Monday, 19 January 2015

Whispering Woods

Whispering Woods
Written by Clayton Emery
Published by Harper Prism, 1994

Gull the woodcutter and his sister Greensleeves (who can't talk, only chatter like animals) are the only ones left in the ruins of their village. Two mages came by, fought each other, and turned their village into collateral damage when one of them cast Earthquake. Most of the villagers were then killed with Pestilence. The other survivors moved away, so now the two hang around with some summoned creatures that got left behind. Then one of the mages, a guy called Towser, shows up. He claims the destruction was wrought by his opponent and that he can send the summoned creatures back to their homes. He seemingly does so, and convinces Gull to get a job caring for the horses in his caravan. While working for Towser Gull makes some enemies, some friends, finds a lover in the "dancing girl" Lily, helps uncover a Mana Vault, gets smack-bang in the middle of another magical duel when another mage tries to claim said Vault, and most surprisingly: discovers that his sister isn't mad after all, it was just the magic of the Whispering Woods next to their village that overwhelmed her mind as a child.

Over the course of their travels Gull starts to question Towser, especially when during the battle over the Mana Vault he sees some of the creatures Towser claimed to have send home in the beginning of the book. Towser first tricks him with some mind magic, and later sends him to a distant tropical island. As it turns out, Towser had been the one who cast the pestilence that killed Gull's family. And those creature he promised to send home? The tropical island functions as a place where Towser can dump creature he might later need in battle. Gull sets about training the people and monsters there, hoping that one day they'll be able to overcome Towsers mind control after he summoned them. A few days later however, he himself is summoned! Not by Towser though, but by Lily! Towser was gathering potential wizards to sacrifice and drain their power, and both Lily and Greensleeves have that potential. Cue a massive battle, culminating in a tsunami in which Towser disappears. Gull and Greensleeves are once again wanderng the destruction left behind by a magical duel. Along with Lily and some other survivors they vow to form an army that will rid the land of those destructive, mind enslaving wizards.
To be continued...

The promo card you got with this book.

Arena was a bit disappointing to reread for this project, but Whispering Woods makes up for it by being a lot more enjoyable than I remembered. It's a clear sign of me growing up. Arena has many exciting battles, but fails in the characterization and relationship department. Whispering Woods is not as good with the battles, but has much better character work and believable relationships. Current-me appreciates the latter much more, but early-teens-me was just here for the cool fights.

Compare the main characters for example. Garth was a mysterious stranger with a dark past, and all his thoughts had to be hidden from us to keep up his mystique. Gull is much simpler soul. A woodcutter who just wanted to find a girl, settle down, care for his family and his donkeys and live out his life in his village. With no mystery to uphold, we get to see much more of Gull's personality. We are shown his emotions, his mannerisms and we get cute little character moments, like when he gets excited to see seagulls (The animal he is named after) for the first time. The scene in which Greensleeves starts talking is genuinely sweet. And Gull is just likable. He often reflects on sayings of his father, or on life in his village, but it never turns into an "MY PARENTS ARE DEEEEEEEAD" angst-fest. There's only one thing I didn't like as much about his character, and that is his sudden transformation into a capable leader when he is transported to the tropical island. I guess he just had an epiphany, but after over half a book in which he is very passive, being tossed around by fate, his rousing speech came entirely out of left field for me.

His relationship with Lily is also a breath of fresh air after the Garth/Noreen... thing. Gull and Lily move a bit quick at first: they have one conversation, and then she crawls into bed with him. But subsequently its made clear that Lily doesn't really know how to show affection in any other way, having been sold to a whorehouse by her parents. So while they do get together quite quickly, afterwards we get plenty of scenes where they do simple things, just sitting and talking, and in those there clearly is chemistry between the characters. They even go on proper date! How often do you see that in a fantasy story? (And they only take sweet little Greensleeves along, not dirty old Hammen, which is smart.)

I'm having trouble thinking of appropriate illustrations, so have a picture of one of the many creatures and spells from the game that make an appearance somewhere in this book.

