Saturday, 28 March 2015

Harper Prism Wrap-Up

So I’m doing a little wrap-up post for the Harper Prism books. As I only had read the first five of them, the later held a number of surprises for me about the series as a whole, which I wanted to quickly discuss. The second part of this post will be devoted to a discussion of how to place these stories on the timeline as it has been, rightly, noted that relying on that single reference in the Pocket Players’ Guide is a bit flimsy. I'll close this article with a list of all the Harper Prism stories, listing the evidence for where to place them on the timeline for each and every one. Thus this page can function as a reference sheet for the timeline.

Quality-wise there is little that can be said about the Harper Prism line as a whole, as the quality is all over the place. The first four books are decent, but not great, although the game of “spot the card reference” adds another layer of fun. Prodigal Sorcerer, Ashes of the Sun and Dark Legacy all pleasantly surprised me with strong characterization and good world building, but some of the short stories from Distant Planes were actively painful, and Cursed Land probably deserves a spot in my top 10 Worst Magic Novels.

A much more interesting thing to note is the abrupt disappearance of pretty much everything to do with Magic the Gathering after Final Sacrifice. Cursed Land and Song of Time only reference things unique to Magic in their pro- and epilogue. Prodigal Sorcerer only bases the clothing style of the Suder on the artwork of Prodigal Sorcerer, that’s it. It really makes it feel like those books were quick cash ins, existing manuscripts with one or two paragraphs quickly rewritten to ride the Magic bandwagon. Looking back on it, it feels really weird. Especially since the first four books are tied so directly to the card game that every spell, creature and artifact is recognizable.

Perhaps that was a conscious decision. I can understand that stories about dueling wizards can’t carry a franchise forever, and maybe they wanted to give the writers more creative freedom, but still I think Harper Prism jettisoned to much. Where are the planeswalkers? Where are the colors of mana? In other words: where are all the things unique to Magic? Things pick up in the last two books, when we return to direct references to cards from The Dark and Fallen Empires, but by then it was probably to late. I can understand Wizard of the Coast's desire to get the rights to these books back. Even though some of the novels were really quite good, Harper Prism was just not handling the Magic line very well.

Now to the technical side of things. So far I’ve placed all the Harper Prism stories around 4000 years after the Brothers’War, except for the ones that specifically mention taking place elsewhen. This is based on a reference in the Pocket Players’Guide timeline. As pointed out by MORT though, this seems a bit flimsy, especially considering that when that timeline was produced only the first four Harper Prism novels had been published. Can we really assume that the claim made in the timeline also applies to the later books? 

Having now read all of the Harper Prism stories, I've come to the following conclusions. First, most of the Harper Prism stories have to happen in roughly the same time period, which we can date with certainty as happening between the end of the Ice Age and the Phyrexian Invasion. Second, I am still convinced that this period was supposed to be much narrower, and adhere to the "About 4000 years after the Brothers' War" time frame. Finally, I must admit that maybe I was a bit premature in assuming this placement was true for every single Harper Prism story, but I still think that even for the stories that have no indication as to when they happen, it makes most sense to place them in that same era. 

Let's look at the specifics.

First, the idea of a “present” setting in contrast to the “past” settings of sets like Antiquities and Ice Age is clearly present (pun very much intended) from the start. We see it in the Pocket Players’ Guide timeline, but also in the Armada comics. Ice Age and Antiquities are both explicitly said to happen in the distant past, the Homelands timeline counts back from “600 years before the present”, and there are much more examples throughout the comics. Further proof can be seen in the Encyclopedia Dominia articles, the talks about the MTG RPG set in a present day Dominaria and the forgotten archive articles Brady Dommermuth shared with us. All of these clearly mention a "present day", which is clearly the setting as shown in the original core set, when the Domains host countries like Benalia, Keld, Hurloon etc.

That is precisely the era that most Harper Prism stories take place in. For those still not convinced, the feeling that all those stories are supposed to happen around the same time is only strengthened by the cross-referencing seen in those stories, which we've especially seen in the anthologies. The Institute of Arcane Studies, recently-destroyed Oneah and Benalia all appear several times. Hurloon Minotaurs especially turn up often. (Which is logical, they were the face of the company at the time.) True, the references are to vague to say definitively how close together these stories have to happen. Surely the Institute of Arcane Studies has been around for centuries, so it’s mention in “Better Mousetrap” does not necessarily mean Teeka is contemporaneous with Aligarious. But the web of references gets so tight in the end that it seems evident to me that all those stories take place in that one “present day” setting.

