena) had refused his advances in the past, so he sends her to kill Gull and Greensleeves, taking her child hostage to force her to comply. Noreen, whose real name turns out to be Rakel, infiltrates the army, but quickly develops sympathy for their cause. She’s had some bad experiences with wizards herself in Arena, and in the intervening years Garth has become struck by planeswalker-wanderlust and often abandons her for long stretches of time. Unwilling to go through with her orders she ends up training the army into an effective fighting force.

Meanwhile Greensleeves is approached by Chaney, an ancient druid and, by her own accord, a former planeswalker. Chaney’s home acts like the hyperbolic time chamber from Dragonball Z (I’ve been watching a lot of the Abridged Series lately), and Greensleeves spends a few years learning magic in only a couple of days. Chaney also reveals that the Mana Vault Towser dug up last novel isn’t a Mana Vault at all, but a Living Artifact, a much more powerful device (This is the part where players of the game have a hearty laugh about story/gameplay segregation.) It was created by the Sages of Lat-Nam to stop the Brother’s War. Although the Sages failed in stopping the war, they still created an immensely powerful weapon that can be used to tag wizards the same way wizards tag ordinary creatures. Just what the army needs to keep the wizards they are now defeating in check! (Innocent as they are, Gull and Greensleeves are a bit queasy about just killing them).

Then disaster strikes. A captured wizard tries to escape by summoning demons, but these ignore his commands, grab the Living Artifact, dubbed the Stone Brain, and piss off back to Phyrexia. The same night Benalish troops capture Noreen, to have her executed for her betrayal. Luckily Chaney happens to have a Nova Pentacle lying around that allows Greensleeves to travel to Phyrexia without losing her mind (throughout the novel she has been afraid of regressing into a "halfwit" again if she uses to much mana), and a Dingus Egg that allows Lily to teleport a small team to Benalia.

In the end Noreen and her son are saved, the politician that tried to use her gets killed and Stone Brain is retrieved, albeit many minor characters pay with their life for this success. After that there is just the matter of a confrontation with a returned Garth. After a short skirmish he gets chewed out by Noreen in a scene reminiscent of a drug abuse intervention. He vows to give up wizarding, giving his satchel of spells to Greensleeves. He also helps bring a number of refugees from the anti-wizard army home, but they all decide to return to the good cause, bringing even more volunteers back with them. Apparently everyone on this continent hates wizards! Noreen leaves with Garth, and Gull and Greensleeves prepare to lead their now fully functioning army against any evil wizard they can find.

The epilogue sets up the conflict for next book. Turns out that unbeknownst to the good guys, the wizards tagged by the Stone Brain can contact one another. The three wizards featured in this novel forge an alliance, and decide to try and recruit Towser… to be concluded!

For starters, the problems I had with Whispering Woods have mostly been resolved! Hurray! The book is much better paced, with magical battles no longer taking up so much space, and the battles themselves are a lot clearer and thus more interesting. This is part due to the introduction of multiple viewpoint characters. Where Whispering Woods really was the Gull-show, now we swap viewpoints between Gull, Greensleeves and Noreen. The fake cliffhangers are also gone. After each cliffhanger there is a switch to another character, which feels much more natural. The story does sometimes swap to a different POV in the middle of a paragraph, which reads very oddly, but that's a minor quibble.

The good things about Whispering Woods are also still here. The characters and their interactions are believable and likable and they get plenty of cool character moments. Gull hasn't changed much since last time, still an agreeable guy trying his best to make this anti-wizard crusade work, even though he really just wanted to be a woodcutter. Greensleeves gets developed much more now she's capable of coherent thought. He arc revolves around learning to use her magical powers, but being held back by her fear of losing her mind again. It is a believable fear and, like Gull's remembrance of his destroyed village in Whispering Woods, brought up often enough to be realistic, but not so often that it gets angsty and annoying. The resolution of that plot is quite clever. At one point she is forced to don the Stone Brain (it has taking the form of a helmet) and it begins screaming to her in a thousand voices, but she's able to withstand that precisely because she is used to having a thousand voices in her head thanks to the magic of the Whispering Woods.

There's still hope for you Sarkhan!

