The Colors of Magic
Editor - Jeff Lebow
Cover Art - Gary Ruddell
Released February 1999
What? You thought that after Artifacts Cycle - Book I we were going to do Artifacts Cycle - Book II? Nah, we are going to look at this other thing first!
Actually, in the future I do plan to finish the book cycles before covering any anthologies or other books released simultaneously. That's much more convenient when it comes to summarizing and figuring out continuity and timeline stuff. This is something of a special case though. For starters, the Artifacts Cycle is very episodic, with most of Planeswalker taking place centuries to millennia after The Brothers' War and having a whole new setting and cast, save for Urza. More importantly though, The Colors of Magic is supposed to take place in the wake of The Brothers' War, showing what happened to Dominaria after the Sylex Blast. We'll see that some of the writers had very liberal interpretations of what "in the wake of" means, but since a number of stories do happen directly after the Sylex Blast, and some of them even pick up on the later lives of some minor characters from The Brothers' War, I thought it was best to look at it now, with that story still fresh in mind.
Angel of Vengeance, by Richard Lee Byers
Our first story sees the angle Kotara being summoned by a civic guildmage called Sabul Hajeen. Sabul's brother has been murdered, and he sends Kotara out to kill the murder, who escaped Zhalfirin justice. After that though, he starts having her kill accomplices and relatives of the killer. These evil acts start having their effect on Kotara, who changes both physically and mentally, losing her radiance and her connection to "the Divine Will". Eventually this frees her of her summons, as in the end she is no longer a creature of white mana, and thus unaffected by Sabul's summoning spell. When the family of the killer summons a demon to kill their opponent though, Kotara realizes that even despite her now being a fallen angel, it would still be wrong to let the demon wreak havoc in Zhalfir. Thus she returns and sacrifices her life so Sabul, who has seen the error of his ways, has the time to cast a killing spell on the demon.
It's funny how certain themes keep recurring in Magic, isn't it? Elves being racists (Llanowar, Lorwyn, Nissa), planes being planeswalker-proofed (Rabiah, Shandalar, Ulgrotha, Ravnica), and angels going evil (Trine, Radiant, Avacyn). That's not criticism, just an observation. The story is fine, well written, if a bit blunt with its message. Plus, I like the setting. I'm always up for more stories set on Jamuraa. Although setting the story there does mean that the premise of the anthology goes out the window right at the start. At one point Sabul says of his enemies "they hate us as Mishra hated Urza" which, while a nice world-building phrase, is a very feeble attempt to tie it in. The following stories are all better at sticking to the premise, but it's still odd that they chose to lead with this.
There is some interesting background stuff here. Kotara mentions that she fought in "the first great war against the legions of the Pit", and she answers Sabul's summons because he is a descendant of the wizards who aided the angels in that war. I've always thought it unfair that the dragons got an origin story in the Elder Dragon War while the other iconic races didn't, and whenever I imagine what the one for angels and demons would be like, I keep coming back to this story. (And to the flavor text of Demonic Hordes.) Some backstory on how some force bent of destroying the multiverse created the first demons, after which the Divine Will (let's keep it deliberately vague exactly what that is) created the first angel to stop them would be cool.
This story could also be used to explain a bit more about the inner workings of angels. They are said to be manifestations of white mana, but what does that mean? Are they incarnations of all of white's ideals? Or do they just focus on community/order/civilization/law? This story makes me lean to that last one. It seems Angels all have to follow a certain law, and if they are forced to go against that it warps their body and mind. Which might explain why we have so many crazy angels in our stories. The multiverse is just to complex and diverse for strict dogmatism. At least, that's how I look at it.
I also want to note that "the Pit", as described here, is very much a classic version of Hell, with demonic barons and knights. We saw a place actually called Hell in the story Dual Loyalties, from Distant Planes. I'd very much like it if those two places were declared to be the same plane, and that we can just call it "The Pit" from now on. In this story it is also called the Abyss, and the demon is called a Harbinger of Night, but the description of the Pit doesn't match at all with what we saw of the Abyss in Final Sacrifice, and the demon is your standard huge horned demon with wings, so those should just be seen as unfortunate descriptions.