What beginning and end dates can we establish for that present? We know the exact years for the first four novels thanks to that one blurb about Lat-Nam Brady Dommermuth shared with us. For the other stories things get a lot vaguer. Based purely on the references in the stories themselves, the best we can manage for a starting point for the “present” is “after the Ice Age”, since we know Benalia was founded a few centuries after the World Spell. (We know that thanks to the combination of a few obscure sources, which I promise to get to eventually!) As for the terminus… well, the world isn't a broken ruin and nobody mentions a horrible war, so I feel pretty confident in saying all this happened before the Phyrexian Invasion. The meta-reason that said Invasion had yet to be thought up, and was in a way a deliberate capstone to this era of Dominaria, also give credence to that. So "between the Ice Age and the Invasion" is the broadest period we can place these stories in.

There are some other sources that can help us narrow things down though. First and foremost the Pocket Players’ Guide timeline. That clearly states the present as about 4000 years after the Brothers’ War. That dating is granted further credibility by the dates we know for Arena and the Greensleeves saga. There is also the later official timeline, which placed all stories taking place in the present (Homelands, Mirage and even Tempest) at dates which can roughly be described with that “about 4000 years” monicker. The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel also places the Brothers’ War about 4000 years before present day. Finally there is JeffLee's site. He he mentions “the Empty Quarter”. Not the region in Saudi Arabia, but the period after the Ice Age. He doesn't go into detail, but a period named for a lack of sources about it? Called a “Quarter”, when the period between the Ice Age and “about 4000 years after the Ice Age” measures about a quarter of the post 0 AR timeline? That makes an awful lot of sense. Applying information that only comes from Jeff's site can be tricky, since he was never that clear on what was part of the behind-the-scenes info he got from talking to Wizards employees and what was interpretation, but when we have all this other data backing us up, I think we can certainly take his word for it in this case.

Considering all the above, I am convinced that most Harper Prism stories happen in a single, “present day Dominaria” setting, which can be roughly dated as between ~4000 and ~4200 AR. HOWEVER, I fully admit that technically we have no hard evidence for this. Take “Animal Trap” for example. Technically, the only aid in placing it we have is the presence of Keld, which we know (thanks to a stray reference in the novel Bloodlines) was founded halfway through the Ice Age. So technically, since we know Keld is still around after the Mending, the only date we can give “Animal Trap” is “Some time after 2650 AR”. Putting it on the timeline with that specific a date is overly cautious in my eyes though. It is a Harper Prism story, referencing a core set card, written in a period when the core set was considered as "present day", with no indications that it is supposed to take place anywhen else. All that should be enough to warrant the "~4000 to ~4200" placement on the timeline.

But what about the stories that have no in-story ties to the “Harper Prism Present”? How do we represent those? Cursed Land has, as mentioned, nothing to do with anything. “Thieves Flight” from Tapestries doesn’t appear to happen on Dominaria, and while it does feature a Serra Angel, we’ve seen those in stories taking place as far back as before the Brothers’ War, so that seems like a weak reason to count it as a “core set story”. “Shen Mage-Slayer” and “Old Way to Vacar Slab” from Distant Planes are feature cards from Legends rather than the Core Set, so what does that say about their placement? 

Personally I’m inclined to assume they also happen in the “Harper Prism present”. You could invoke some kind of narrative Occam's Razor. If so many of these stories take place in one time period, it's most likely that all of them do, unless proven otherwise. But I admit that is a very flimsy way of reasoning. Especially since we know that stories featuring cards from The Dark and Fallen Empires explicitly do not happen in the present. It seems likely that those featuring cards from Legends don't either. This brings up a fundamental question on how I want to handle the timeline. Is my main goal to make it as complete as possible, and thus allow some of my own interpretation to sneak in? Or do I want it to be as definitively as possible, and allow for as little personal interpretation as possible?

Well, I mulled that over for a while, and in the end I decided that I would place those stories on the timeline, just with a big qualifier next to it. Something like "probable placement, official date unknown". In addition there will be, as always, a link to a discussion of their placement on the timeline, which will now be this page, rather than the much shorter discussion on the Pocket Players' Guide page.

Since I really want to make my timeline as complete as possible, I've decided I will add all of these stories there as well, but with a different qualifier. Where the previous stories will get a “probable placement”, these will have to make do with something like “possible placement, actual dates unknown”.  Again, a link will be provided to this article, so that those who are really interested can check the list below for all the detail.