I could've done with scenes from Lily's point of view though. She's having an identity crisis after she discovered she is a wizard, which leads to her breaking up with Gull. Gull has a fling with Noreen, but that doesn't really work out (Noreen is still in love with Garth and is just using Gull for comfort), and in the end Lily resolves her problems and gets back together with Gull. We only see all this from the point of view of Gull though, and he is just a clueless dope when it comes to women. I kept wondering if Lily had really pushed Gull away because she wanted to figure her identity out on her own, or if Gull had just been a tool and misread the signs she was giving him.

Speaking of Noreen, she gets rescued from the scrappy heap here. We get to see her kick ass and, more importantly, we get to see her thoughts, hopes, fears and motivations. Thus she becomes an actual interesting characters, in contrast to the cardboard cypher and obligatory love interest she was in Arena. I was a bit iffy about the “romance” between her and Gull though. It's made clear from the get go that she's just looking for a warm body after being abandoned by Garth, so them getting together so quickly is quite believable, but it's not a route I would've taken the character on. The whole underdeveloped and way-to-quick romance was precisely what was done wrong with her in Arena, so I would’ve liked to see her removed form that altogether. In the end the not-really-romance was handeled believably well though, so I can't complain to much. I do like that Garth turns out to be a shit husband. The Garth/Noreen romance in Arena was terrible, or at least terribly written, so I like that it leads to a terrible marriage. Its some sort of meta-karma.

The use of Garth in quite interesting. He was all cool and mysterious in his own book, but here is just a magic-addicted asshole! Did the characterization from Arena not sit well with Clayton Emery? Did he have as much of a problem with the token love story between Garth and Noreen in Arena as I did, and thus decided to wreck it in his own book? Whatever the reason, this characterization of Garth, or actually, this characterization of Magic as something addictive that has you make shitty life choices, fits in quite well with the whole "wizards are evil" plot. Still not sure how I feel about that one. On the one hand, I can see it leading to better stories since now we are following the underdogs, on the other hand I'm still surprised that Wizards of the Coast didn't tell Harper Prism to be a bit nicer about the wizards that the players are supposed to represent.

Also improved since last novel: the cover of the Czech translation!

There is one terrible scene though: in the end Gull and Lily get back together, and he asks her to marry him. After which he realises there is another question he needs to ask: what her real name is. Now, I have no experience with dating prostitutes (or strippers, or magicians, or anyone else using stage names for that matter), but I would’ve thought asking someone's real name is something you do on a first date AT THE LATEST. Not after you've already proposed! It rather spoiled the moment for me. But not for Lily apparently, and it's her moment, so... (Her real name is Tirtha by the way. You can immediately forget it, they go right back to calling her Lily in the next book.)

Finally we need to talk about Chaney. She really is a conundrum. When she's introduced she seems very sinister. She mind controls Greensleeves to come to her, even though the girl is seriously injured and tries to resist. Then she offers training in wizarding, which Greensleeves accepts, but she forgets to mention that this will involve time manipulation. So she's essentially aging Greensleeves without consent. And at that point she's still mucking with the girl's brain. There is one scene where Greensleeves wonders about her brother only to push that thought away, even though she realises at that point years have passed for her. That is clearly out of character for her. The narration makes it clear that she's not capable of thinking straight thanks to the magic of Chaney's home. This is all written very well by the way. The sequence is essentially a huge info dump as Chaney tells Greensleeves about summoning and planeswalking and the like, but it actually filled with tension. We notice the time manipulations that Greensleeves doesn't, as the chapter is interspersed with Gull looking for his sister. The death of old age the badger and the chickadee that had followed Greensleeves around until this point are especially creepy.

But then Gull finds his sister, and things get weird. No one ever calls Chaney out on what she's done. Gull doesn't even confront her over the fact that his sister has gone from 17 to somewhere in her 20s! Again, that seems entirely out of character for him. Especially since he spend the last three chapters looking for his sister, worried sick that something bad has befallen her. Chaney just joins up with the army, falling into the role of wise old mentor, exposition machine and plot advancer, who just happens to have a Nova Pentacle and a Dingus Egg lying around when they are needed.

