Thursday, 26 March 2015

Distant Planes

Distant Planes
Edited by Kathy Ice
Published by Harper Prism, 1996

We've reached the final installment of the Harper Prism leg of my project! Tomorrow I'll post a little overview of all twelve books, plus a discussion of their place in the canon. As for this last anthology... there really isn't much to say about this one that I didn't already say last week. I'm not a big fan of anthologies, but I'm always entertained by continuity references. Luckily, Distant Planes has even more of those references than Tapestries! And this book has another cool feature: every story is accompanied by an illustration! Which means I actually have something to show you all, so I don't have to use tangentially related Magic cards as illustrations! (For the same reason I'm looking forward to next week, when I start reviewing the Armada comics!)

Let's dive in!

Insufficient Evidence
By Michael A. Stockpole

This story sees the return of Loot Niptil, who we met in the last anthology. This time around he gets framed for murder and has to prove his innocence via trial by combat against a robot. In the process he learns that the actual killer is the guy who build the thing, and he and his friends manage to defeat the construct and bring the real killer to justice.

I always like a good whodunit, but unfortunately this one just makes no sense. The killer was making medallions he wanted to pass of as ancient artifacts, and wanted to trick an expert into endorsing their authenticity. So far, so good. But in order to distract the expert, he PUTS LOOT NIPTILS FACE ON THE MEDALION. How stupid is this forger? There is a throwaway line about legends being summoned through time, and Loot doesn't have a memory of before he was summoned, which I suppose makes this slightly less insane, but still. Forgers generally don't want to draw too much attention to their forgeries, you'd think. The expert, who does have more than half a brain cell, immediately goes to Loot to investigate, comes to realize the medallion is a fake thanks to Loot's magic, and thus the forger kills her. You can't even use the excuse that the forger couldn't know that Loot would be able to use magic to trace the origin of the fake amulet, since the robot he build works on the exact same basis: magically divining the origin of evidence presented to it, and then attacking the perpetrator. The only reason there even is a whodunit plot is because Loot starts the story in a drunken stupor and can't remember meeting with the expert the day before. When your central premise is this flawed you don't have a good story on your hands. Add to that the fact that a lot of the discoveries are only accomplished with spells, rather than proper detective work, and that each of those spells are described with rather dull techno-babble (mago-babble?), and the second Loot Niptil story doesn't manage to score any more points than the first one.

We do get an interesting flavor tidbit though, as it is revealed that prior to the Sarpadian empires we see in Fallen Empires there existed the Tchokta empire, ruled by war-priests and big on human sacrifice. One day their last war-priest was summoned by a planeswalker and never came back, and the empire was torn apart by the new Sarpadian empires. So... there's that.

Oh, and probably the most interesting thing about all this, which I forgot to mention last week: these Loot Niptil stories are the first place where Lord Windgrace is mentioned! Remember him, the cat warrior Planeswalker that joined the battle against Phyrexia during Invasion? It's really cool that they took such an obscure character and gave him a prominent role years later! Here we learn nothing much about him though, just that he's a planeswalker and worshiped by Loot's cat warrior friends. The Urborg connection wouldn't come until later.

Festival of Sorrow
By Robert E. Vaderman

Gormank, an ogre, travels to the city of Coraleon. There he wants a wizard to resurrect a certain woman. Unfortunately Coraleon's Festival of Sorrow (Apparently they have festivals for every emotion) is going on, and the use of magic is prohibited for the duration. An oracle told Gormank he has to do the resurrection that day though, so he bribes a wizard to go ahead with the plan. TWIST NUMBER ONE: Gormank doesn't want to resurrect a lover, but the only person who bested him in combat, just so he could kill her again and reclaim his honor! TWIST NUMBER TWO: The woman, Eorra, comes back wrong. She's barely able to speak, let alone fight. Gormank, who boasts throughout the story that he feels no sorrow, can now never restore his honor, and dejectedly joins the festival.

