Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Myths of Magic

The Myths of Magic
Editor - Jess Lebow
Cover Art - Michael Sutfin
Released June 2000

So, when I did The Colors of Magic I said that I was going to save the future anthologies until after the Weatherlight Saga was done, but then I realized that there was only one anthology published during the Saga, and that it introduces a minor character that will be featured in Invasion block. So although we all really want to get to Invasion, it really makes more sense to cover this book first.

Blue Moon, by Paul B. Thompson
A ropemaker tells a story to his apprentice about how the Null Moon was created. Apparently it involved a wizard giving an island magical floating stones, and then a badly treated servant tying all the floating stones down so that when the rich and powerful of the island called their stones to them the whole islands was launched into the sky. Except we know all this is nonsense, since we were told the actual origin of the Moon in The Thran, which came out only half a year earlier.

My main problem with the anthology stories is how inconsequential the stories in them are, and this is perhaps the most inconsequential one of all. The origin of the Null Moon was a mystery sometimes alluded to older sources, especially in the Harper Prism novels, but it was pretty much forgotten about during the Weatherlight Saga, and only revisited when The Thran actually ended the mystery altogether. So this story is utterly pointless. That could be forgiven if it was any good, but it is mediocre at best. Odd how Paul B. Thompson did such good work on Nemesis, but dropped the ball for two anthologies in a row now (He also did Versipellis in Colors, which I didn't care for at all)

There are a few references to stuff like Lat-Nam, the Fallaji and a currency called Korlisan korls that tie it into the larger continuity, but since all those are from the story-within-a-story they don't mean much either.

The Isle of the Lost, by Vance Moore
A pirate sees a man tied to a raft and wants to haul him in, but is stopped by another pirate. The latter then tells a story about a nearby island where a witch protected the natives from slavers with illusions, until a pirate killed her and invaded the island as revenge for having been trapped in one of those illusions for a while. But the soul of the witch went into the water and now those pirates are trapped on the island, and you shouldn't save them for fear of angering the witch's spirit.

Another pretty pointless story. Worse, this one has huge pacing problems. We spend pages on the pirate trapped in the illusions, but then in one paragraph he kills his captain and takes control of the fleet to escape. The the story suddenly jumps forward years to him invading the island. Then after he has killed the witch we are suddenly back with the storyteller, who gives us a paragraph long info dump on how the witch's soul went into the water and thus things turned out badly for the invaders, despite his actual ending his story with them triumphant. And the guy listening to him even has the gall to compliment him for "a well told tale"!

Another inconsequential story that is not saved by its quality. Were are not of to a good start for this anthology.

Leviathan, by Philip Athans
Eh... a creation myth about how a Leviathan kept a bunch of merfolk in his stomach, but then a few of them crawled into a dry bit of his body and became humans. But they didn't respect the Leviathan so he created the continents and vomited everyone from his stomach up. Oh, and the story is told by a crab to another crab. No really.

I hope I'm not offending anyone when I say this, but... I don't think myths have much going for them in and of themselves. Whether it's a cow licking a dude out of ice, or a god vomiting up the world, they are often just weird, stilted or outright nonsensical. What makes them interesting is the place they have in a culture. Not just what it teaches you about that culture, but even just the simple fact that these stories were/are important to people makes them interesting. So... what am I supposed to make of a myth from a fake society? And even worse: a fake society that does not turn up anywhere in the rest of the canon?

If they had given us an origin myth of Vodalia's Svyelunite religion, explaining the origin of their militaristic society, I would be interested. That would add something to other stories featuring the Vodalians. But this is told by a random crab to another random crab, who we'll never see again! Thus we are left with a story that is weirdly written, a bit boring and utterly pointless. Ugh.

Phyrexian Creations, by J. Robert King
Ah, now this is more interesting!

A dude called Godwyn is working in a library when he is attacked by Phyrexians and converted into one of their priests. They need him to preach the gospel of Yawgmoth (read: to lead more raids that will in turn convert more people into Phyrexians). This is all interspersed with the origin of Yawgmoth as told by the Phyrexians: how he was a god who sacrificed himself to give life to the Multiverse, and how from his shadow a hateful being called Rebbec was born who locked him out of Dominaria. That is why they think he is so bound on invading that plane: to bring his blessing to the one world that has been unfortunate enough not to receive it. Godwyn converts a woman, Kari, and makes her his second in command. They destroy New Argive and burn another library. But there Kari finds a book researching the fall of the Thran and the origin of Phyrexia. In it she reads about an excavation at Koilos that apparently found the corpse of Glacian, holding a note from Rebbec denouncing Yawgmoth. Kari feels kinship to Rebbec, another woman "trapped and transformed and enslaved", and kills Godwyn by poisoning him and then jumping into a pyre with him.

