Sunday, 24 July 2016

Time Streams

Since we last saw Urza he has hooked up with Barrin and has founded the Tolarian Academy. There they gather promising wizards and artificers from all over Dominaria and have them work on ways to combat Phyrexia in secret. Not even the students themselves know just what they are working on. Urza, who now goes by the name Malzra, is planning to travel back in time to defeat the Phyrexians before they became a thread. Since silver is the only material capable of surviving the stresses of time travel he creates a golem from the stuff. Xantcha's Heartstone is put in the golem's head, and somehow it gives him a personality of its own. This golem is of course our old friend Karn (Though one of the students, a prankster named Teferi, initially calls him Artie Shovelhead)

Keeping your plans secret from your students turns out to be a bad idea. Karn's best friend, Jhoira, is pining for a lover and thus when she discovers the shipwrecked hottie Kerrick she decides to keep him hidden from the teachers. Unfortunately, Kerrick is actually the Phyrexian Sleeper Agent K'rrick. After gathering enough information through Jhoira he summons a bunch of Phyrexian Negators who slaughter their way through the academy. With only Urza and Karn left, the golem is send back in time. He manages to stop Kerrick from summoning his troops, but the time machine overheats and- BOOM!

Ten years later Urza, Barrin and Karn, who escaped the disaster with a few dozen students and teachers, return to Tolaria. They find the island full of areas in which time is warped. Teferi is stuck in a slow time bubble. He is still on fire as from his perspective only seconds passed since the academy exploded. Elsewhere on the island whole new civilizations have risen inside super fast time bubbles. The worst news of all? K'rrick has survived in one of those zones and has been breeding Negators hoping that one day they will be able to leave that zone and attack Dominaria. The only good news is that there is one more survivor of the disaster: Jhoira, who has matured a lot thanks to surviving ten years on the time travel hell island.

A new school is build, this time more open about the enemy they will fight, though Urza still goes by Malzra. The fight doesn't go well though. The first attack on K'rrick leaves Jhoira in a coma for a decade. She does wake with an idea for how to travel between time bubbles and uses that to save Teferi, but when Urza tries to use this information to enter K'rrick's bubble to kill the Phyrexian, he barely escapes with his life.

Urza, finally revealing his identity to his students, then decides to seek help elsewhere in Dominaria. He first heads to Shiv to acquire use the Thran Mana Rig discovered there, a factory that can create Thran metal, which he uses to craft Thran Golems. Jhoira, Teferi and Karn are relocated here and discover the Rig is even more useful: it can create powerstones! Around this time Urza also gets the idea of building a flying ship to defeat the Phyrexians. Since Thran metal keeps growing, he'll need living wood to complement it, and thus he heads to Yavimaya. Unfortunately for him the Yavimayans haven't forgiven him for what he did to Argoth thousands of years ago, and lure him into a trap. There he stays imprisoned for five years, forced to feel the pain he inflicted upon the land.

All this time Barrin is left behind on Tolaria to fight against K'rrick, who has discovered how to cross the time barriers himself. He manages to stem the tide for a while, but is losing ground in the long run. Eventually the academy itself comes under siege, and Barrin is forced to activate a beacon to summon Urza. This allows the planeswalker to escape from his trap. He rounds up Jhoira, Teferi and Karn, as well as the goblin, viashino and dragon allies they made in Shiv and heads to Tolaria. But there is someone else who comes along: Multani, the Maro-Sorcerer of Yavimaya, who was stuck in Urza's head, connecting him to the land. During the battle K'rrick almost gains the upper hand, but Multani sees that the horror of Phyrexia is a far worse enemy than Urza ever was, and lends the planeswalker the energy he needs to telefrag K'rrick, after which he animates all the trees in order to slay the rest of the Phyrexians.

Then, with the main baddie dead but with a fifth of the book still to go, the story takes a bit of a sideways turn. Multani provides the Weatherseed, which allows Urza to create the ship Weatherlight. It needs a powerstone though, and those are apparently fueled by draining an area of mana. A powerstone big enough to power the ship would need all the mana of an entire plane.  Conveniently Urza suddenly feels he needs to do something about the Phyrexian infiltration of Serra's Realm, where the archangel Radiant now rules. She has been tricked by the Phyrexians into killing scores of her own people as traitors, while the Phryxians use soul torches to turn the white mana from those killed into black mana to fuel their cause.

