Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Cursed Land

The Cursed Land
Written by Teri McLaren
Published by Harper Prism, 1995

The Cursed Land takes place on the plane of Cridhe, which only has green mana, provided by one massive tree called the Clan Tree. Our plot instigator is Malvos, a Sangrazul. Sangrazuls are immortals who feed on mana, but who are apparently otherwise indistinguishable from humans. Malvos was in the employ of the planeswalker Tempé, but he got banished to Cridhe after he tried to eat mana she was using. Now he has convinced this guy Nohr to fight his friend Haen, who is the keeper of the Tree, and to do… some vague ritual to the Clan Tree that would transport the Malvos and Nohr to another plane, where Malvos hopes to find other planeswalkers willing to help him fight Tempe. But the plan goes awry for… some vague reason. Nohr kills the Clan Tree, but he and Malvos are still on Cridhe.

Cut to 520 years later and Cridhe is almost dead. Many living things, including horses and trees, have gone extinct. Fungus and disease spread over the land. The clouds are so thick that large parts of the known world are covered in perpetual darkness.nThe people ruled by the descendants of Nohr have become predatory raiders, those ruled by the descendants of Haen hopelessly stuck in tradition. Spring wont even come unless the Keeper at Inys Haen preforms a ritual during the equinox. There is a prophecy though, that when the line of Haen and the line of Nohr are reunited the Mending (no, not that one) will occur, and Cridhe will be restored to its former glory.

The above covers the first 20 pages of The Cursed Land. The following 270 are about Aylith, the young and ineperienced Keeper who gets captured by the forces of Nazir, the last of the line of Nohr. She is then spirited away by Feryar, an elf who works for Nazir, but secretly wants to bring about the Mending. Aylith goes through some sort of spirit quest and ends up back at Inys Haen just as Nazir, who has gone completely crazy thanks to an ancestral curse upon the house of Nohr, is laying siege on it. She cures his insanity, and together they restore the Clan Tree.
Oh, and some of those 270 pages are also taken up by Ayliths cousin Jehidan who tries to save her, a Nohrish soldier called Lorris who vows to kill Nazir after he has her father killed in a fit of paranoia, and Arn, a slave-servant of Nazir who escapes and become the new Keeper in the end. But their stories mostly amount to them running around a lot and not accomplishing much. Malvos is also still around, acting as vizier to Nazir. He’s constantly plotting to restore the Clan Tree and then do the vague thing he had wanted Nohr to do centuries ago, only to get randomly poisoned, and then die in the epilogue.

My… lets call it irreverent tone in the summary has probably given away that I don’t think too highly of The Cursed Land. Let’s get the good things out of the way first though. Well, the one good thing really: I like the setting. Cridhe’s post-apocalyptic wasteland is very effectively portrayed. It is stuck in permanent twilight, and nothing grows but creepy funguses. It’s a sort of proto-Ulgrotha/proto-Shadowmoor/proto-Time Spiral mash-up. I especially like the scene where the Nohrish raiders divide the spoils of their attack on Inys Haen, and all they get is a bunch of mangy cows, some worn utensils and a butter churner. That nicely illustrates how decrepit the world has become without mana. Another interesting aspect of the world is the presence of Mirkalbions. These are mutated people addicted to a certain fungus which will die if it comes in contact with the sun. That sets the Mirkalbions up against both our heroine and our villain, who both want to restore light to Cridhe. A cool idea, though unfortunately the resolution is lacking.

First a more pressing matter: is this even a Magic story? The summary above might give you the wrong idea: planeswalkers, mana and planes are mentioned in the novel, but only in the introduction and the epilogue. Maybe in some of Malvos’s inner monologue as well. Other than that though… nothing in the book brings to mind Magic: the Gathering! There is not a single reference to a recognizable spell, artifact or creature, which is a very striking absence after the reference-fests that were the first four Harper Prism novels. Hell, they wanted to put some cards featured in the story on the back cover, but they couldn't find anything more relevant than Cursed Land and Equinox! Hands up everyone who knew what Equinox did without clicking the link. Not many people I'm assuming. But what really drives home that this was not originally a Magic novel is the creatures that our heroes run into. For example, there are Makanas, big, triangle-headed lizards that can bore through the earth as if swimming through water.

Also, there are Shrouds, flat monster that imitate cloth and eat those that use them as blankets. Do those sound familiar to you? Well, then you’ve probably picked up a D&D Monster Manual at least once during your life.

If there had been any Magic references at all in the main part of the story I would’ve called these Bullette and Mimic/Cloaker expies an homage, but as is, they just seem to confirm that this novel was a draft for a D&D novel, with a rewritten pro- and epilogue to hop on the lucrative Magic franchise. Perhaps the Nohrish, who live in darkness and among who women can be warriors, unlike the more sexist Haenish, were originally intended to be Drow? Malvos could easily have been some sort of demon, with Tempé’s role being played by Orcus or something. No wonder Harper Prism could pump out 12 Magic books in just two years!