So... is this character essentially a massive plot hole? A big button marked "advance the plot, characterization be damned"? A straight reading of the book may give you that idea. If Chaney really was intended as just a wise mentor archetype I really have to detract some points from the book for bad characterization and plot contrivances. But something makes me wonder... While at no point does Chaney reveal herself to be evil, she continues to be rather... spooky. When she heals Gull's leg and he exclaims that he no longer believes all wizards are evil she only mutters darkly "We shall see...". And those gaps in characterization... The characterization is quite good in the rest of the book, so it seems really odd that Emery would drop the ball only with one specific character. Are we sure Chaney is not supposed to be a much nastier character than the straight reading would have us believe? Shattered Chains doesn't reveal much about her goals, but remember this for when we discuss the next novel.

The promo card for this book was Giant Badger, with the flavor text " The wizard Greensleeves called a Giant Badger to her aid in an battle with the desert mage Karli." Which is true, but... the thing gets eaten by a Junun Efreet in under a page! It would've been a better promo for Whispering Woods. At least there the Badger was effective in chasing away some Sedge Trolls!

Chaney describes a Dingus Egg as the a fossilized egg of a creature that lived long ago, "before mankind was fashioned by the gods". The thing it was supposed to hatch into was "a flying beast covered in leather, but not a bat". So... a pterodactyl then? But if that's the case... what on earth is a Dingus Staff supposed to be?

Also of interest: this book has our very first gay character in commander Ordando, who has two wives living in her army tent! Yes, a lesbian polyamorous character. It took me about half the novel to realise she was called OrDando rather than OrLando. I had already figured her for a Virginia Woolf/Rita Sackville-West reference. (Yes, I do quite like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Why do you ask?). She's quite a minor character and is one of several who dies saving Noreen from the Benalish. I think TVTropes would call her a Mauve shirt. Shame we'll have to wait until Theros to get the next gay characters, unless one of the handful of books I haven't read yet will surprise me.

Pictured: not OrDando.

This is where it is said that Garth “almost been a god once”, thus showing that he wasn't just a normal mage who figured out a way to travel the planes. But I already discussed this in the Arena review.

This is also the book where the depiction of planeswalkers gets problematic when compared to what we come to expect from pre-Mending 'walkers. Again, I'll discuss this more in-depth next week, but so you have an idea what is going on I'll note what is explanationed by Chaney. First she says that druid, wizard and planeswalker all mean the same thing, following that up two pages later with the remark that she used to planeswalk when she was younger. Now she's old and can't use half her body thanks to a stroke though, so she's given that up. Later she describes planeswalking and summoning as two sides of the same coin and that there are four levels of conjuring. The first level is summoning something you've touched, the second is teleporting yourself to some place you've been, the third is summoning something you haven't touched and finally you get teleporting yourself to someplace you've never been, which is called planeswalking. No mention of Sparks or Blind Eternities, being immortal or really really powerful. It sounds like planeswalking is just a thing you can gradually learn over time. Later in the book we actually get to see planeswalking, when Greensleeves hops to Phyrexia to retrieve the Stone Brain. That's probably the most problematic scene in the trilogy from a continuity perspective, since she doesn't ascend or anything. She just gets a macguffin and a pep talk from Chaney and off she goes.

Another thing that has caused some discussion in the past are the Sages of Lat-Nam. In this book they are described as the largest conclave of mages ever gathered. They united to stop the Brothers' War, but failed: Urza and Mishra found and destroyed them. The war itself is described as laying entire continents to waste to produce warmachines. When we actually get to see the story of Antiquities later on, we'll discover that the Sages are actually not the greatest, just the first wizarding organisation on Terisiare, that the war never left that continent, and that Lat-Nam survived, becoming the City of Shadows during the Dark and then the School of the Unseen during the Ice Age. This isn't that big a problem though, as all the discrepancies can be explained by the fact that we hear all this from Chaney, who admits its all folklore and hearsay. It wouldn't be the only time something she says gets proven wrong by later continuity. At one point the wizard Haakon (no relation to the Scourge of Stromgald) uses an artifact, and she goes "The Mightstone of Urza, found again. I wondered where it had gotten to." Well, if there are any artifacts of whose location is well documented it's the Mightstone and the Weakstone. They are supposed to be in Urza's skull! Luckily we already learned from Skaff Elias that there are multiple Might- and Weakstones, so Haakon must be using one of those, and Chaney just got overexcited or something.