Thus the evacuation of Serra's Realm begins, which eventually culminates in a huge battle during which Urza is almost killed when Radiant gauges out his eyes. Fortunately she tries to put the two powerstones together, which results in a blast that kills her, and in the nick of time the battle is won. The Weatherlight transports out the last refugees (apparently the ship can hold a thousand people!) and then Urza collapses the Realm into a powerstone to permanently power the ship.

We end with an epilogue in which Barrin claims Urza is now sane (hrrmm... bit overly optimistic), and that they are going dancing.

Going from Planeswalker to Time Streams is a bit odd. Planeswalker is heady, at times even bleak, full of questions about identity, body horror and a very mysterious portrayal of magic. Time Streams then suddenly starts with the teenage dreams of Jhoira, the schoolboy antics of Teferi and a very practical, matter-of-fact kind of magic. The lighthearted tone is deliberate, in order to create contrast to the horror that starts after the temporal disaster (Jhoira's team of survivors all either go insane, are ripped to shreds by time barriers or end up making suicide pacts), and the different attitude towards magic brings Urza's story more in line with the Tempest parts of the Weatherlight saga, but the change of tone still feels odd. I'd advise a little breather between the two books. I think a particularly fitting breather is reading the Ice Age cycle, since a) it covers the events on Dominaria that happen parallel to Urza's travels during Planeswalker, and b) it shows how magic went from hidden and mysterious to widespread and well known on that plane. That cycle didn't come out until later though, so it's reviews will have to wait.

Time Streams is our first full novel by J. Robert King. We've already seen some short stories of him, but this may be a good time to talk more about him in general, since we'll be seeing a lot more of this writer from now on. In a way he is the main architect of the latter Weatherlight Saga, getting to write Yawgmoth's origin in The Thran and the wrap-up to the whole thing in Invasion block. Is that a good thing? Well, he has good ideas and interesting set ups, can write decent dialogue and a good fight scene, but he can be rather sloppy as well. For example, K'rrick reveals that the Phyrexians are in Serra's Realm and Urza wants to go there immediately... but Barrin and Urza already had a conversation about the Phyrexians being in the Realm before. Now that's a mistake a good editor should've caught, but there are also some other things that don't really work. I do think the lightheartedness of the initial chapters is intentional, but later there are some attempt at humor that really feel at odds with the tone of the surrounding story. It doesn't help that it's the kind of "haha, goblins are dumb" humor I really don't like, but even if it was funny, King just doesn't manage to strike the right balance between lighthearted and dark that Jeff Grubb did manage in The Brothers' War.

So he has his downsides, but on the whole this book is pretty good. I'd say this, Born to Greatness, Karn's Tale from Rath and Storm and The Thran constitute King's good period. After that... well, we'll get there eventually.

You may have noticed that so far I'm talking a lot about the Weatherlight Saga as a whole, and the storyline in general, and not much about Time Streams individually. That's appropriate in a way. Because here we enter the part of Urza's block that really serves as a prequel to Tempest block more than a stand alone story. This is evident from the structure of the novel. It starts with a complete story arc of Tolaria vs. K'rrick, but then realizes it has not finished the origin of the Weatherlight yet, and veers into a whole new plot with Serra's Realm to explain that. A bit odd, but it works pretty well if you just accept it as a sort of second story. Like a back-up strip in a comic book.

But okay, a quick review of Time Streams itself then: Some great character work with Karn, Jhoira and Teferi, although it is odd to re-read this book and see how childish the latter two are initially when you are used to their mature personalities. Good work with Urza as well, though Barrin stays a bit of a blank slate, doing little more than commenting on Urza's state of mind. Cool settings, descent dialogue, a few attempts at humor that unfortunately don't really work (although Urza saying he and Mishra "turned out alright" got a laugh out of me) and a few glaring errors that an editor really should've done something about, but none of them deal breakers for me. Book gets a thumbs up!

