Monday, 6 June 2016


Writer - Lynn Abbey
Cover Art - R.K. Post
Released September 1998

We start with a prologue from Urza's point of view. He returns to Koilos a few years after the Sylex Blast and decides to blame all his woes on the Phyrexians. We then skip about 3000 years and see the rest of the story through the eyes of Xantcha, a Phyrexian Sleeper Agent who rebelled against her masters and is now trying to get Urza to focus on fighting against Phyrexia. Unfortunately Urza has gone completely stark raving mad in the intervening years. The story keeps switching between Xantcha and Urza in the present day on Dominaria and their previous adventures across the Multiverse.

The flashback chapters start with Xantcha being decanted from the vat she was created in, and her horrific upbringing at Phyrexia. She was intended to infiltrate Dominaria, but her generation of sleeper agents all looked the same, so the Dominarians quickly grew suspicious and killed them all. Shortly afterwards the formation of the Shard cut Phyrexia off from Dominaria altogether, after which Gix, who was in charge of the Sleeper program, was chucked into the punishment sphere for all eternity. Xantcha was then tasked with finding artifacts that might benefit Phyrexia on other planes, which eventually lead to her meeting Urza. At this point Xantcha, who has strange dreams about Dominaria and felt violated when Gix probed her mind, was already rebelling against Phyrexia in minor ways, and so she gladly joins Urza's crusade. He is already pretty far gone at this point and takes her in, assuming she's a once mortal girl who was twisted like Mishra was. A few hundred years later (this book takes big leaps of time constantly) he tries to destroy Phyrexia in an all out attack, during which Xantcha infiltrates the plane and steals her Heartstone. Urza manages to blast his way down several spheres of Phyrexia before Yawgmoth himself awakens, corrupts his mind and forces the attackers to flee.

Funny story: I learned quite a lot of my English from Magic, but I wasn't fluent yet by the time Urza's Saga came out. So for a short time I thought "Ill-Gotten" was a name, just like "il-Kor" and "il-Vec".
Afterwards Urza and Xantcha flee across the Multiverse for centuries, pursued by Phyrexian hunter-killers. Eventually they ended up on Serra's Realm, where Serra herself healed Urza from the worst damage Yawgmoth had done to his mind, though he would never be fully sane. While in the Realm Urza learned about artificial planes, how they need tending by planeswalkers and how even then they will eventually collapse. This made him realize that Phyrexia to is artificial and that the Phyrexians want to return to Dominaria before their current plane collapses. He then decided to search for the Phyrexian's home plane, a quest that eventually took him and Xantcha to Equilor, the oldest plane in the Multiverse. There he discovered that he himself created the Shard by activating the Golgothian Sylex, and since Dominaria is safe from Phyrexians, he decided to quit his crusade and build a new paradise on Equilor. This pissed of the locals, but luckily they sense the shard somehow collapses. Thus Urza once again tookup his quest for vengeance and he and Xantcha traveled back to his home plane.

Visiting his land of birth doesn't do him much good however. He spends all his time creating artifact replicas of the Brothers War, trying to figure out when the Phyrexians took over Mishra. He's too terrified of doing Dominaria more harm to actual act. So Xantcha tracks down Ratepe, a man who looks like Mishra. Or at least, who looks like the description of Mishra from Kayla bin-Kroog's epic The Antiquities War. When she brings Ratepe before Urza the man mysteriously hears the Weakstone whispering to him, which allows him to pass as Mishra convincingly. Urza, mad as ever, assumed his experiments have actually summoned Mishra through time itself. This manages to get back Urza on track, which is good since Phyrexia's newest generation of Sleeper Agents has been busy starting wars and fermenting religious hartred in the corner of former Terisiare they've been hiding on. For a year the three of them work on a plan to destroy the Sleepers, during which Xantcha and Ratepe fall in love. Less good news is that they discover Gix has been recalled from his punishment to run the new Sleeper program, and that the Phyrexians' home plane was actually Dominaria: the Thran didn't chase off the Phyrexians, the Thran used to be the Phyrexians!

Eventually the day comes when Urza activates his anti-glistening oil devices, which are triggered by the zenith of the Null Moon. All over Terisiare the Sleepers collapse, but Gix himself survives and takes the battle to Urza. After the initial skirmish he flees to Koilos. Urza follows, but Gix somehow uses the machinery there to draw Urza's powerstone eyes out of his skull. At the last moment Xantcha and Ratepe leap forward to grab them, and both they and Gix disappear in a flash of light.

