Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ashes of the Sun

Ashes of the Sun
Written by Hanovi Braddock
Published by Harper Prism, 1996


SUMMARY
Ayesh is the last survivor of Onaeh, which was destroyed by a goblin invasion 20 years ago. Ayesh is a pretty big chauvinist, traveling the world and telling stories of how wonderful Oneah was. She now reached one of the most distant, northern reaches of the Domains. There she runs into a local priest who somehow has gotten his hands on an original edition of the History of the Sarpadian Empires. Considering that book must be almost 4000 years old, that is quite a feat. Unfortunately Ayesh learns from it that all the stories people tell about Fallen Empires are incorrect, and comes to the conclusion that her efforts to tell people about Oneah will also, in the long run, be in vain. Distraught, she develops a death wish and goes to get drunk and pick a fight with some goblins. Instead, she is captured by minotaurs from Mirtiin, a nation so annoyingly named that even the back cover misspells it.

After a few chapters navigating the complex politics of the minotaurs, Ayesh puts the puzzle together. The current king, Myrrax, and one of the clan leaders, Scaraya, are drugging goblins and are trying to train them to overcome fear. The idea being that fear is the mindkiller core bad emotion that leads the goblins to lash out at the world. The minotaurs are trying to create a race of new, fearless goblins that would be able to build a civilization for themselves, rather than just raiding the people around them. They hope that Ayesh's knowledge of Onean meditation techniques (Which are very similar to real world mindfulness techniques) will help with that. Being traumatized by the goblin destruction of Oneah Ayesh first tries to kill all the goblins, but she is eventually brought round to the idea when Myrrax suggests changing the goblins would be the ultimate victory of Onean vallues over the goblins.

Unfortunately the priest Betalem sees the goblins and even Ayesh's presence in Mirtiin as taboo. Some of the clans support the king, some support the temple. An added problem is that Betalem hails from the neighbouring minotaur kingdom of Stahaan. Some clans support her, others value Mirtiin's independence over loyalty to the temple. Still other minotaurs only care about their own families or themselves. Hence the cover quote about minotaur politics being complex. Ayesh starts having success with training the goblins, to the point were a few even manage to complete their meditations without the drugs the minotaurs give them, but eventually the political situation Mirtrii turns to the point of civil war, which in turn leads to a Stahaan invasion. This proves to much for the goblins, who revert to their wild ways and are killed. Except for one, Ayesh's star pupil Tlik.

Ayesh and Tlik flee, running into other goblins who immediately attack them. Ayesh gets poisoned and Tlik brings her to human grounds. The book ends on a bitter note. Mirtiin is now ruled by rigidly orthodox Stahaan, with only a few minotaurs secretly keeping the knowledge of Scaraya and Ayesh that might help improve the goblins. Tlik has learned from the reactions he got from goblins, humans, and even from Ayesh in her poisoned delirium, that he no longer truly belongs to the goblins, but will never be accepted by humans either. Still, he will try to better his goblin brethren. The only one who gets a nice ending is Ayesh, who we see traveling the lands telling the stories of Oneah and of Mirtiin, but no longer to try and glorify a dead society, but inspire others to be better.

New headcanon: Tlik half succeeded in reshaping goblin society, hence Squee never turning into a gibbering wild animal, while still very much being a coward.

REVIEW
This was a nice surprise! I hadn't read the latter half of the Harper Prism line before and had expected them to continue down the same road as the earlier ones; fantasy adventures, nothing to deep, either steeped in references to the game like the Greensleeves trilogy, or barely tied to it like Cursed Land. Ashes of the Sun however, gives us a very original premise, a well developed, deep setting, subtle character development, realistic political intrigue (despite the politicians in question being minotaurs) and just enough references to the card game to make this feel like a Magic novel without having the references overpower the story.