  • We never learn how Urza met Barrin. That's really one of the biggest Magic storyline gaps I want filled.
  • On of those things the editor really should've caught: Urza develops artificial birds called raptors that are specifically stated to be designed as traveling faster than sound so the Phyrexians can't hear them coming. Yet every single time they are used, people respond to their noise before they can see the things.
  • Oh, and another thing that really shouldn't have made it to print: The Shivan Dragons Urza befriends in Shiv, Gheridarigaaz and Rhamidarigaaz (yes, that Darigaaz) are consistently referred to as Shivan Drakes. I mean, even if you think Dragon and Drake can be used interchangeably, you should be aware that this is referencing a very iconic card in Magic, and thus use its proper name!
  • Speaking of references, there are a few to the game that I thought were clever. Stuff like Barrin saying summoning a Leviathan would drain his resources, or using a phrasing like "every last trick has gone to the graveyard". I think they're cool, especially since they are relatively subtle. 
  • Barrin's also makes a few remarks about preparing spells that suggests his magic works like a D&D wizard.
  • K'rrick at one point succeeds in breeding Phyrexian spellcasters. That's not a side of Phyrexia you see explored very often.
  • We learn that the four great virtues of the Serran Religion are Art, Discourse, Freedom and Peace. At least two of which sound more like Red ideals these days. Which does fit her portrayal as impulsive and passionate in the Homelands comic.
  • In an instance of chucking in fantastical creatures even thought they aren't in the game (yet): there are apparently Naiads in Yavimaya.
  • Yavimaya also has some cool new titles for Urza: "Terror's Twin" and "the End Man"
  • When describing K'rrick's fast time valley, Barrin compares it to "Hades and Sheol".  Regular readers will know I do not like these obvious references to real world mythology/religion. I'm just going to pretend those are references to the plane called Hell/The Pit which I proposed in my Colors of Magic review.
  • When Radiant tears out Urza's eyes, he realizes he's a lot like Karn, in that his eyes are to him what Xantcha's heart is to the golem. Afterwards he starts showing "fatherly affection", as Jhoira calls it, towards Karn. This realization leaves Urza chastened and humbled, and is probably why Barrin thinks Urza is sane at the end of this novel. The epilogue here really is the high point for Urza: He's seemingly sane, symbolically forgiven by Dominaria through Multani, and has a number complete victories against the Phyrexians under his belt. The fact that Urza quickly abandons Karn during the next novel can be seen as the first part of Urza fall from grace, which will culminate with his actions during Invasion block... but more on that in the Bloodlines review.
  • Oh, and one last thing the editor really should've checked: the goblins of Shiv are said to have three tribes: one red scaled, one silver and one grey. Could they really not have checked that with the art director? Or even with the cards? Shiv's goblins were already shown in Urza's Saga, and all of them were green!
By the way, this may be my favorite flavor text on any Magic card.