Another thing I liked was how often things go wrong for Gull. While he is a surprisingly badass warrior for someone with an unsteady leg who keeps getting caught in battles while he's almost naked, he clearly isn't trained for battle. He throws his axe at an enemy and... he hits him with the wrong end of the blade. The same is true for his sister. In the final battle  Greensleeves summons Grizzly Bears only to discover she can't control them, and summons elvish archers who immediately start killing the goblins she previously summoned. It's a realistic depiction of what happens what untrained people get thrust into battle, and that will actually become a plot point in the next novel.

The book is not entirely without faults though. One thing that annoyed me was writer Clayton Emery's habit of doing these false cliffhangers. Something bad happens at the end of a paragraph, we get a line break... And then the story just continues. It's a bit hard to describe, but it took me out of the story a bit. It reminded me most of watching an American talk show on Dutch television. You see, there are far fewer commercials on Dutch tv, so after every five minutes the host goes "We'll be right back after these messages", only for the show to immediately continue. I guess it's better than actually having to sit through the commercials, but it just feels very odd.

There is a bigger problem than that though. The real problem are the battles. Which is a shame, since they take up huge parts of the book! My copy has 278 pages, of which 140 are taken up by just three magical battles! That would probably be to much space for them even if they were the most intensive battles in the canon, amd they really aren't that great. The problem is that the entire book is written from Gull's perspective, and he often doesn't know what is going on. Take the second battle for example. We first get an extended scene of Gull protecting the horses from Savannah Lions. Then he gets a change to look around and see what the wizards are up to, which turns out to be sending Nightmares and Djinni against one another. But then Lily is captured by an enemy rider, so we get another extended battle scene, this time with Gull fighting the riders. When he's done with that there is another long scene, this time of Gull and Lily trying to get back to the camp site, making their way through the battlefield, wondering who is winning as they walk past the remnants of battles which seem much more interesting than the one we've just seen. 

My final verdict on Whispering Woods is that it is better than Arena, but flawed nonetheless. Still, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the storyline, especially since it sets up the story for the next two novels. Yes, Whispering Woods, Shattered Chains and Final Sacrifice are Magic's very first trilogy, often called the Greensleeves Cycle! And if you're wondering why it is named after Gull's sister, who plays a pretty peripheral role in the book, well... to that I can only say this: check back later this week!

I believe this book has the first mention of the twin moons of Dominaria, the Glimmer Moon and the Mist Moon. At least, I didn't notice any reference to them in Arena. I'm almost tempted to re-read that book just to see if there is any reference to there being one or two moons, but... I've still got 68 novels to go, so... maybe some other time. There is an interesting wrinkle here though: the Glimmer Moon is actually called the GliTTer Moon here! I hadn't even noticed before that the name of that moon had been altered over time!

Throughout the Greesleeves cycle there are many references to cards, often legendary creature from Legends that are used for exclamations. "By the Throne of Bone!", "In Chatzuk's Name!" By the scars of Scarzam! Or best of all, "Urza's Udders!". It's quite fun, but unfortunately these references will later cause some continuity issues. The only problematic one in this book is a reference to Barktooth Warbeard, who shouldn't be born yet around the time Whispering Woods takes place. I'll save talking about the timeline placement of this cycle until I discuss Final Sacrifice.

There is a reference to Neptune at one point. I always find it odd when fantasy stories reference actual earth mythology. Then again, Alpha had a Lord of Atlantis, so you can't really complain.

I talked about Garth place on the color pie last time, so I'll briefly talk about Gull as well. Let me know if this is something you want me to continue doing or not. Gull's color seems very clear. He just wants to live out his life in his forest village, just like his parents before him. He is very reactive, only acting when something, or someone, stands in his way. That all points to green. A nice illustration of Gull's nature happens just after the destruction of his village. He stumbled upon a Two-Headed Giant who was summoned by one of the wizards. At the time he doesn't know for sure that the giant was forced to fight, but the moment he sees a Sengir Vampire feed on the injured giant he grabs his axe an charges. "Something dead parasitizing on the living" is just wrong in his eyes. That alone is a green sentiment, and so is acting on instinct, which is exactly what Gull is doing here.
If we want to be fair, we really should not hold it against these books that their portrayal of some things don't match up with later books. Still, if we want to fit them in continuity we have some issues to deal with. For starters, summoning here is not shown as creating summons from Æther, but as teleporting someone over to you and enslaving their mind. That injustice is actually the driving force behind the plot of entire trilogy. Also, the people in this book seem to operate under the same assumption as those in Arena when it comes to becoming a planeswalker: you just need to gather enough power. The summoning issue will be a continuing problem throughout the canon. It can only really be resolved by saying some wizards summon actual creatures, while others create beings from the Æther. Guess all the wizards in northern Aerona do the former. The planeswalker issues I'll discuss in the Final Sacrifice review, since there is a bunch more stuff in the next two novels we need to take into account.