So yeah, this short, fairly inconsequential story, could actually play a big role in fleshing out the canon surrounding angels and demons.
Considering the timeline, this has to happen before Invasion, and after Teferi's establishment of the guilds of Zhalfir. For now I'm going to put it during just before events of Mirage and Visions, but that will be a temporary position. Not too long from now I'll finally be looking at the Mirage document, and which point I'll also try to find a more definite place for this story.
Reprisal, by Tom Leupold
A guy named Finroy is apprenticed to Lord Rotchild, the king of Kjeldor. Rotchild is a great public speaker and much loved, but Finroy quickly discovers that in private he is a drunkard, a philanderer and just all-round unreliable. Thus Finroy is forced to cover for him twice, first by pretending to be him during a joust, and them again when the lord promised to kill the Scaled Wurm Rhindle only to go missing on the day. Of course Finroy is no match for the Wurm, but he accidentally lures it to a village, where the villagers team up and chase it off. In the end everyone is toasting the wisdom of Lord Rothchild in making them realize their own strength.
The writing here is actually pretty good. Tom Leupold manages to nicely build up the setting and put in a few cute character scenes, like how the otherwise stern Lord Deveraux gives Finroy a home remedy after he's bruised in the jousting. Unfortunately the story is a bit hampered by the two premises of the book. Finroy says he wants to be a historian, allowing for a mention of the Brothers' War, and that he wants to figure out how white magic works, but in the end neither has much to do with the story. You'd think that especially the white magic thing would come back with the "everybody bands together to defeat the wurm"-ending, but it's rather forgotten about.
But on to the real reason I don't like this story: Lord Rothchild. We know that Kjeldor was founded by the descendants of Oriel Kjeldos, and still ruled by the Kjeld royal family at the end of the Ice Age. Where does this Rothchild guy come from? Originally I thought we could get away with placing this story earlier in time and say that some other dynasty temporarily took over, but then he has to go and mention Lim-Dûl in one of his speeches! Luckily the story seems inconsistent in his title, sometimes calling him "king", sometimes "regent", so perhaps we could say he is the regent during King Darien's infancy, but has pretenses to being a full-blown king? Otherwise we may find salvation in the fact that he is based in Jornstad, said to be the capital of "eastern Kjeldor", which is apparently just a day's ride from Fyndhorn. So maybe he is just some kind of viceroy? I'll give this story only a temporary placement on the timeline as well. It will get its definitive place after I've covered the Ice Age cycle. Hopefully those books will give us a clearer idea of when Lim-Dûl became active in comparison to when the young Darien became king.
But even if the guy didn't cause continuity issues I wouldn't like him much. Because... what kind of name is Rothchild? Ice Age is a setting based on viking culture, and then you give the king a name of a prominent Jewish banking family established in the 1700's? That rather breaks immersion! Dropping the "S" doesn't suddenly make me not notice the connotations you know. It's as if you put a Windsor in Kamigawa, or a Aechaminid in Innistrad! It just doesn't fit!
Versipellis, by Paul B. Thompson
Some guy loses a duel over a girl. On his way back after his defeat a mysterious kid in the woods gives him the ability to turn into a bear, which he used to kill the other duelist. But then the townsfolk kill him.
Snore. You had probably guessed this from the short summary, but I don't care much for this story. I find it rather boring and predictable. The characters are not very interesting, especially not the nature spirit who just wants to screw with people for the lulz (which, by the way, is much more of a red/black thing than a green thing.) The ending is especially stupid. It has the girl the two guys dueled over coming in to the square to see the corpse of the bear that killed her lover, only to discover it has turned back into the other guy overnight. Which might have worked as a shocking, Twilight Zone style ending, but which just completely falls flat when the entire story has been told from the bear-guy's point of view and you thus know already what she's going to see.
This is the only story for which a date is given: "approximately 4000 AR". How is that "in the wake" of the Brothers' War? Well, the main character says his family was one of the richest in Epityr before the war drove them into poverty. Which is stupid on several levels. For one, you really expect me to believe that a poor family can trace their ancestors back over four millennia? In the real world not even royal houses boast such ancient lineages! Moreover, from The Duelist issue 14 we learned that Epityr was originally Darien's Roost, named after King Darien, who ruled during the end of the Ice Age! So I'm just going to assume that the family backstory is a bunch of nonsense they made up to make themselves sound more interesting.