  • Serra's Realm was intended as a beachhead for an invasion of Dominaria. Thus Urza destroying it sets the scene for Phyrexia's creation of Rath.
  • When going to Serra's Realm, Urza says he remembers Radiant. I guess he read the Urza's Saga flavor texts that explain the coming of the Phryxians to the Realm and the fight Serra had with Radiant, since that's the only place she previously appeared. She wasn't in Planeswalker. I guess Urza met her behind the scenes in that book. 
  • Archangels are now "ageless and sexless", even though they claimed to reproduce naturally and have males and females in Planeswalker. Maybe that's a continuity error, maybe it has something to do with Phyrexian manipulation. Who knows?
  • Karn briefly visits the Adarkar Wastes during a time travel test. It is described as covered in grey sand made up of ground down glass. This matches its depiction in Sisay's Quest. It doesn't really match any of its card arts, but those show its Ice Age era look.
  • Teferi doesn't seem to become a planeswalker in this book, though Urza hints that he senses a kinship in the boy, as well as a "spark of greatness". Time Spiral will later reveal that being on fire in a fast time bubble did flare Teferi's spark, but that the experience was so confusing he didn't notice it until later. 
  • There are also a few jokey references about Teferi needing to "make time" for things.
  • Back in Mirage it was said Teferi developed phasing in order to deal with "the difficulties of magical summoning", which doesn't make a whole lot of sense after the technicalities of summoning were worked out and it was established planeswalkers can summon creatures with ease. Time Streams fixes this by saying Teferi was specifically trying to deal with the difficulties of summoning in the warped time zones of Tolaria.
  • After K'rrick's Phyrexians are defeated, Teferi returns to Zhalfir to help end a civil war there, after which he becomes the royal mage of Zhalfir, setting him up for his Mirage appearance.
  • The magic that kills Radiant when she puts the Might- and Weakstone together is another one of those mysterious things the stones do. Was it the doing of the stone's mind, whether that is Glacian or some gestalt being? Or just a natural phenomenon amplified by the mirrors surrounding Serra's Aviary, which is where the scene happens?
This cover shows Radiant having gouged out Urza's eyes. The gems are there, but I never really noticed that was supposed to be what is going on here, as this angel looks nothing like Radiant on the cards.

Like The Brothers' War before it and Bloodlines after it, Time Streams is divided into a number of parts. Unfortunately unlike those other novels, those parts don't come with ready dates, so we'll have to do some more work.

Let's start with the easiest thing: When the new Academy is founded a monument is erected to the old one, which gives us its dates: founded in 3285, destroyed in 3307. Like I said in the Planeswalker review, this invalidates the original placement of the "present day" portion of that novel, which was said to have happened in 3437 AR.  The 3285 dates is also used in the official timeline though, and the novel The Shattered Alliance will use an earlier date for the "present day" parts of Planeswalker, so its clear that the dates given here will stick.

Quick note: the original version of the official timeline, given in The Duelist issue 34, explicitly states that the academy is founded in 3285. The later version from the web muddles things up a bit by just saying the Tolaria portion of Urza's Saga happens in 3285. Still, the intent is clear.

Extrapolating from that date, the entire first part of the book happens in the year leading up to the disaster at Tolaria, so in 3306-3307. Part two begins 10 years after the disaster. After that things get vague. There are a few temporal references, but they don't quite line up, or there are vague periods, at best defined as "months" or "a decade" between them. Still, Teferi says everyone is almost 25 years older than him upon coming out of the slow time bubble, and the attack on K'rrick happens at least 7 years after his that. Then we make a jump of "a decade" to Urza going to Shiv. If we assume "almost 25 years" can be 23 years, and "a decade" can be 9 years rounded up, this allows Urza to be in Shiv in 3346, which is the date the official timeline gives for "Urza's Saga: Shiv". This matches up so well that I feel we are now finally in an era during which the Continuity Team payed close attention to its timeline.

In parts three and four temporal references become even more vague, but once again the official timeline helps out. It gives the dates for Urza's Legacy as ~3346-3360. About a decade for part three does feel right (at least 1,5 years, and probably more, pass before Urza goes to Yavimaya, and he's trapped there for 5 years), and another half a decade for part four would also fit. So I'm going to assume those dates are correct.

For now I'm going to only add Time Streams as a whole to the timeline, at "3306-3360", but when the whole timeline is finally done I plan on making a more detailed version, hence this long write up of the individual parts of the book.

Oh, and one final timeline note: The Thran are now said to have lived only 6000 years ago. Those guys are getting younger by the book! But don't worry, they'll eventually settle on their "5000 years before the Brothers' War" date.

1 comment:

  1. ¡Just Awesome as Always! ¡Thanks for coming back Berend!

    Love This Trivia:

    Afterwards Urza starts showing "fatherly affection", as Jhoira calls it, towards Karn. This realization leaves Urza chastened and humbled, and is probably why Barrin thinks Urza is sane at the end of this novel.

    ¡Keep on going with this hard and astonished work which it will be the best source of magic story that I will read again for my future references in making a kind of Magic´s Lore Enciclopedia!


    PS: And thanks for the scans! :-) "Read you"