If we look at what continuity there actually was the reference at the time, Whispering Woods is a lot less problematic. We get a reference to Arena, with Lily mentioning the city of Estark (in the west, which isn't really where it ended up on later maps of the continent, but hey, no one ever said Lily was an expert at geography). She also mentions how wizards there have an odd way of casting spells, thus explaining why Towser and the like don't use amulets. Later in the trilogy we will see wizards who fumble with little mementos whenever they cast spells, implying that the amulets in Arena are simply memory aids.

The map of Aerona, showing the Whispering Woods. Estark is all the way in the south, in the land called Kush. Many thanks to the people over at and the MTGSally wiki for preserving this map!

The only odd thing about the continuity here is that on the tropical island they run into ant-people. In the following books we'll learn that these are actually YotianSoldiers. Now that the comparison has been made, I can kind of see how you could mistake the original art of Yotian Soldier for an ant, but that wasn't really the intention. Also, the Yotian Soldiers were created by Urza, 4000 years earlier than this story, on a different continent. I guess that means it's now prt of the canon that a bunch of Yotian Soldiers survived the Brothers' War and wandered Dominaria for ages, presumably repairing and rebuilding themselves in such a way that they began to resemble humanoid ants. Pretty cool addition to the canon actually.

One final thought: what the bleeding heck is going on with the Czech cover of this novel?

There are no half naked amazons in this novel. At all.


  1. I'm not sure the amulets from Arena were just memory aids. They may have been infused with a given spell, so that when a spell was lost in a duel for an ante, the winner became the sole owner of the actual spell (like in the card game). That's not to say none of them would be able to cast some spells from the memory, but if they would be able to sneak a creature from the spell-amulet they have just lost, it wouldn't make sense. After all, after the battle the winners kept the spells and the Festival was an annual event, after which the wizards from the five Houses returned to their homes all across Kush. But since even the most powerful wizards actually used the amulets, it does imply that using them was probably more effective/faster than other potentially available forms of casting magic.

    One could develop a fanon on this - limiting education of so many wizards (and the land of Kush was fertile with them) mostly to the usage of amulets infused with mana or spells would be an effective way of keeping the hierarchy, order and power in the hands of the few Masters (and possibly simplify the education). Ah, founding of the five Houses in Kush some time after Leshrac's disappearance... the story almost writes itself in my head. ;)

    And yeah, in the context of the Brothers' War, the implication of Yotian Soldiers apparently evolving on some remote island was simply awesome. ^_^

    The Czech cover? - an elf on the right, and... weren't there some wood-people (not elves) mentioned in one of the books of the trilogy, or is my mind is playing tricks on me?

    Oh, and I'm pretty sure Arena doesn't mention two moons. Several times it mentions a moon passing or drifting. So yeah, it was probably established later (although it does not specify the world as having only one moon, so it at least remains consistent with later canon).

    1. The ante thing does kinda imply that the amulets have been infused with spells. Maybe over the years the wizards of Kush got so used to using the amulets that other forms of magic have been pretty much forgotten?

      No wood people in this trilogy, and certainly not in this book. There were elves that Greensleeves befriended, and Gull's village was right next to the woods, but in neither case were nigh-naked warrior ladies mentioned.

    2. But there are nigh-naked warrior centaurs, male and female.. ;-)

  2. Do you think the card "falling star" is a reference to this story, or vice versa?

    1. Whispering Woods came out after Legends, so if it is a reference the story refers to the card, but I suspect both of them are just riffs on the real world phenomenon.

  3. Squirle, has the name Greensleeves been explained in the book?

  4. and what is her physical appearance?