For all the "core set stories" I do feel justified putting them on the list without such a qualifier (But still with a link to the discussion of course). Yes, there is an element of interpretation involved, but it's an interpretation informed by a lot of circumstantial evidence. As we will see in the coming months, similar interpretations will have to be made to place Homelands, Mirage, Legends II and Kamigawa, none of which I would consider leaving off the timeline. In fact, that is one of the main reasons I do these timeline discussions. By including links in my timeline to the pages where I include my reasoning I can make the timeline as clear and complete as possible, but still make it clear where things can still possibly be altered based on a different interpretation. (Or if later sources ever demand a date to be moved.)

In the article so far I've discussed my reasoning why I've placed most of the Harper Prism stories on the timeline between approximately 4000 and 4200 AR, either definitively or as "possible placement". Below you will find a complete list of all the Harper Prism stories, plus the Introduction/Roreca's Tale story, with notes on when we can place them based on only the reference within the stories themselves.

Arena, Whispering Woods, Shattered Chains and Final Sacrifice can be dated with certainty thanks to entries of an old storyline database Brady Dommermuth shared with the community. See the review of Final Sacrifice for more details.

Prodigal Sorcerer features the Institute of Arcane Studies. Thanks to the references in Brady’s database we know the Institute was founded by refugees from the School of the Unseen, so this story must happen after the Ice Age. As the world is not wrecked, it must logically also take place before the Phyrexian Invasion. “Better Mousetrap” (Distant Planes) mentions the Institute. “Insufficient Evidence” (Distant Planes) mentions Teeka, the main character from “Better Mousetrap”. "Insufficient Evidence", “Festival of Sorrow” (Distant Planes) and “What’s In a Name?” (Tapestries) all feature the character of Grover, so they must happen around the same time, and during or after the lifetime of Teeka. This places them all in the post-Ice Age, pre-Invasion era. Further evidence of this placement is that all four short stories reference Benalia, which was founded after the Ice Age.

Ashes of the Sun happens some time after the Ice Age, and most likely before the Phyrexian Invasion, as it features societies like Hurloon, Orvada and the Voda Sea, all of which are present in many stories of that period. “Heart of Shanodin” (Tapestries) and “What Leaf Learned of Goblins” (Distant Planes”) both feature people who remember the fall of Oneah, and thus must happen around the same time, as said fall happened twenty years before Ashes of the Sun. The Rundveldt culture of goblins featured in “Dochyel’s Ride” (Tapestries) are mentioned in Ashes of the Sun. While this does not have to mean the two stories happen close together (who knows how long a goblin culture exists?), it does add to the feel of a shared, “Modern Dominarian” setting.

“Gathering the Taradomnu”, “Animal Trap” and  “The Lament” (All Tapestries) feature Llanowar, Keld and Hurloon respectively. “Chef’s Surprise” and “Horn Dancer” (both Distant Planes) feature Benalia and Hurloon respectively.  All these societies have only been seen in the post-Ice Age era. (With Benalia confirmed as having been founded after the Ice Age, and Keld as having been founded during.) This places all those stories post-Ice Age, and most likely pre-Invasion. In addition “The Lament” mentions Thomil, who was featured in Introduction/Roreca’s Tale. As Thomil is a pre-Mending planeswalker, and thus immortal, this does not mean the stories happen close to each other in time, but it does add to the feel of a shared setting. Also, as Introduction appeared in the Alpha Rulebook, it would certainly fall under the description of “present day as shown in the base sets” mentioned in the Pocket Players’ Guide.

“Foulmere” and “Dual Loyalties” (Both Distant Planes) each mention the university of Akkat. We have no idea for how long said institute was around, but as “Foulmere” explicitly happens after the Ice Age, it seems logical that both stories fall in the post-Ice Age, pre-Invasion era.

 “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Airborne all the Way” (Tapestries) features a Dwarven Demolition Team and a Goblin Balloon Brigade respectively. “Defender” (Distant Planes) features a Granite Gargoyle and a Shivan Dragon.  This could mean these stories happen during the “Harper Prism present”, but I admit the link is somewhat weak.

Song of Time, And Peace Shall Sleep, Dark Legacy, “The Brass Man Who Would Sink”, “Inherritance”, “The Going Price” (All three from Tapestries), “A Monstrous Duty” and “Distant Armies” (Both from Distant Planes) all happen at other points on the timeline. See their respective reviews for more details.

Cursed Land has no links to any other published story, and thus can not be accurately dated. It’s placement on the timeline is based on the fact that most Harper Prism stories most likely happened during the era between ~4000 and ~4200. The same can be said about Thieves Flight, The Light in the Forest, The Theft of Bayende, Wellspring, Dryad’s Kiss, Not Another Green World (All Tapestries), God Sins, Face of the Enemy, Shen Mage-Slayer and The Old Way to Vacar Slab (All Distant Planes)

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