Ayesh starts out as a very unlikable protagonist. She's an incredible fighter, but she's not very humble about it, pointing out people's shortcomings from the moment she meets them. And she says things like "There had been only one civilization worthy of the name, and Oneah was gone", which is the kind of nationalism that immediately starts to ring alarms for me. She's interesting to read about however. Hanovi Braddock manages to make her just bad ass and intriguing enough to make you want to follow her story long enough to reach the point where she mellows a little thanks to being forced to work with the goblins. This mellowing is done in a subtle, realistic way. Yes, there is a clear turning point in how she views goblins when she accepts a gift from Tlik, but she's not suddenly a converted goblin-rights activist. She's still mistrustful at first when the goblins want to try meditation without their drugs, and to the very end she keeps calling a mind ruled by fear "goblinmind" (as opposed to a mind ruled by meditation, "diamond mind") without realizing how offensive Tlik finds it to have his entire species stereotyped this way. It's painful, but realistic: Ayesh has spend twenty years hating goblins with a passion, she can't simply forget all her old habits.

It is certainly more subtle that what I was expecting of her character arc. Since there are a bunch of references to Onean culture being very similar to minotaur culture, I thought we were going to get a some revelation about Onean history that would shatter Ayesh's view of her own culture, which would open her eyes to the merits of minotaur or goblin culture. That's how these stories usually go. But this one doesn't. Everyone agrees with Ayesh that Oneah was a swell place and their meditation is exactly what the goblins need, so for all this book tells us it is entirely justified to be an Onaen nationalist. In the end she's still telloing the story of Oneah, just no longer out of survivors guilt, but in order to genuinely inspire people. I can get behind that. There is one part of Ayesh's path I have a problem with though, her encounter with that priest who owns the History of the Sarpadian Empires. His message seems to be "forget about accurately telling history, stories that inspire people are more important than the truth." As a historian, I really can't endorse that. Facts are important people!


Something else people might find problematic about the book is the "reprogramming" of the goblins. The minotaurs kidnap goblins, drug them and force them to do meditations to not just give up part of their culture but part of their very nature... it's really flipping creepy when you think about it! The book shows that the marauding nature of goblins really does stem from sublimated fear and that they aren't going to rise above that themselves, but it can't help but raise comparisons to real world racist thought, like white man's burden-y ideas. In the later chapters, when we start to see the story from Tlik's point of view, this is actually brought to the fore. Ayesh and the minotaurs never question what they are doing. Tlik does, though even he has to admit that trying to get goblins to give up their fear is a good thing. In the end I think we're only going to make ourselves uneasy when we try to compare this to the real world. Instead I've decided to read Ashes of the Sun as a critique of the Dungeons and Dragons notion of "Always chaotic evil" races. It certainly makes you aware of the very creepy implications of idea that goblins (Or orcs, lizarmen or whatever) are all evil, despite being fully aware, sapient beings.
  
TRIVIA
We are moving closer to the card game again! Well, the setting is still a part of Dominaria we've never seen in the cards before, with places like Oneah, Mirtiin, Stahaan and Orvada, but there are plenty of references to Hurloon, Rundveldt Goblins, the Voda Sea, Savaen Elves and the Fallen Empires of Sarpadia. On top of that, later this book was actually tied even closer to the rest of the Magic continuity. The Orvadan Empire makes a few appearances in the Encyclopedia Dominia short stories, and Oneah turned up in, off all places, the flavor text of 7th Edition! I guess that means the whole "Ballad of the Paladins" stuff from 7th Edition happens before the fall of Oneah?


The references in this book did have a somewhat strange side effect. Maps of Dominaria put the Voda Sea and Savaea in the Domains because that's where this story takes place. But the Vodalians originated in Fallen Empires, which happens on Sarpadia, on the other end of the globe! And Savaen Elves is a card from The Dark, which also happened quite a ways away, on the continent of Terisiare. For the Voda thing we actually got an explanation: Vodalians from Sarpadia founded a colony in the northern waters, which would eventually grow into a new Vodalia (We'll cover that story eventually here on the blog). The Savaen Elves never got such an explanation.