For the epilogue we are back to Urza's viewpoint, who starts making plans for his further war with Phyrexia. For a moment he thinks he's alone now, but then he finds Xantcha's heartstone and realizes he'll never be truly alone.

This is another one of those cases where my bare-bones plot review doesn't really do the book justice. Where the plot tends to wander in various directions (Urza fights Phyrexia, loses. Urza flees from Phyrexia, succeeds. Urza tries to find their home plane, fails. Urza tries to destroy the sleepers, succeeds), the strength of Planeswalker lies in its characters and atmosphere. The harshness of Phyrexia, the creeping wrongness of Serra's Realm, the remoteness of Equilor and the bizarre chaos of the Blind Eternities all come across very well, and Lynn Abbey clearly had fun thinking about how the details of all these places work.

Characterwise this really is a Xantcha solo story. We get a little of characterization from Ratepe, who goes from being a nationalist to fighting for all of Dominaria, while Urza... Urza's just a rambling maniac here, an all-powerful madman who Xantcha sometimes manages to aim in the right direction. Which is fun, but it does mean that his arc in this book boils down to "being saved", while actual character work with him is saved for the next books. Luckily Xantcha herself is a fascinating character. I would say she's one of Magic's rare Black/Red heroes. She can be very selfish, and mostly wants the Phyrexians gone as a form of vengeance, but is also motivated by a desire for freedom and love. I will say her relationship with Ratepe was a bit sudden. It just sort of happens. I found much more emotion in a scene early on, when Xantcha is faced with Gix and instinctively grabs the hand of a fellow newt. It's a minor gesture to us, but the book effectively manages to get across how revolutionary this is in Phyrexia, thereby also showing us just how horrible that plane is, when even the smallest hint of affection is seen as abhorrent.

In 2015, when we got our first trans character in Magic in Alesha, I saw Xantcha brought up a lot as an example of how Magic had previously introduced non-cis characters. Phyrexians are sexless and don't have a concept of gender. Xantcha though, through her dreams of Dominaria, knew of the concepts all along, and when faced with Gix (who identifies as male, presumable since he was one of the original, once-Thran, Phyrexians) she decides to identify as female as counterpoint to him. So yes, she's definitely non-cis, but we are still well and truly in fantasy territory here. Now, I'm not the right person to be judging the way gender is handled here. I would've thought the  involvement of interplanar body horror monsters and the fact that the book treats Newts not physically being either male or female as bizarre and unique in the entire Multiverse would've put trans/non-binary people of the character of Xantcha. In quite a few of those posts I saw after Alesha's story was released however, she was actually hailed as an inspirational character, or at least a trigger for people to start thinking about their own identity. Shows you what I know. So for a deep look at that aspect I would advice seeking out other commentators. One thing I will say though, is that I personally appreciated that the subject is handled without melodrama and, what feels to me, in a mature manner. I was particularly impressed that the text didn't shy away from mentioning the challenges it posed to Xantcha and Ratepe's love and their sex life, but rather than turning that into a soap opera plot or a cue for stupid sex jokes it just discretely mentioned that they found a way to make things work.

The maturity, the original style and subject matter and the importance of this story in the canon (more on that below) make me appreciate this book a whole lot. In fact, I've always thought Planeswalker was one of the better Magic novels. So I was surprised to find some very dismissive reviews of it on the web. That got me thinking, and I guess it's true that it is a significant change of pace from the rest of the canon, with very little action and a lot of world building details instead. I can also imagine people might be put off by the vagueness of parts of it. Planeswalker very much continues the trend from The Brothers' War of making magic and the Multiverse mysterious. Even now Urza has ascended, the Might- and Weakstone are still unexplained, with their whispers to Ratepe only making them more intriguing. Or take the Equilorans, who somehow know everything in the Multiverse. It also doesn't help that the most knowledgeable of the characters around are either completely insane, in the case of Urza, or almost always lying, in the case of Gix.

The lack of action doesn't bother me much though, and even the vagueness I can live with. The good far outweighs the bad in my eyes and were I to make a list of my favorite Magic stories (maybe one day, when this blog has caught up to the present), it would rate highly on there.