Being a cash in doesn’t make me dislike a story though. Nope, it actually has to be not very good for that to happen. Unfortunately The Cursed Land succeeds in not being very good. The characters are simply dull. Take Aylith for example. She's supposed to go through some sort of character growth to where she can forgive Nazir and trigger the Mending with him, but that never feels genuine. She just suddenly states that she's angry and in the end decides she's no longer angry. It doesn't help that her inner journey is show through a vision quest in which bad thoughts are represented by an evil looking plant. Metaphors are fine, but when you are using them to avoid writing actual character development you are doing something wrong.

The dialogue is downright atrocious at times. At one point Aylith sees Feryar has been beaten by Nazir. What are the first things out of her mouth? “Feryar-You are hurt. He beat you. He was angry because of me.” That is proper “As you know, your father, the king” level of stilted dialogue. Characters also have a habit of breaking out into gigantic info dumps upon meeting each other. And they talk in this odd, stilted pattern that I think is supposed to sound ye olde english-y, but just sounds odd and forced.
But they made a promo for this book, why didn't they put that on the back cover?

In addition to the characters and the dialogue, the plot is also lacking. The characters regularly do incredibly stupid things for the sake of moving the plot along. Especially Nazir. He has captured Aylith, and what does he do? He leaves her alone in a room with the last acorn of the Clan Tree. That mistake is actually acknowledged in the story and explained by his madness, but it's still lazy writing. Later he gets himself captured because he sends his entire army into Inys Haen but stays behind on a hill with not a single guard. How on earth did this guy remain in power is he’s this stupid?

Plots sort of meander around, often with no pay off. Some examples: In the beginning a big deal is made about Aylith’s father giving her his power, since the Haenish are stuck up traditionalists and there has never been a female Keeper. In the end Elders make a huff, it is pointed out that they have no choice but to accept Aylith since she now has the powers, so they do. No discussion, no repercussions, no resentment. After all the build up one sentence is enough to sway all the orthodox fanatics. Same goes for Lorris’ desire to kill Nazir. She mentions wanting to do this many times, and when she lies to Jehidan that she won't go of on her own to do so a big deal is made about that. “That was the first time she lied to him”, the book gravely states. So what happens? She defeats Nazir, presses her sword to his neck, and then Jehidan shows up, points out to her that they could use Nazir, and she goes “okay”. No emotion, no conflict, no nothing. Perhaps the best example involves the Mirkalbion plot. At the climax Aylith and Nazir are heading to the place where they need to do the vague ritual thing to restore the Clan Tree and they are confronted by the Mirkalbion leader. He wants to stop the Mending since it will kill the fungus his people need to survive. What do they do? They trip him and run past him. Seriously! That’s the resolution of that plot! The entire confrontation takes all of half a page!

What also annoys me is that this novel is a destiny plot. You probably know those, they're a dime a dozen in fantasy. “You are the Mender/the One/the Chosen”, “You must accept your destiny”, that kinda stuff. I can't help it, but those plots always irk me. We've seen plots like it a million times, and Cursed Land brings not a single new twist to the formula. In addition to being old hat, this worldview of accepting your destiny is diametrically opposed to my own. Now, I normally try not to let that ruin a story for me, but Cursed Land manages to portray the whole destiny malarkey in exactly the right way to piss me off. You see, at one point there is a flashback to Feryar discovering that Nazir's father has raped his wife. Feryar threatens to kill him for that, but then he is stopped by his wife because the prophecy says someone from the rapist's line will aid in the Mending. This is not played as her holding on to her faith as a coping mechanism, no, this is portrayed as an entirely sane, rational and right action. So basically, as long as your descendants are part of a prophecy you can get away with anything and no one can punish you, is what the story seems to be saying. Just let all the bad stuff come over you, don't even try to fight for justice, just trust in destiny. Grrrr. Makes my skin crawl.

My preference

There is so much more I could moan about. How in the end a whole bunch of chapters is suddenly devoted to creating an alliance of the Far Clans, who were barely mentioned before, and who will turn out to be entirely superfluous in the final conflict, thus making all those chapters a waste of time. Or how the Lorris/Jehidan plot devolves in a confusing mess with them capturing Nazir, him immediately escaping and tying up Lorris, only for her to immediately escape herself... But I really shouldn't let this review go on for to long. You've probably got the idea. The Cursed Land is not a good book, and it barely qualifies as a Magic novel. It's one of the last books I'd recommend to people interested in the MTG storyline.