Another one for the "Fine story, fun enough twist, but in the end pretty forgettable" column. It has a few interesting references though. I now know where Cape Tempest and Coraleon come from, after seeing them on maps of Aerona for years. Also, Gormank meets a Benalish hero who mentions having stayed at Grover's, the bar from the Loot Niptil stories. I assume this is actually the Benalish hero who disappeared halfway through the story in Tapestries!

One potential continuity error though: the Coraleons apparently sing the Hymn toTourach during their festival. But this is Aerona in the post-Ice Age era. Tourach was worshiped by the Ebon Hand in pre-Ice Age Sarpadia, millennia earlier and on the other side of the planet. I guess we can blame that inconsistency on a passing planeswalker leaving a few Ebon Handers behind after a battle.

Chef's Surprise
By Sonia Orin Lyris

A story about Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar, the writer of The Underworld Cookbook and star of the flavor text of Granite Gargoyle. The story keeps shortening her name to Asmor though, which I think is cheating. She summons a Lord of the Pit, called Vincent, but runs out of stuff to feed it. (Just like Thomil and that guy from Arena. You'd think these pre-rev summoners would learn to leave pitlords alone at some point.) Luckily she's a great cook, and Vincent has gotten tired of eating grub, potato stew and pressed kittens ever day, so she escapes being eaten herself by entering into his service for seven years. While in the pit she writes her cookbook and gets famous. After seven years she's finally free... only to find herself hunted by all the creatures that she describes as delicious in the book, who are not happy about that!

Hurray! A humor story that actually has some funny lines! "I can eat humans. But I abhor asparagus. You should be taking notes." that's the kind of dry humor I like! There are also a few stinkers though. The "stupid sidekicks" trope is dull as dishwater, and having them be imps that eat underwear doesn't suddenly make them hilarious. So it's not a comedy homerun, but it's fine enough. In the end it's mainly written to reference as many cards as possible, filling the pages with recipes like "cubed pegasus in red sause with dragonfly garnish", "basilisk eye in Jasconius sauce" and even throat wolf ribs, referencing the famous Magic urban myth, which I thought was a cool Easter egg. Less cool is the fact that comedy pieces like this require you to stretch your disbelief a bit further than the usual stories, thus making it an odd fit in the canon. For example, people can apparently send letters to the underworld? So the pit is not a separate plane, just a part of Dominaria I guess? But then how can they get their hand on Island Fish Jasconiusus, who live on Rabiah? Ah well. It's a comedy piece, I'm not going to be to hard on the continuity here.

One final thing though. At one point Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar is preparing a dish called Benalish Babies. But her bumbling sidekicks don't pay enough attention to the ingredients, leading to this quote:
"You are idiots. Half the babies are sick, the others are dead and rotting. There are two-two-carcasses I can use."
 WHAT THE HELL HARPER PRISM ANTHOLOGIES? First the gut punch of the dead foetus in "Theft of Bayende", and now this? What is it with you and eating babies?!

By Stonefeather Grubbs

Dr. Peter Langwynd is a sorcerer who became a hermit in the Fens of Foulmere. At uni people kept pestering him for ways to use his magical studies in commerce or warfare, which he got sick of, hence his retreat. One day he is visited by the planeswalker Vram (Who can alter seasons with the snap of a finger, so I'm guessing we're talking about a proper planeswalker, not one of those planeswalking mortals was saw last week). Unable to stand against a planeswalker Peter takes Vram to a big swamp frog the 'walker wishes to be able to use in battles, but just as they've reached it another planeswalker attacks. During the battle Vram blows up the swamp and is send hurtling through the multiverse, possibly killing her. Peter is stuck with Vram's cat, Mao, who turns out to be her daughter under a shapeshifting spell! Peter himself has lost his parents to a planeswalker battle as a boy, so he decides to adopt Mao.

A longer story and quite a cool one, with a few twists and turns I've left out of the summary. It manages a nice slow build with its reveals about Langwynd's past and Mao identity, and captures the emotion very well. It also adds a number of odd-but-intriguing things to continuity. To bad those were never picked later, like the Viashino from Prodigal Sorcerer.