Lastly, there is Phyrexia, which we get to see for the first time. But this is old school Phyrexia. It's not yet portrayed as a hell made of artifacts, but as the "Hell for Artifacts", a plane filled with demons, described as hordes of small, toothy creatures, who seek out and destroy sentient artifacts. We've got other stories of Phyrexia abducting Brass Men and the like, but this motivation will fall by the wayside when we get to the Weatherlight Saga. Thanks to large parts of the Weatherlight Saga taking place in the past though, those stories happen concurrently to this one. I guess we must reason that there still are a bunch of Phyrexians going about kidnapping sentient artifacts even though Yawgmoth is mobilizing the rest of the plane for the Invasion. Actually, from the demons' description as a swarm of small creatures they sound more like gremlins than demons. It would actually make sense that the gremlins, whose whole mythology revolves around wrecking machines, are the ones still going about nicking artifacts.

In conclusion, continuity issues start to grow in this book. They'll get worse in the next one though. Next week's entry will probably have a little less space reserved for the review, and a lot more talk about continuity problems and suggestions to fix them. Hope you'll join me for that discussion!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I recently found this book online, and by online I mean a page by page readable version of it online. The only problem is its in spanish.
    Google translate has been working wonders, but I keep seeing the translated phrase "trappings of war" or "harnesses of war"
    Any idea what this is supposed to be? It sounds like they're talking about the belt where they put their swords but I'm not sure.
    Here's an example from chapter one, Bardo talking to Gull about the incoming cavalry:
    “Riders are coming from the north, Gull! They’re outlining the plateau, and coming over here! Ve believe there are about thirty! My scouts have gone to investigate whether there is another group in the west, and I imagine it will be!”
    “What kind of riders? Are they cavalry? Is there any trader with them?”
    A shake of the head.
    “No. They all wear harnesses of war.”

    They also talk about Helki and Holleb wearing trappings of war when describing their appearances
    "Helki and Holleb, centaurs and spouses who always fought and acted as a couple, their painted helmets stood and they raised their feathered spears. They wore thick woolen shirts under armor filled scrolls and ornaments, and horse blankets covering their glossy red flanks beneath their trappings of war."
    Again, this is all through google translate so some of the wording may be a bit off
    And in case anyone is curious, here's a link to the pages:

    and here:

    Sorry for multiple post, found some typos

    1. It basically just means "they are geared for war". For example, the first bit actually goes as follows (note that Bardo has a silly accent in the original text):

      "Gull! Riders in the nort'! They're skirting the mesa, heading this vay! Ve think t'irty of them! My scouts investigate vhether there's a matching party vest! My guess is t'ere are!"
      "What kind of riders? Cavalrymen? Any merchants with them?"
      A shake of the head. "No. T'ey're girded for var."

    2. That makes sense, although their are several occasions where they seem to refer to the 'harnesses' as a type of belt.
      For example, I think this passage was on page 6 or 7
      "The camp eventually saw some order, if only because most of those who could not fight had fled to hide in the forest. The ‘red sergeants’, named after their battered feathers – Tomas, Neith, and Varrius –, had managed to rally his troops in a formation of, more or less, regular rows. Some came to attention when Gull ran over. Others nervously pawed their harness, or took the opportunity to get a few more mouthfuls of their interrupted dinner."
      Again, this is roughly translated using Google Translate.
      Is belt actually the right word? I'm trying to translate the whole book into word which is why I'm asking.

      I know this is probably not the kind of discussion you were looking for in this blog, so I do appologize.

    3. I'm not sure. I guess the one time it could refer specifically to a belt or a harness, but in the first example "girded" means something like "outfitted", I'd say. I'm not a translator though.

      No need to apologize. In fact, I was quite amused by this reply, since I think the person who made the Spanish translation you found contacted me a while ago through this blog, to see if I could help with translating stuff the other from English into Spanish!