This book is an interesting case of how the storyline community works. You see, a number of planes and planeswalkers mentioned in this book ended up misspelled on early storyline sites, and the book is just obscure enough for these misspellings to still be in use today. For example, there is no planeswalker named Krimon. There is one named Krim, mentioned in the same sentence as Platon, so you can see where the transcription went wrong. In addition, Tempé is regularly called Tempè on the MTGSally wiki. Oh, and while Cridhe and Ilcae (the plane Malvos wants to escape to) have made it onto the lists of known planes, there is also a reference to the Seven planes of Parnash, which haven't. Apparently there are dungeons there, and Tempé has imprisoned Malvos there in the past.
Okay, I don't want to bring any more false information into the community: there was never a promo for this book. Curse of Nazir was made for an April Fools aritcle on! That does mean Mark Gotlieb must have read this book though, which is quite a commitment for a joke article!

Well, there is one benefit to barely mentioning any Magic continuity: you can’t contradict anything either.

The concept of Sangrazuls are interesting. In Roreca's Tale we saw Worzil using Rorace to hunt down mana lines, and now we have Tempé doing the same with Malvos. Later stories will move away from the "planeswalkers duel over mana lines" plot, and with that their mana finding sidekicks are also dropped. It's an interesting idea though. Later books will still have planeswalkers travel with companions, but their function is more to keep the planeswalker sane and to offer a mortal perspective.

Also interesting is the fact that without mana Cridhe starts dying. This is first seen here, but later entries in the canon like Homelands and Time Spiral will also show a plane dying because of a lack of mana. Pretty cool how later stories have at least tied Cursed Land closer to the canon in that way!

Nothing in the book ties into anything, so I'm just going with the Players' Guide timeline and put it approximately 4000 years after the Brothers' War.

After all that negativity I want to end on a positive note, and that is that I like how Cursed Land is the first showing of several themes we’ll see a lot more of in the future. It’s the first environmental story in Magic (By which I mean a story about changes in the setting, not that it encourages you to recycle), it’s our first apocalypse and our first story that ends by completely altering the setting. In other words, it’s the first story that really makes use of the fact that Magic has a whole multiverse to play with. You couldn’t do these kinds of stories if all you had is one world!

In previous weeks I wondered why an adaptation of a game in which you play a wizard went straight to  deconstructing the premise of Magic. But if you look at it in another way, those books are actually a very straight adaptation of the game. The Greensleeves cycle, Arena, even Introduction/Roreca’s Tale are all about duels between powerful wizards, their gathering of magic if you will, and the fall out from that. I liked those stories, but eventually the storyline had to move away from that. You can tell only so many magical duel stories before it gets boring. Cursed Land is the first story to make that move, and it is cool to see that it already uses tropes that will become staples of the franchise.


  1. Had me going there with the Curse of Nazir fake promo. Nearly Googled it halfway through the article!
    Supposedly the other Teri McLaren book (Song of Time) is a lot better, going by the 16 year old reviews on :)

    Curious about the next installment. I mean, Prodigal Sorcerer was an iconic card at the time. Does it have the story to match?

    What's up with the colors of the letters by the way? Lots of purple in there.

  2. I have no idea why some of the text turns out purple :( Blogger is being annoying. I select the entire text, click on plain old black for the text color, and on the editor the color changes, but then when I hit publish there still is all this purple text in the actual article!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The post is split into two parts due to character limits.
    Correcting some earlier brainfarts too.

    Part 1

    It was kinda nice and refreshing idea to consider The Cursed Land happening in the Modern Era. Although, mind you, The Harper Prism books weren't fixed on that period. Sure, they started there and a lot of online sources from that time were placed in that era as well, but the books also went back as far as The Dark Age on Terisiare and The Fallen Empires of Sarpadia (so relatively soon after the Brothers' War). And although the general feel might be similar in these first stories (like the characteristics of planeswalker-sidekick relationship) the conclusion doesn't really follow (it just shows what kind of basic ideas people developing the stories had about planeswalkers).

    I never thought of this book as repurposed D&D novel either, I was never really exposed to that system. But it's not the first time I hear that some of the early Magic was strongly influenced by it. It could also be, that the author didn't know much about Magic yet and a decision was made to write somewhat random story (influenced more heavily on D&D which the author could have known better at the time). It would be a fun question to ask her. There was a time I actually tried to contact her (since the Song of Time was supposed to be only the first book in the series), but with no success. Anyway, if it is true, that the book was randomly added to Magic, then it is even harder to expect they placed that story at any given time in canon. And if they truly wanted it to tie in, it would have had been really simple. Malvos mentioning Tempe exchanging some artifacts with Galina the Returned, or whatever really... For now, my opinion is still that it is unknown when The Cursed Land story happened. It's not like we must force every existing source into the timeline.