For example, Vram turns up in a male form, but is later revealed to be a woman, one of the Dobéhma, a women-only race. According to myth, shortly after the fall of the Sarpadian Empires there lived a Neo-Ebonic priest-king named Vetro, who thought himself Tourach incarnate. His slave-wife killed him and their sons, but fled with her daughters, and was cursed by Vetro from beyond the grave to always give birth to girls, to wander the world forever, and, eh... to have lilac-colored hair. It's a bit bizarre, but cool nonetheless. I think it would've been cool if the Dobéhma had appeared more often and become a unique feature of Magic's storyline. But they never appear after this story.

Another interesting thing is that this story makes it sound like it takes place in modern Sarpadia, or at least on the islands near it. Peter lived on those islands as a kid, the gnome-like Eub Hlut are descendants from ancient Havenwood gnomes, when Peter runs into a summoned dwarf the only tongue they share is "Old Sarpadian, the ancient common tongue of both Icatia and realm of the Ebon Hand, and for over a millennium since, the lingua franca of the continent and surrounding islands.", et cetera. I'm always intrigued by post-Ice Age references to Sarpadia. Combining this story, the Loot Niptil ones and the flavor text of the 5th Edition Brassclaw Orcs, I'm getting the idea that while Sarpadia itself is still a wasteland ruled by thrulls, the islands near it are still populated by all sorts of humanoids.

Looking back, I almost think the awesomely named Stonefeather Grubbs (It's a pseudonym of David L. Grubbs) was hoping to be able to turn this story into a full book later on, like Sonia Orin Lyris was allowed to do with The Going Price, which we saw last week. In addition to the above mentioned stuff he name drops a lot of geography, like the Kron Lu River, "Akkat the Mighty, Citadel of All Knowledge" and the  Isle of Indigo, and comes up with terms like Fewman for elf-human hybrids. That's quite a lot of world building for a solitary story! I for one would've loved to see a full book about Peter, Mao and Vram, but alas.

Finally, this story is interesting because it returns to the early days of Arena and the Greensleeves cycle. Planeswalkers? Check. Magic duel? Check. Card references? Not as many as back then, but still a fair few, so check. References to black mana being evil? Check. Gameplay terms like summoning sickness and mana burn incorporated into the story? Checkitycheck. And most of all: are we back to the deconstructionist view of Magic, in which all mana users are complete assholes, and the focus is on the beleaguered mortals caught in their path? You bet we are!

God Sins
By Keith R.A. DeCandido

A planeswalker, Rafthrasa (just call him Rafe) tries to give up planeswalking. He returns to Kartya, his island of birth and sets himself up as a farmer. Turns out he ruled there as a god-king a while back, and when people find out its him, they start worshiping his second coming. He is a gigantic dick to them for a while, but eventually gets them to leave him alone by helping them with a famine. All alone, he is finally happy.

Fun enough. It has some good lines and some neat ideas. Rafe is a complete prick, but funny enough to want to read the rest of the story. Oh, and then there is this sentence:
"the names for us are manifold: mage, wizard, demiurge, planeswalker, demon, gatherer."
Points deducted for furthering the wizard/planeswalker confusion from Dominia and itsWalkers, but bonus points for trying to explain the "Gathering" part of Magic the Gathering.

A Monstrous Duty
By Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

We open with Torya Longshanks, ex-soldier and farmer, burying her family, who were killed by Goblins of the Flarg. A witch turns up, who uses Torya's blood to curse king Rogan, whose failed crusade roused the Flarg into pillaging the countryside. With her farm burned, Torya enlist again. On the way she hears that the citadel is under attack from a monster. Upon reaching the city she learns that the wound the witch gave her won't heal until she lifts the curse cast with her blood. She is eventually made bodyguard of the king, even though she's in half a mind to kill him, Turns out that every night the king, thanks to the curse, turns into... an Eater of the Dead I think? Some sort of monster at least. Torya ends the curse by rubbing the monster with her own blood and stays to help the king (who's not as bad as she thought) to become a good ruler.