  • The Phyrexians here are nice and alien. Not just in their look, but even down to the way they talk. They speak in maxims, like "Waste not want not" and "Listen and obey", a habit Xantcha retains even centuries after leaving the plane.
  • Unlike what is often said, Phyrexians don't have a hivemind, nor are they programmed, at least not literally. It's more like a 1984 or North Korea style of social conditioning. It is said many times throughout this novel that they "lack imagination", but that is clearly just one of Urza's delusions or prejudices.
  • A Phyrexian who has all his blood replaced by glistening oil is not completed, but Compleated. This also took my still-learning-English younger self a long time to realize.
  • Urza calls Phyrexians abominations throughout this book, and utterly refuses merging metal with flesh, which is an interesting thing to keep in mind when reading Urza's subsequent appearances.
  • Aparently there is only one Dominarian document that speaks about the Might- and Weakstone becoming Urza's eyes: the T'Mill Codex, supposedly Tawnos' deathbed confession.
  • Urza's first attempt at destroying Phyrexia involves attacking it with a huge mechanical dragon. Initially it has short front arms and no wings, which means Urza totally build Mecha-Godzilla. The eventual design does have wings though, as well as the lower body of a spider.
  • Planeswalker add a whole bunch of planes to any "list of planes" made on fansites. There is Moag, where Urza and Xantcha spend a few centuries before the Phyrexians track them down, Vatraquaz, which is only mentioned but not shown, Equilor, the "oldest plane" where everything in the Multiverse is known and the stars are dying, and Gastal, "a place where planeswalkers congregate". I like to think that last one is right next door from Ilcae and Cridhe and that all those old school planeswalkers are hanging out there. (See my review of Mezlok's Challenge to know what I'm talking about here)
  • Speaking of planeswalkers, two other obscure entries in every "list of planeswalkers" turn up here as well: Meshuvel, who finds Urza as he has just ascended but gets scared of his eyes and tries to trap him, and Manatarqua, who chooses to manifest as a pavilion.
  • At the heart of Serra's Sanctum lies Serra's Aviary. Presumably Serra modeled the one found on Ulgrotha on the original one in her Realm.
  • On Serra's Realm there are male angels, and the angels claim to be born. There's even a female human/male angel couple who are planning to have kids!
  • Serra herself is described as plain and looking like someone who bore a few children. I guess "plain" is a subjective term, but I never got that impression from the Homelands comic. Perhaps she changed her form to impress Feroz?

Somewhere in the depths of MTGSalvation's storyline forum there is a post of someone saying "If I was in the continuity department, I would consider it my duty to read all old stories". Brady Dommermuth, the then head-honcho of the creative team gave a surprisingly frank response, which basically amounted to "If you'd do that, you are insane." As someone who is currently doing a project to read every single old story out there, I can attest Brady's statement. It's quite time consuming, and the creative team simply has better stuff to do. But there are a few stories I would consider compulsory reading, at least in the pre-Mending era. The Ice Age cycle would be one example, for its explanations on how magic, mana and summoning work. Planeswalker would be another, for here we get our most extended look at how planeswalkers work and how the Multiverse is structured. A few of the highlights:
  • Planeswalkers are immortal and have no body, though pretty much all of them instinctively form bodies out of pure energy.
  • A planeswalkers spark is located in the mind. Agents of Artifice will later state it is located in the soul, but that is post-Mending so it might just have changed places. 
  • We get extensive views of the Blind Eternities and learn of their destructive effect on non-planeswalkers, though the name itself is not yet used.
  • For planeswalkers it feels there is a "fathomless chasm" separating artificial planes from the real ones. This is because mana lines are balanced on the real ones, but out of whack on artifical ones. That is why artificial planes will eventually collapse, and why they need a minder, usually a planeswalker, to keep them going. (This makes Urza think that Yawgmoth created Phyrexia and is a planeswalker. Maybe that was intended as true at the time, but it doesn't stick)
  • Also note that Cridhe only seemed to have green mana. Was Cridhe an artificial plane? Or just an anomaly in the Multiverse?
  • This book is also where we learn that the Multiverse is not infinite, just uncountably vast.