A Song Out of Darkness, by Loren L. Coleman
I didn't cover her in the Brothers' War review, but that book features a minor character named Gwenna. She was an elf who spotted Harbin when he first landed on Argoth. She made sure he only used already dead wood to repair his ornithopter, so he wouldn't have to be killed for chopping down a tree. Obviously she wasn't happy when Harbin returned with two armies in tow that proceeded to destroy Argoth. The last we saw of her in that book was her reacting to the Sylex Blast after she had gone to the mainland to attack Urza's forces there.
This story picks up on her. She's now living in a bayou, utterly empty and world-weary. Then Temken turns up, a member of the Survivors, a group of elves that wants to rebuild their society. A malevolent presence in the bayou wants to keep the elves living there to stay though, and even tries to claim Temken as well. But he manages to convince Gwenna that things are not as hopeless as she thought by fighting the shadow. She then succeed in trapping the shadow. She dies in the process, but buys time for Temken to lead the other elves in the bayou to safety.
In the review of The Brothers' War I said I'd like to see more of the minor characters in that book. That's exactly what we get here, so I like the story for that alone. Gwenna is a good choice to follow up upon, as she clearly has some character development to go through post-Sylex. Just a shame the story is not that brilliant. Temken turns up, thinks the elves are just too depressed to listen, but it turns out to be the fault of an evil shadow. Fill up the pages with some vaguely mystical talk about Gaea's song and the circle of life... and that's it. It's especially unsatisfying as we get some characters wondering about the origin of the shadow, but never get any pay off for that. I was expecting it to be a physical manifestation of their despair, something created by the Sylex Blast, or maybe some black-mana counterpart to Titania. Anything that would tie it to the other themes of the story. In the end the story is not badly written, and it's nice to see Gwenna being forgiven and, more importantly, forgiving herself at the end, but it could've been better.
This story takes place 100 years after the Sylex Blast. Temken says the survivors are going west in search of new forests, so presumably they are the ancestors of the Yavimayan elves.
Goblinology, by Francis Lebaron
Here's two more things Magic keeps coming back to for some reason: goblins being silly, and historians fighting with one another. This "story" is actually a historical essay by one Armand Ar-basinno of the Argivian Unversity, who is convinced the Goblins of the Flarg once ruled an giant, highly cultured empire. It is interspersed with notes from Latavino Bar-bassanti, a former colleague who now thinks Ar-basinno is a complete hack. Near the end we also get some lines from a letter written by one of the Flarg. That letter clearly described the goblins playing rugby or American football (although they call it Cricket.) Ar-bassino interprets it as a grandiose religious ritual, and thinks the recurring name of "Squee" refers to a great god. Bar-bassanti correctly identifies it as a game, but says it can't have had a big impact on their culture. After all, "who can imagine any society spending a great deal of time and resources on a mere game?"
Now here is something Magic hasn't touched on very often: satire! It got a few chuckles out of me, and I did like that it wasn't too on the nose with the goblin silliness. Plus my archaeologist friends actually joke quite a bit about how their field has a habit of calling everything they can't explain a religious ceremony, so fair enough. I would've probably gotten more out of the story if I care for rugby though, and that final line is very on the nose. Still, overall a fun little story.
Again, this has little to do with the central premise of the anthology, though Ar-Bassino does think the Flarg had their empire in the "age of the Great Dark and Cold" following the Brothers' War. Between this and "Reprisal" it seems like we should interpret "in the wake of the Brothers' War" as "everything that happened on Dominaria from the end of the war until Urza returned". Which is fair enough. The Dark/Ice/Flood ages are pretty much skipped over in the Urza's block story, the comics and magazines that originally told about them had been out of print for a while at this point, and the Ice Age cycle wouldn't come along until a few months later, so might as well get some more info about those times out there.