Here we have exactly what I want from something called "the Myths of Magic": a myth told by a society I know from the other Magic stories. And we get a complete, if somewhat rushed, story about how myth and history influences the people within that society to boot! It's not perfect, with the characterization painted very broadly, but it is certainly interesting! The only thing that did bug me was the fact that Glacian's corpse was apparently stuck in a crevice at Koilos this whole time (even when Gix used it as his lair in The Brothers' War!) and that all that time he was clutching a way too-perfect letter Rebbec apparently wrote between pages of The Thran. That's a bit too cutesy and neat for me.

This story might seem odd, because we often imagine the Phyrexians as mindless killing machines or hiveminded puppets controlled by Yawgmoth, but we already saw in Planeswalker and Time Streams that this isn't the case. It is more a 1984ish nightmare society where everyone is controlled through fear and indoctrination. The bizarre, at times self-contradictory, religious texts we are shown here fit perfectly in that context. It is a fascinating look into Phyrexian psychology. We haven't had this detailed a look into actual Phyrexian society (rather than Rathi, which isn't Phyrexian proper) since Planeswalker, so it is very welcome just before the Invasion begins!

A quick note on the timeline: most of these stories don't really hint as to when they happen. Certainly the stories-within-stories are vague, if they happened at all. The framing sequences mostly seem to happen in the "present day", shortly before the Invasion. If there isn't any other hint that is where I will place these stories. With a big "probably" qualifier attached of course. In this story though, New Argive is destroyed. This means that either New Argive was destroyed twice by the Phyrexians, or, more likely, that this story happens DURING the Invasion. Since Planeshift will actually include references to the Phyrexians destroying the great library of New Argive I'm sure that's supposed to be the case. Invasion only came out a few months after Myths, so J. Robert King was probably writing this story and that novel at the same time. Pretty awesome that he tied his two writing assignments together in this way!

The Deathbringer, by Jonathan Tweet
A bunch of assassins bring their apprentices together and tell them their origin story. Once upon a time death didn't exist and the world was one of never-ending pain because of that. Then one day a woman birthed four sons. The first three had the power to create quiet, stillness and forgetfulness. The final son had nothing, but stole the powers of his three brothers and combined them to create death. When the story is done the apprentice assassins attempt to kill each other, and the one who survives gets to be an assassin proper.

Another boring, pointless story. I couldn't really take it seriously from the moment I read that the creator of death had the blandest name you can imagine for a death god. "Necros", really? For the most part it is just an unpleasant slog through gory explanations of how horrible the world would be if no-one could ever die (think mutilations, old people being buried alive to make space... that sort of stuff), and again it is written like a myth, and therefore not exceptionally readable.

The strange thing is, this story could have been infinitely more interesting, at least to me, with a very simple change: Rather than having the storytellers be random assassins, make them Breathstealers! The Breathstealers were a big thing during Mirage block. They were featured in two stories in the Encyclopedia Dominia, and the fact that they were left behind in Suq'ata was one of the biggest consequences of the Mirage War. Sure, Mirage was ancient history by the time this anthology was released and I don't think the Breathstealers ever turned up again, but they are at least part of continuity, and a part that I happen to really like. The bit with Necros getting his power from his three bothers even fits perfectly with the mechanic of sacrificing Breathstealer, Urborg Panther and Feral Shadow to summon the Spirit of the Night!

Oh, there is one cool thing in here though: as Necros's mom is traveling she reaches a place "north of where the city of Estark now lies"! How awesome is it to get a reference to the setting of Arena after all these years?

Keldon Fire, by Scott McGough
A Keldon kid called Astor was raised by doyenne Tajamin and doyen Olvresk to be trained both as a warlord and in the lore of Keld. He is send into the wilds to survive, where he has a vision, or perhaps a ghostly encounter, with Kradak, the founder of Keld. After this he is a Keldon Warlord.