In addition to all that, there are two important continuity questions to be answered here. The first: Was Xantcha made from Mishra? No really. I get that this may sound ridiculous when you haven't read the book, but this is actually a subplot. Xantcha wonders where her dreams of Dominaria come from, and Gix implies he put something special in the vat that she was created in, and so the question rises whether her connection to Urza comes from her having been created from the flesh of Mishra. We don't get a clear answer (Ratepe convinces her it doesn't matter), and Gix is lying throughout the story (he also claim to have created the Might- and Weakstone, Ratepe and even Urza and Mishra themselves!) so the answer is still up in the air. Personally I think she is. To me the most convincing hint in the novel is actually a really minor one: Mishra is said to have never really been good with numbers (which lines up with The Brothers' War, where Mishra found the Thran glyphs, but Urza was the one to calculate where they were pointing towards), and later Xantcha offhandedly mentions she never got the hang of mathematics either. No direct comparison between them is made, but we the readers can figure it out ourselves without having to rely on lying praetors. You can decide for yourself, but I personally like the idea, especially since it could tie in to the answers to the second big question this novel raises...

That second question, perhaps the bigger one, is what on earth is up with the Might- and Weakstone. Already in The Brothers' War Mishra said he could hear his stone whispering, but that could be explained away as a figurative way of saying it was driving him to covet the other stone. Here though we get confirmation that the stone is actually saying stuff, as it tells Ratepe things only the real Mishra could know. So what is going on? A good while later, in The Thran, we learn that the stones were once inside the artificer Glacian, whose mind seemed to have been absorbed into the stones. So that's the explanation, right? Urza is a kind of matryoshka doll of ancient insane artificers, with a whispering Glacian in his eyes.

That raises further questions though. What is Glacian's motive to goad the brothers into war? And how much influence does he have? His actions in Planeswalker are pretty logical: he wants Urza sane (or at least saner) to get him to fight against Phyrexia. But why drive the Brothers to covet each others stones in The Brothers War? This suggest to me that Glacian isn't entirely there anymore. In the 5000 years he's been imprisoned he's either gone a bit coocoo himself, or perhaps it has always been a kind of mental echo that was trapped in the stones, and nothing more. So during the war he was probably just trying to get himself put back together again. I can also imagine you are not thinking too clearly when the powerstone that houses your consciousness has been split in two, so perhaps he only realized how much damage he had done when the stones had been reunited in Urza's head.

As for how much influence he has, it's not until the end of this novel that Urza can hear the stone in his head. Xantcha can't hear it at all, but in the Brothers' War it does seem like Urza is similarly influenced into coveting the Weakstone at a few points. So perhaps the stones can influence even those who can't directly hear it? Which opens up a whole new slew of possibilities. One theory I like is that Glacian's mind isn't entirely human anymore, really having become the spirit of a powerstone. Thus he tries to fix Urza the same way he himself was fixed: by being reunited with his counterpart. But with Mishra, Urza's obvious counterpart, being dead and gone it seeks out the nearest substitutes. Thus it manipulates Urza into finding a Phyrexian Newt made from Mishra's flesh, manipulates Xantcha into finding a man who looks just like Mishra, and eventually summons Mishra's closest living descendant Jodah (but more on that last bit when we get to Shattered Alliances.)

Another interesting idea is that the stone shouldn't be identified with Glacian at all, but that it perhaps contains a gestalt of all those who were bonded to it. It does hold the memories of Mishra after all, and in Apocalypse Karn will mention being able to hear Urza and Gerrard (though perhaps not through the stones) If that's the case it could be that Xantcha and Ratepe are now also part of that gestalt. And perhaps even Gix, the latter sowing the seeds of Urza's eventual corruption?

I'm afraid that in the end this is one of those cases where we will simply never know all the details. That we never get a clear explanation to this mystery fits with the mystical atmosphere surrounding magic in general in The Brothers' War and Planeswalker, but starting with the next novel we enter an era in which magic is treated a lot more utilitarian. Such an explanation would thus not have been amiss in The Thran or Invasion block. Unfortunately it was not meant to be. Still... it's fun to speculate.