Another nice and dark story for the The Dark set. The cold open with Torya burying her family is grim enough, but the part where she accidentally crunches one of their skulls with the rocks she uses to cover the shallow graves and freaks out is downright horrifying. Not for the faint of heart perhaps, but damn good storytelling.

Obviously, this story happens during The Dark. In fact, it has to happen around the time of the Gathering Dark novel, as some peasants discuss joining a group of rebels trying to fight Mairsil and restore Lord Ith to his throne. That's a bit odd since in Gathering Dark Ith founded his Conclave to hide away from the regular world, so why do peasants even know who he is, let alone consider joining the fight to restore him? Perhaps some mages of the Conclave fled after Mairsil's take over and are paying good money to set up a rebellion? If memory serves we can actually date Gathering Dark and Ith's imprisonment to a specific year, but for now I'll put it in the generic "The Dark" date of ~300 AR. I'll move it when I've placed Gathering Dark.

One final continuity note: this story has to happen after Dark Legacy, as the monster of the king is speculated by some ignorant peasants to be a Coal Golem, which were the minions of the Niroso in Dark Legacy.

What Leaf Learned of Goblins
By Hanovi Braddock

Goblins from the Red Mountains start coming into the Savaen forest, and the elves promptly kill them all. Only the elder Leaf thinks they should try to learn something about why the goblins suddenly do this instead. She convinces the other elves to let the next one live. Turns out the goblin chieftess was sending them as messengers since she needs help with a magical artifact. Leaf goes to see what's up. She discovers the chieftess was using an Ivory Cup to stay immortal, but it's no longer working, since she destroyed Oneah, and now there is now longer anyone casting white spells in the vicinity. Leaf takes the chieftess to Savae and tries to teach her the wisdom of accepting the cycle of life and death. This only succeeds in sending her into a rage in which she kills Leaf. The chieftess then dies in a hail of elven arrows herself. With her last words Leaf tells her elven friends what she learned: That not all may know wisdom. That goblins shouldn't be filled with arrows without a thought. Goblins should be pitied. Then filled with arrows.

I'm usually not a big fan of using cards as literally as the ivory cup is used here, but for a short story with no greater impact on the canon I think it's fine. It's also nice to see another reference to Oneah. And both the final twist and some other lines in the story are actually pretty funny. This is a good one.

Dual Loyalties
By Glen Vasey

A sun priest is tagged by a walker called Gerheart, so he quickly has to teach his adopted daughter how to be the next priest. He's whisked away before being able to tell her the use of all magic Sun-stones in possession of the church though. Finding a special sun-stone that allows her to track her father down, Helana decides to do so. Her journey leads her to befriend a Demonic Tutor called Illith, who tells her that her dad has been captured by the forces of Hell (They actually call it that), so that's where they go next. In the end she frees her father, but during the journey she has picked up so much black magic that she's gone over from worshiping the Sun to worshiping Gohrah, the dark side of the moon. She has to give up her priesthood, and although her dad still loves her, she has to leave the parish.

One of the ones that I wished had a full book to work with, or at least would have gotten a sequel in another anthology. Helana, Illith and Koborah (the dad) are all great characters, the theology of the sun and the moon sounds interesting (although it is kept rather vague), and the journey of Helana from a pure white mana user to a black/white -but still good!- mage is rather cool.

This story references Akkat, the university dr. Langwynd from Foulmere was a teacher at. I'm assuming this was added by the editors, but it's cool to see the continuity getting tighter! Another interesting reference: Illith describes Boris Devilboon as "the bogeyman invoked by all the mothers of Hell when their brats misbehave." That's not even close to what he's like in the Legends II cycle, but that cycle is very problematic anyway, when it comes to the portrayal of legendary creatures that were already mentioned in pre-rev sources. We'll cross that bridge when we get there.

Oh, and yeah. Hell is an actual plane in the Multiverse. Who knew?

Distant Armies
By Peter Friend

Children in the Ironclaw Hills start dreaming. This freaks out their parents, since dreams apparently don't exist in this setting. Then the kids start turning up bruised and battered, muttering about fighting in a war against Benalia that ended thirty centuries ago. Eventually the strange dreaming stops, but by then the main orc character's daughter is catatonic, and his dwarven friend's son is dead.