Timelinewise this story has to happen some time after the Ice Age. Probably quite a while after it, as the next story will show that the Flarg goblins are still around during Alliances. The most likely place is thus the old "between 4000-4200" era, although for all we know it could've taken place in the theoretical future from the framing sequence of Rath and Storm. There was an Argivian University there as well, after all. With Urza's block it is hard to say if Wizards still intends for non-setting specific stories to take place in any definitive "present", as they really are publishing stories all over the timeline. I will thus be a bit more hesitant with placing any story without a clear time indication in that present, but here it really seems the most logical place.
The Crucible of the Orcs, by Don Perrin
A wizard called Elkan is goading the orcish general Jonar into attacking the Kjeldorans. Jonar just lost a big battle, so Elkan is hoping this battle will turn out to be the end of the orcs, making him a big hero in Kjeldor. He augments their forces with the goblins of the Flarg for... some reason. However, Jonar has his own plans. He makes the orcs love the goblins, who are much more capable than anyone thinks. He then has the goblins fight the Kjeldorans first. When the goblins inevitably flee he has the orcs cheer for them. Because the gobbo's don't understand orcish, they turn around and run into the charging Kjeldorans, whose charge is thus stopped, allowing the orcs to advance and rout them. Then Jonar boasts that he sacrificed the goblins like Elkan was going to sacrifice the orcs, and stabs Elkan for good measure.
The plot of story is a bit convoluted. Why does Elkan get the orcs to team up with the goblins? How can Jonar plan exactly that the goblins would flee towards the orcs, to then turn around and halt the advance of the Kjeldorans just at the right place? Apart from that though, the story really is a lot better than the summary makes it sound. There is some good character work for the orcs and goblins, who are treated a lot more sympathetically then usual.
Unfortunately this story also has some timeline issues. It takes place 100 years since the Ice retreated... but mentions Varchild as a new, up and coming general, and Kjeldor is still around. You can't really blame this story for that though. At the time the story of Alliances had never been published, with the comic being cancelled, and the novel still being almost two years away. All there was on it were short descriptions, like in The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel, which said the Flood Age lasted a few centuries. It wouldn't be until Shattered Alliance was published that Varchild was placed in the events 20 years after the Ice Age, and that the merger of Kjeldor and Balduvia into New Argive was moved to shortly after that date. It's not a huge problem though. Nothing in this story really hinges on it happening 100 years after the World Spell, so we can easily put it in the 20 years between Eternal Ice and Shattered Alliances. It's a retcon, but a fairly clean one.
There is another weird issue with this story, which is that it seems to think orcs and Balduvians are the same thing. Since the orcs live in the Balduvian mountains we could just say that the name is used by both them and the barbarians though.
The random "in the wake of the Brothers' War" reference here is that Jonar randomly runs into a bit of one of Mishra's artifacts while looking for the goblins. That's it.
Dark Water, by Vance Moore
This story revolves around two cousins living in a decrepit shack in a swamp. They used to be socialites who were thought black magic by a passing wizard, which they used to mind control and kill people for fun. Then the World Spell happened, and that somehow sapped them from most of their power. I guess they were specifically tapping one of the first swamps that was eradicated by climate change. After that they fled into the backwoods where they could only occasionally do some thrill-killings, mostly by feeding an evil spirit living in their pond. Then one day they hear of plague spreading down south and think it is a good opportunity to have some fun. But by then they are both old, and each one thinks the other will slow them down. So the both try to kill each other. The joke is on them though: the pond spirit doesn't want either to leave and animates the corpse of the last bloke they killed to drag both women into the waters.
I liked this one. It's very creepy in the banal, mater-of-fact evilness of the main characters. Its maybe a bit slight on characterization, we aren't given any explanation as to why the cousins are complete sociopaths for example, but the way they kill people just for the hell of it is rather chilling. The final twist, with the spirit wanting them both dead, is also done pretty well.
The cousins lose their initial power due to the World Spell, with this story taking place 20 years later, making it a direct contemporary of Shattered Alliance. When the south comes up they talk about a plague, which was featured prominently in Alliances and Coldsnap, as well as "armies marching", "rumors of secreted power" and "a treasure hunt". I don't have a clear idea what they mean by those things, but there are plenty of possibilities in the Alliances story. Jodah and Jaya looking for Lim-Dûl's ring in Shattered Alliances maybe? Heidar looking for Phyrexian Etchings? A general reference to Brothers' War artifacts being unearthed after the retreat of the glaciers? Marit Lage?