Finally, some more minor continuity notes
  • Urza thinks his hatred of Phyrexia created the Shard, that he used the Sylex to keep the Phyrexians out of Dominaria. I'd say that is him projecting his current obsession back onto the past, given that he didn't even really know what Phyrexians were back then.
  • Xantcha suggests Urza wasn't interested in Kayla at all, but that doesn't match with what we saw in The Brothers' War. Of course, Urza barely talks about the past that doesn't involve Mishra, so Xantcha's knowledge comes from reading Kayla's account of the war, which she wrote when she was old, and probably quite bitter. Since his ascension Urza just doesn't really relate to mortals at all, but he seems to like Serra.
  • We get some views of modern day Terisiare in this novel: there is the Ohran Ridge (which eventually made it into the game!) and the countries of Baszerat, Morvern and Efuan Pincar, which lie on the island of Gulmany. The Sea of Laments lies in the middle of the old continent. Almaaz, from Song of Time, is mentioned as is Kovria. That last one really surprised me, as it is a reference to The Duelist Supplement #1, the very first telling of the Antiquities story!
  • A very minor continuity reference, but one I found cool nonetheless: slavers on Dominaria still use devices from the same basic design as Ashnod's Staff of Zegon.
  • Phyrexians send out gremlins to find artifacts that might further their cause on other planes. Which in my eyes is almost proof that those tiny toothy demons Greensleeves fought in Shattered Chains were in fact gremlins.
  • The Brotherhood of Gix was apparently already ancient when Urza was young, and the Gix they worshiped was a mountain god, which supports the idea from The Brothers' War that Gix took the name when he came to Dominaria. But in the end we see Gix's name among the Thran Glyphs after it is revealed Phyrexians were Thran. So... maybe Gix's name survived and became that of a mountain god, and then when Gix needed minions on Dominaria he infiltrated the minds of those who still remembered his name?
  • The Weakstone whispers to Ratepe that it kept Mishra alive while Gix took him apart, but that it couldn't save his mind.
  • Urza claims there are a thousand worlds inside the Shard, while the Ice Age comic talked only about a dozen. Perhaps that's a ret-con, or perhaps Urza is mistaken. He is on the outside of the thing after all.
  • A little tidbit I found interesting: when the planeswalkers gather on Gastal, Xantcha is able to communicate with the other sidekicks by speaking "a creole of elf dialects". That suggests all elves originated on a single plane.
  • The revelation that the Phyrexians were once Thran is made when moonlight reveals invisible glyphs in Koilos, which does not sound very Thran-like. But again, it could be that the post-The Thran remnants of the Thran, who also build the Nazca line-like symbols seen in The Brothers' War, made them.
  • When the Shard comes down a number of Phyrexian sleeper agents are stuck on Dominaria; I like to think those became the Priests of Yawgmoth we saw in The Interrogation and the Ice Age comic.

In the review of The Brothers' War I mentioned we were entering an era in which there was a lot more clarity about the timeline. Imagine my embarrassment when I read Planeswalker and slowly realized that there is actually a massive timeline problem in it. You see, this novel opens with a timeline that matches up pretty well with the official timeline. Because of that I never payed too much attention to the temporal references in the story itself, assuming they would match up with the timeline in the front. A closer reading shows though, that this is not even slightly true.

Let's go through the various issues one at a time. First off, the timeline in the front weirdly puts Urza and Mishra's birth a while after 0 AR, but I'm guessing that's just a printing issue.

When talking about the epilogue of The Brothers' War I already mentioned that the prologue of Planeswalker overlaps with it, and changes the date from 64 AR to "about 5 years after the Sylex Blast". It's not very clear (Urza spends a year on Dominaria, but both the beginning and the end of that year are referred to as "about 5 years after the Sylex Blast), but luckily there isn't anything else that clashes with the date, so we can easily put it at the timeline on ~69 AR. (The Sylex Blast happened on the last day of 63, but since Urza spends a a year on Dominaria it seems like most of that would fall in 69, not 68 AR.

Next we are told that "about twenty years" after the Brothers' War the first, failed, attempt at sending Sleeper Agents happened. There's no problem with that. It seems perfectly reasonable.

But then... according to the official timeline and the one at the beginning of the book, Urza doesn't meet Xantcha until 1800 AR. Yet in the story Xantcha remarks during Urza's attack on Phyrexia, that she's been gone from Phyrexia for several times longer than she had been apart of it. This is said to happen "200 summers" after Urza met Xantcha, but it's unclear how long the years on the plane they stayed on are compared to Dominarian year. Still, some time after the assault she and Urza stay on a plane called Moag, during which she is said to be 800 years old. This would require moving forward Xantcha's birth, the creation of the Shard and her meeting with Urza quite a bit! After that the whole timeline gets a bit hazy again, but it is stated that after visiting Serra's Realm (Which happens in 2500 AR according to the two timelines) they search for Equilor for over 1000 AR years. Their arrival on that plane happens before the World Spell, which would place the visit to Serra's Realm at ~1900 at the latest.