Well. That was grim. It's another one with no impact on the canon, but despite that it's one of my favorite stories in the book. The creepy tone is portrayed perfectly. It's "MTG does the Twilight Zone", but it's done well. I must admit that I had to read the story twice to really appreciate it though, as on the first read through I was far to wrapped up with apparent continuity issues like the characters not believing in Magic, or them living in the Ironclaw Hills and never having heard of the Ironclaw Mountains. Turns out those were all hints that this is happening some time in the distant future!

About that time traveling though... It's a bit odd. Whatever the legend from the Loot Niptil story says, summoning creatures through time has never been possible in Magic. Time travel is generally portrayed as very, very difficult. I mean, maybe I could believe this story if the summoning was made possible because of some plane wide temporal disaster, but... waaaaaait a minute... Don't we have just such a temporal disaster in the canon?

Obviously this story wasn't intended as a Time Spiral tie in, and we should be hesitant to use the time rifts to explain all continuity issues, but this just fits perfectly! The way creatures from other times appeared on Dominaria completely explains the weird summoning here! It feels a bit to much like a fan theory to put on the timeline, but it certainly goes straight into my headcanon!

Which brings up an interesting problem: how do I put this on my timeline? I guess I just have to add a "potential future" part to it. If my Time Spiral theory is correct this story happens around 7500 AR. But even if it isn't, the presence of Benalia in the battle thirty century ago places the story at 6000 AR at the earliest, since Benalia was founded after the Ice Age. For refrence: the current story (Dragons of Tarkir) happens around 4600 AR. I'm not going to add a specific date, just "the future". Then this story can hang out there with the framing sequence of Rath & Storm.

Better Mousetrap
By Jane M. Lindskold

In the K'Cur Mountains lies Teeka's Shop of Wonders. Teeka and her apprentices are artificers, but the metal animals they make keep being summoned by a planeswalker. So Teeka makes a metal dragon that can follow summoned creatures to beat up the summoner. When it returns it has a scroll tied to it: "How much to lease this dragon?".

It falls rather flat in the summary, but the story itself it is actually pretty funny. Also, it's cool to see the story behind Teeka's Dragon, which young-me thought was absolutely amazing since it had all these abilities! (You whippersnappers with your Akroma's don't know how good you have it!)

In reference land: one of Teeka's apprentices graduated from the Institute of Arcane Studies! And the K'Cur Mountains is another one of those names on that map of Aerona of which I know now the origin! We can also add another tick to our "Names for the moons of Dominaria" counter: Lesser Moon and Greater Moon are used here. Not very original, but we hadn't heard those specific names before.

Oh, and one of the apprentices is a female dwarf with a beard. That stuck out to me since dwarf ladies in magic generally don't have facial hair (See the dwarves from And Peace Shall Sleep, Dwarven Patrol or Liberated Dwarf for example)

The Face of the Enemy
By Adam-Troy Castro

A wizard, Xavis, has fought another wizard for centuries and laid waste to the entire landscape around them. They have been fighting for so long, they can't even remember why the fight begun. One day his enemy suddenly surrenders. Xavis goes to him, and discovers that his enemy is actually his creator, and the centuries long battle was intended to turn him into the perfect spellcaster to fight his creator's true enemy! His creator keels over dead, and Xavis steps out of his castle to see his true enemy approaching.

Huh. Pretty weird story. Cool idea, not the best execution. Luckily it's very short.

Horn Dancer
By Laura Waterman

A Hurloon minotaur, Hamu, finds a wounded, pregnant human, Ikenet. He takes her in and cares for her. Later she helps him in a dancing and wrestling contest that the Hurloon apparently do every year to decide which men get to breed with the most desirable women. Her acrobatic help has him win the dancing part. He loses the wrestling part, but when the minotaurs see how kind he is with the kid of Ikenet, the minotaurs find that very inspiring, since they are used to believing that during mating season male minotaurs are just raging beasts who are not in control of their actions.