Oh, and if you thought the random artifact found in Crucible of the Orcs was a weak acknowledgement of the Brothers' War, here we have a single spoon made from the metal of one of Mishra's artifacts.
Expeditions to the End of the World, by J. Robert King
Here we meet captain Crucias, who is ferrying rich nobles to Argoth to witness the battles of Urza and Mishra. Cue Sylex Blast. Everyone dies except Crucias, who is blinded and crippled. As he crawls through the wreckage of his ship we learn his backstory. He used to be a swashbuckling pirate until one of the women he slept with dumped a child on him. He turned his life around to care for the little girl, but she fell ill and died. As Crucias lies dying he has a hallucination of his daughter telling him to live. Then the hallucination clears and it turns out there actually is another survivor on the ship: the daughter of one of the nobles, who was below decks on account of sea sickness. Crucias decides to live and save the other survivor.
Another good one. It's not subtle in the slightest, and it's bit "tropey" with the sick little girl that keeps the former pirate on the good path, but I think it works. I dunno. Give me a story with a dying child telling their parent to be strong and you'll probably get at least a small wibble out of me. It's a bit of a style-clash to see people using the Brothers' War as a tourist attraction, but that is precisely the point. The lightheartedness of the beginning of the story, when the nobles are complaining about the quality of the wine and such, is contrasted with the darkness after the Sylex Blast, when Crucias' eyes melt and everybody else dies.
This story has added continuity significance, as J. Robert King will later reveal that Crucias changes his name after this and becomes the interplanar smuggler Bo Levar. The fact that he's a planeswalker also nicely explains how he could survive the Sylex.
The Mirror of Yesterday, by Jonathan Tweet
A guy called Damon is apprentices to a wizard, but recently failed the test of "the mirror of yesterday". His master shaved him and put him in front of the mirror, but he failed to notice that in the mirror he still had hair. His master then told him he would never become a wizard, so Damon is feeling a bit down. While he and three other apprentices are awaiting the return of their master an assassin turns up, who wants to kill the wizard for his aid of the Kjeldorans. The apprentices flee, but are killed off one by one. Eventually Damon is the last one left, and manages to kill the assassin by using the mirror to make the assassin think she really is the healer she pretended to be when she first turned up. The ordeal makes Damon realize what his master meant when he said he would never become a wizard. Apparently an apprentice doesn't become a wizard, but is replaced by one. Eh... okay.
A middling story. On the one hand it has a good sense of urgency as the apprentices are hunted, and some clever uses of magic to make the fight scenes more entertaining. On the other hand though, the ending is just odd. The "apprentice doesn't become a wizard but is replaced by one" because "I am not my past" bit seemed... either completely nonsensical, or at least annoyingly pedantic. And if you do buy into it it the story ends on a triumphant note, with Damon having become a true wizard, but that triumph feels very out of place considering his three innocent friends have just been slaughtered.
This story also happens between Eternal Ice and Shattered Alliance. The floods are mentioned, and the knights of Stromgald are opperrating out in the open, but the School of the Unseen is still around. The only weird thing is that the assassin is described as FROM Stromgald and refers to "My lords IN Stromgald". The Knights of Stromgald weren't named after a place, but after Marton Stromgald. But perhaps they named one of their hideouts Stromgald as well, who knows.
Again, very little to tie this to the Brothers' War except in the general sense that the Flood Ages were indirectly caused by the Sylex Blast, but people do talk about how artifacts are being dug up, including those who are "remnants from a not-so-forgotten war".
Bound in Shallows, by Kevin T. Stein
This story revolves around an unnamed protagonist who is engaged in the shady business of summoning creatures and having cockfights with them for gamblers. He's got a girlfriend who is working at a casino, where the casino boss is trying to seduce her. Their relationship is clearly going nowhere, with him being way too self-centered and her not wanting to be touched by him, but instead of talking to her, the guy is convinced he just needs to defeat the casino boss to make everything all right. When his girlfriend tells him she is leaving him he actually mind controls her, forcing her to stay and to kiss him for the first time. The scene ends there, so who knows what else he makes her do. In the next scene he is facing down the casino boss. It seems like he will win, in part because he took a magical locket from his girlfriend, which was given to her by the boss. But then she herself turns up and used the little magic she has to distract the main character, making him lose the battle. Since that kills the last summoned creature he has, that also bankrupts him.