What to do about all this? My rules say stories trump articles, but also that later sources trump earlier ones, and the official timeline was updated all the way until Mirrodin block. I think I'm going to do the same thing I've done with Arabian Nights, and simply make a note that the date is contested on the timeline itself. I'll put everything at the dates of the official timeline though, since those have become universally accepted in the community.

Or you could blame Time Spiral ;)
A knock on effect of the shorter chronology used in the novel may influence the placement of events involving the Shard and Taysir. Xantcha witnesses Gix being chucked into the Punishment Sphere after the Shard locked Phyrexia out of Dominaria. If Xantcha was gone from Phyrexia for several times longer than she had lived on it prior to 800-something AR, that means the formation of the Shard has to happen way before 600 AR, which is the date from the timeline in the front of Planeswalker. It probably happened just a few decades after the Brothers' War, given that the first generation of Sleeper Agents was discovered about 20 years after, and the second generation got trapped behind the Shard. Not the biggest problem, you'd say, until you remember that Taysir supposedly came to Dominaria before the formation of the Shard, but long enough after the Brothers' War that he had to deduce its history from Kayla bin-Kroog's work. If the Shard formed so early, Taysir probably could've just talked to people like Kayla and Tawnos! To get out of this problem I'd say that the Shard probably grew over time (after all, it was supposedly created by the Sylex Blast, but didn't lock Phyrexia out for several decades.) It thus seems entirely possible it locked off the route from Phyrexia to Dominaria a long time before it made it impossible to get to Dominaria from the "direction" of Rabiah. I will thus keep to 600 AR date for the formation of the Shard, but I'll assume that this means the completion of the Shard, not its inception.

Back to something problematic for a little breather: Xantcha and Urza arrive on Dominaria in 3210 AR after 'walking for 100 years from Equilor. No problems there.

Diving right back into the problems, Ratepe says that the present day part of the story happens in 3437 AR. This however, is made entirely impossible by the very next novel, Time Streams, which put the formation of the Tolarian Academy at 3285. This date is corroborated in several other sources, so we'll just have to accept this as a ret-con. Even later, in the epilogue of Shattered Alliances, we get a reference to the present day portions of Planeswalker, which is said to happen 300 years after the main story of that book. This would be ~3250, which gives Xantcha and Urza a few decades to hang out on Dominaria before recruiting Ratepe rather than a few centuries, which works out pretty well. 'That plot of Planeswalker really isn't impacted much by this shortening.

A few more minor notices:
  • It's said that Efuan Pincar was settled 300 years ago by people originally from Argive. Accepting what I said above about Shattered Aliliances. that juuuuuust about works, as Shattered Alliances sees the creation of Argive.
  • The Equilorioans say they started their path to enlightenment 100.000 years ago, which places that event at the very beginning of the timeline, predating the Elder Dragon Wars by a long shot.
  • The Phyrexian/Thran conflict is said to have happened about 4000 years before Urza. References to it will move it backwards and forwards in time a few times over the course of the Weatherlight Saga, but eventually it will settle on ~-5000 AR.
  • Finally, the Flood Ages still going during this novel. This is significant for when the Gathering of the Sages of Minorad, from Wayfarer, is supposed to happen, as we only know it happened at the close of the floods and at the start of a new age. I had it at ~3000 AR up to this point, so I'll move it back a few more centuries. It's still not a definitive date though, as there are still a number of upcoming novels that talk about the length of the floods.
Phew, and that was Planeswalker! I've got a few smaller sources to go through next, so I plan on picking up the pace again to make up for only doing one update in May. So please join me next time when we see how The Duelist handled Urza's Saga!

1 comment:

  1. You're a great blogger, and I almost never leave comments. Great work so far! A few typos but so far you're drawing many of the same conclusions I am while also drawing some of your own. I have a timeline written out that includes a few subway napkins with scratched out events and year written all over them. Cheers!