This went on a bit to long. It's more an anthropological survey of the Hurloon than a proper story. Not much to say about it, except that it should be compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to write a story featuring the Hurloon. Well, perhaps a bit more could be said about it. For example, I'd be interested in reading a feminist review of this story, as you could perhaps read it as a critique of the idea that men are not in control of their rage and lust. But I'm not well versed enough in feminist literary theory to attempt that discussion myself.

Shen Mage-Slayer
By Laura Waterman

A human comes to live among a tribe of cat warriors for a while. She then leaves with another human. One of the cat warriors, Shen, follows her, and discovers the two are planeswalkers, engaged in a duel. What Shen finds most amazing is that the human who lived with them uses spectral copies of the tribe, rather than summoning members of the tribe itself!

Pretty much a non-story, but interesting it that it acknowledges the problems I've had with the way summoning is handled in the Harper Prism stories. It's almost saying "We know that societies like Hurloon or Benalia shouldn't be able to function if people are constantly being summoned away. Don't worry, here's a solution!". It doesn't explain how a place like the city we see in the Loot Niptil stories, entirely populated by summoned creatures, can exist, but I guess there are just certain groups of planeswalkers who prefer one way of summoning over the other, and a few of them always gather at that place near Sarpadia where Loot hangs out? I think that would be a pretty funny addition to Lord Windgraces backstory. Or perhaps, as I theorized last week, it's just the younger planeswalkers summoning mortals, with the older realizing they're better of summoning AEther copies, since mortal will eventually just be piles of dust.

By Edd Vick

A Granite Gargoyle realizes the city he has been guarding has actually been abandoned for centuries, and goes looking for something else to guard. He runs into a Shivan Dragon who tries to kill him. She can't though, since he draws strength from the mountain she lives in. (Get it? "R: Granite Gargoyle gets +0/+1"?) He decides to start guardian her cave. He's sure she'll come to accept him eventually.

Not hilariously so, but funny enough. It's only 6 pages, but that's about the length this joke can go for, so it works.

The Old Way to Vacar Slab
By Michael G. Ryan

The people of Kenlefia only mete out justice on Vacar Slab, a place in the middle of the desert. Considering that at the end of this story only one of the eight people send to bring the accused to Vacar Slab is still alive, this seems like a very stupid idea.

That's the entire story really. Just a bunch of people walking through the desert, dying one by one. It is told from the point of view of Ophelia, who doesn't believe in the ways of Kenlefia's religion, and only joined up since her brother insisted. She's the one survivor in the end. There are some cool moments, like when a guy who fell of a cliff and couldn't be given a proper burial comes back as a zombie, kills the guy holding the sacred wrappings, and then just starts wrapping himself. And it is cool to see our first Michael G. Ryan story, as he will later be one of the main architects of the Weatherlight Saga! The story as a whole is not that great though.

Also, it weirdly features a completely insane captain coming back from apparent dead, who is said to be an Akron Legionnaire. That really rather baffles me, as the card Akron Legionnaire has nothing to do with being indestructible or being resurrected. Furthermore, it's a bit annoying that this story was forgotten, as later stories and the Grand Creature Type Update* have assumed that Akron Legionnaires are supposed to be giants, while the captain here is a regular human. Whomever Akron is, he must accept creatures of all shapes and sizes into his military organization.

*Actually, looking into it, the Grand Creature Type Update only changed the Legionnaire into a Human Solider. Must've been a later Oracle update that changed Human into Giant...

And that's it! This turned out to be a rather longer review than usual, with all those neat cross-references to other Harper Prism stories! Those, plus the fact that the funny stories actually made me chuckle, make Distant Planes a better book than Tapestries in my eyes. It has a worse name though. Distant Planes? Most of these stories still happened on Dominaira!

Check back tomorrow for that final article giving an overview of the Harper Prism line as a whole, as well as a veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery in-depth discussion on where all this stuff happens on the timeline.

1 comment:

  1. The Defender story is flawed! If a Granite Gargoyle can draw as much red mana from the mountain as it needs to pump its toughness, shouldn't a friggin' Shivan Dragon be able to do the same for its power?!