This story's main strength is its good atmosphere. It clearly shows that life is desperate for these people, and by including stuff like soldiers ravaging the countryside after returning from the war, and an extended description of what it was like to witness the Sylex Blast, it manages to show that this hardship applies to the whole land. It does have a main character who goes from unlikable to utterly despicable though, which could turn people of this story.
The stories in this anthology are ordered by color. The first two are based on white, the second two on green, then two on red, then... one on black, three on blue, and finally one about the "The Gold Border". I find it a bit odd that the colors are imbalanced. Maybe it's just a mistake though. The main character in Bound in Shallows is very much black in my opinion. His main goal is power (to defeat the casino boss), and while his main motivation is love, it's a very creepy, self-centered, possessive love. That all just screams "black" to me, so I'm tempted to count this as the second black story. Then again, maybe he is just supposed to be blue just because he uses Control Magic-like spells.
Clearly this happens in the years directly after the war. Everything is still covered in dust, the main character witnessed the Sylex Blast and soldiers coming home from the war are still wandering the land. As there are public summoner battles though, it seems likely that it happens at least a little later than the next story, Loran's Smile, in which Feldon had to search out the rare individuals with magical power.
Loran's Smile, by Jeff Grubb
Finally we have Loran's Smile, picking up the story of Feldon after The Brothers' War, written by that book's author. It starts with the death of Loran, and chronicles Feldon's attempts to bring her back to life using artifice and the five colors of magic. When Feldon finally got a card, in the Commander 2014 set, this story was posted online on Magicthegathering.com, so you really should just go and read it there.
Loran's Smile is a very well regarded story, and it certainly holds up. It's not as great as The Brothers' War itself, as there simply isn't enough space in a short story for all those little details that made that book so good, and it is written much more like a fable, with Feldon encountering user of the various colors of magic and learning a lesson from that, but it is still very good. Despite a large part of the story essentially just being an explanation of how magic and summoning works (A theme Jeff Grubb will expand upon in the Ice Age cycle), there still is a very strong emotional core, especially at the end.
For once the timeline is simple, as the story flat out states that it happens ten years after the Sylex blast. One point of interest is that Drafna and Lat-Nam still around, which is another scrap of evidence for the untangling of the Lat-Nam timeline I'll have to do somewhere down the line.
All in all The Colors of Magic is a decent book. Most stories are okay, with only Versipellis being a real clunker in my eyes. It's not stellar, and since the stand out story is now available for free online it's perhaps not one of the books you have to hunt down right away, but if you're interested in Magic's story I'd still recommend it. Especially if you are a continuity fan like me, since it adds a little more detail to the Antiquities-Alliances era of Dominaria.
If I do have a criticism of the book overal, it's that it is a bit lacking in focus. Which is perhaps to be expected from an anthology, but I think the whole package would've been stronger if the stories had more clearly stuck to a single theme. The idea of an athology showing the world in the wake of the Brothers' War is cool, but that would've worked better if all stories had happened during The Dark, perhaps with the last one showing the final onset of the Ice Age. I also like the idea of an anthology spanning the entire are that Urza was gone, but in that case it would've been cooler to ditch the color's theme and to put all the stories in chronological order. Even the colors theme itself could work, but then they really should've done two stories for each, rather than the imbalanced way the book is divided right now, and perhaps have a the two stories per color be linked somehow. Perhaps by showing the good side of the color in one and the bad side in another?
Speaking of colors, this anthology is also pretty interesting for its depiction of, well, the colors of Magic. Each one gets a short description before the first story about that color, and those really show that the color pie has developed quite a bit further since 1999. Here white is apparently the color of the scholar and of temptation? Green is thought of as jealous? Or, most bizarrely in my eyes, blue is conservative and all about acceptance? MaRo once said the old depiction of the color wheel used in various articles made him cringe, as it used terms like "parasitism" to describe black, so I wonder what he would've made of this!
And that was The Colors of Magic. Check back next time when we will take a look at the second installment of the Artifact Cycle.