    Also, Krimon might be actually (sort of) my fault. The declension of the name present in book suggested Krimon as the original form. It should have been different if Krim was supposed to be the original. So I'm gonna shift the blame to the translator and his poor understanding of his mother language. :P

    As for the purple letters - do you have an HTML mode in the editor? Maybe the difference is gonna be visible and fixable there?

    Also, it would be really helpful if the blog had its interface in English, since all the articles are in English anyway. Just a suggestion.

  5. Part 2

    And one more thing - I know the idea of a prophecy is irritating; it can rub our preconceptions the wrong way. But does it have to be wrong? Assuming the world is deterministic (or has only a little room for indeterminacy), and that there is a way to look into the future of things (or most possible futures), then it would be plausible to consider. Even people, if you know them well, are sometimes predictable. So maybe casting the Avoid Fate spell was actually your fate? ;)

    And in Magic, you can always consider higher forces conspiring. Planeswalkers, mind-control spells, the world-souls*, or the very interaction between the soul/character/mind and the colors of mana, that may make people even more predictable. Let's say someone was influenced by white mana since their birth - in Dominia, it's an indication that this person is gonna have a tendency to seek and create order in its surroundings. Few pushes in the right direction, and you might get the savior you want. ;)
    (It's also possible that some of these supposed saviors failed, only we didn't learn about their existence in the stories, which tell us only about those who succeeded ;) ).

    Considering the connection of mana, life and consciousness**, it is then plausible to imagine even conscious, if not only subconscious involvement of mana into mental lives of people (you know, you don't really externally control you mental reality - mental states appear in real-time, in an unpredictable manner, and there are often conflicting sides of this internal conversation going on. Although in time, we can recognize some patterns in our own thinking. Yet, we don't really choose what we like, or what we dislike, or even if our reasoning and conclusions are necessarily correct...).

    * although I don't think there was any indication of it in this novel. There might have been some lesser force though.
    ** for example, in Shandalar mana was so abundant, that any amount of it drawn by the planeswalkers who entered the plane created little elemental creatures. So mana could possibly be intrinsically intentional in nature, not being just forms of energy and the requirement for life.

    And then, there is always the effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Even today most of the religious people seem to ignore the importance and the influence of this phenomena.

    People can believe all kind of weird stuff in the real world (including prophecies), so it is even more likely in the imagined world, where magic actually exists. And while reviewing their stories, I find it as important to look at the world through their eyes, as through my own.

    And sure, the rape deserved a severe reaction, but if the character concluded (even if mistakenly) that some higher story unfolds, with forces beyond their reach, possibly playing all of them like pawns, then it's plausible she took the blame off of the rapist (Stockholm syndrome ;) ). Now, I don't remember if it was written well or not (guess not), but technically it seems likely to me.

  6. Oh, the Galina tie in proposition was a brainfart on my part - most likely, her story didn't even exist at the time. But vaguely mentioning Dominaria four millennia after a great cataclysm wouldn't be really a problem.

  7. Hey Mort! Going through your remarks in order...

    I really want to have all stories at least somewhere on the timeline, even if they are just vague estimates (For a bunch of the WotC anthology stories we can't really manage more than "Between the Ice Age and the Invasion" for example.) Cursed Land is probably the hardest to place of all, since there is literally nothing tying it to anything else. But luckily the Fourth Edition Pocket Players' Guide mentions the novels happening about 4000 years after the Brothers' War, so that is something to go by. (Obviously the books themselves take precedence over the timeline, so the last three novels and some of the anthology stories will end up elsewhen.)

    I'll look into the HTML editor, but since I literally only started learning HTML and CSS last week I can't promise I'll be able to fix it!

    About the interface: I hadn't even realized it wasn't in English! I thought Google was just auto-translating it for me. I've changed it now though. Thanks for the heads up!

    Finally, Prophecy doesn't have to be wrong, and there are in fact stories revolving around them that I like quite a bit. However, it is a hurdle for me to enjoy a story. In a very different way I have no problem with the inclusion of rape in a story, but again, it has to be handled well. What we get in Cursed Land however, is a badly handled rape scene on top of an uninspired prophecy plot, colliding in just the right way to piss me off.

  8. (For any future reference - I went further with the discussion of the timing of The Cursed Land and some other early sources to the Timeline article).

    BTW Squirle, could you provide the quote (doesn't have to be long) and chapter reference to the planes of Parnash? I'd like to find it in my translation to find out why/how did I miss it. Did I overlook it, or did it get lost in translation?

  9. It's on page 93 in my version, when Malvos almost catches Lorris and Jedhian conspiring.

    "The termite-infested wooded door creaked softly open onto the darkest pit Malvos had ever seen, and he had seen some dark ones. After all, Tempé had jailed him in dungeons all over the seven planes of Parnash, each one a little less "civilized" than the one before."