At one point Ayesh is poisoned and while she's recovering the priests tell her stories, including one about a flying ship! Since the Weatherlight is already around at this point (Well, in-universe. It wouldn't be thought up for a number of real-world years), I like to believe it is the actual Weatherlight she's dreaming about. There must have been stories about it going around!

Goblins are grey here. As they were in Whispering Woods. Interesting how early writers interpreted the washed out color scheme of Alpha's Mons's Goblin Raiders and Goblin Balloon Brigade as making goblins grey rather than green.


Scaraya first introduces the "converted" goblins to the minotaur assembly with a musical performance by Tlik, which made me wonder: did Terry Pratchett ever read this novel? Unfortunately it doesn't work out as well here as it does in Snuff.

In the bits refering to Sarpadia we find out Icatians apparantly have names like Cedric, Henry Joseph and Margret Elsworth. With all the Endrek Sahrs and Jherana Rures in the flavor text of Fallen Empires, I never realized parts of Sarpadia were so... British!

CONTINUITY & TIMELINE
Again, not much to comment on. We're still in a very isolated corner of the canon, and all the references that are present fit without problems. Unless you think the Savaen Elves appearing in The Dark must mean they are present on Terisiare during the Dark Age. Since no story set during The Dark actually mentions these elves I'm not going to make a problem of it. There is also still nothing that puts this novel at anytime other than 4000 AR, so that's where it will go on my timeline.

In a the old MTGSally thread on Dominarian geography Pete Venters made the following comment:
the large landmass in the top center of the 'Weatherlight Ships Log' map is a part of Stahaan. The piece of land vanishing off the top center is actually quite large too. Actually Stahaan might be the one vanishing just off the top, either way, whichever one of these pair is Stahaan, the other should be Mirtiin, if memory serves. It's been 8 years, so I'm really not sure.
Since not many people in the community have read Ashes of the Sun this has become generally accepted knowledge. Actually though, Mirtiin and Stahaan are just mountain ranges, each on the same landmass. The landmass itself isn't named, but I guess that by now enough fan-made maps have been created that name "the large landmass in the top center" as Stahaan that we might as well accept is as canon.

Here is this map again, to show you what Pete Venters is talking about. I promise to post a different map next week!

FINAL THOUGHT

I found this on Amazon while googling for pictures for this review. Either my French has seriously deteriorated since high school, or the French translators slapped the cover of Ashes of the Sun on their version of Song of Time...

5 comments:

  1. Damn you for linking to TvTropes without warning!

    I remember an old Duelist issue that came out around the time of Homelands that had a short story also called Ashes of the Sun. It was about minotaurs too, which makes sense since the race featured heavily in the set. Any idea of the connection between it and the novel? And what does the title of the novel actually refer to?

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  2. The title refers to the fall of Oneah. The cities of Oneah were called the Cities of the Sun, the main temple of the capital was The Roof of Lights, and there are more sun/light motives in the description Ayesh gives.

    I don't know about another story called Ashes of the Sun. I can't find a reference to it on the MTGSalvation wiki either (http://mtgsalvation.gamepedia.com/The_Duelist#Issues). Are you sure it wasn't "The Slowing of his Heart"? That one was in the Homelands issue.

    My knowledge about the Duelist is spotty anyway. I only have 12 issues of it, and most of those are from around Tempest block. Eventually I hope to collect, or at least read, all of them and add them to the project. A very good friend of mine said he might still have most of the issues from Homelands inwards, so hopefully I can borrow a few issues at a time from him! ;)

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  3. Fantastic work, Squirle. I appreciate you efforts in creating a cohesive timeline! I can see Creative using it as a reference, in the future. At least I hope so. I also like the little worldbuilding details, please keep 'em coming. They're very interesting and add a further layer in your reviews. :)

    Leo

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  4. Thank you for the kind words! I will certainly keep the reviews coming! And if Wizards would like to use my Timeline for reference (once it's finished) I'd obviously be honored :)

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    1. You're welcome. You're doing such a great job. I sent Doug a message, he should keep on eye on your work! I wait for other reviews. :)

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