In the Prophecy review I said that Keld is probably the most developed culture in all of Magic's canon, and this story is another element of that. And that really is its draw, because there isn't much of a story otherwise. We get some pretty gratuitous fighting in the beginning, then lessons about Keldon history, then Astor hiking to the top of the mountain and having a weird vision quest. None of the characters are especially interesting either. But learning more about the Twilight Prophecy and Kradak founding Keld, I'm always up for that! This story even gives us Keld's most famous taunt, war cry and catch phrase: PROVE IT!

The Twilight Prophecies, and the characters of Astor, Tajamin and Olvresk gain a little more importance thanks to J. Robert King deciding to incorporate them into Planeshift, and because this story has a sequel in the Dragons of Magic anthology. This story was already elevated from "pointless" to "interesting obscurity" for me just by being about a culture I actually care about, but the fact that these characters will reappear elsewhere makes it score another few points.

Two continuity points: first, Olvresk is covered in tattoos that show he mastered Bogardan fire magic. Scott McGough will revisit this in his Legends II cycle. Second, when Kradak migrated from Parma it was apparently a land of ice giants. But we know from Shattered Chains that it is also home to Northern Paladins. It could be that the Pali's moved in later, of that the myth just made up the giants. Either way, now I kinda want to see a story showing the relationship between the Keldons and the paladins.

This story doesn't give us any hint when it happens, just that the Twilight (read: Invasion) is near. However, long ago on Scott McGough himself suggest ca. 4200 as the date for this story. It's been pointed out that that post is essentially McGough writing fan fiction, which is true. He admits himself it's but "an author's lark". We'll deal with that problem in more detail when we'll get to dating the Legends II cycle, but for the events surrounding Astor I'm going to accept the dates he has given. Like McGough says in the threat, from Astor's appearance in Planeshift it is clear this story can't have happened to long before 4205, and while the exact date is canonically unknown, when the actual author argues convincingly for a date I'm willing to give it some credence.

The Lady of the Mountain, by Will and Daneen McDermott
An old dwarf tells his granddaughter about the (supposed) origin of Dominaria: how the goddess Gaea got her brother Fiers (a kind of Hephaistos figure) to create the planet and its plate tectonics, and then populated it with life herself. Together they created the Lady of the Mountain to care for the world. At some point an unknown evil attacked the world, creating the goblins to undo it, so they created the dwarves to defend it. The Lady and the dwarves succeeded in defeating the evil, but the Lady was injured and had to hide under the earth to recuperate. Since that day the dwarves have kept her three names secret, as speaking one of those names could summon her in cases of dire need. One was (supposedly) used when the Sarpadian dwarves were about to fall to the orcs and goblins in Fallen Empires. The story ends with the old dwarf saying he's going to show his granddaughter where the Lady lies sleeping.

Another weirdly written myth about a society we have never seen before. But there are a number of things about it that make it stand out. First and foremost, it gives us a backstory for an otherwise lore-less Legendary Creature. Although I don't quite now whether I like making one Legendary Creature mythical when all the others are historical figures in the canon. I don't actively dislike it, but it is a bit weird. In addition to that the story gets a lot of points from me for incorporating the Fallen Empires story. Having all your stories take place on Dominaria when your game is supposed to be about planeswalkers exploring new worlds never made much sense, but if you do stick around on a single plane, this is the way to use that to your advantage. Harken back to your old stories, weave them all together and create a complete, compelling history for this one world!

Finally this story will also be made more important by later released sources. Co-writer Will McDermott will be the leading force behind the Odyssey storyline, where dwarves replace goblins as red's signature race. There McDermott will use bits of this story to build Otaria's dwarves society up. Most significantly Kamahl's mentor Balthor is named after the leader of the first dwarves in this story! Later J. Robert King, who seems to have really liked this anthology, will have Fiers appear in Scourge, where it is revealed he was not a god, just a planeswalker. Which I guess makes it possible the Lady is actually not a myth, but a real creation of his?

This story gives us the clearest indication when it is supposed to happen: about 4000 years after the events of Fallen Empires.

In the Blink of an Eye, by Michael G. Ryan
Some Benalish soldiers are fighting Phyrexians, waiting for another attack. To calm the nerves of two soldiers, one scared, the other dying, the commander tells the story of a lady who was so scared of death that she learned how to outrun it.

Huh. Back in Distant Planes Michael G. Ryan wrote a story where people died stupid deaths because of a religious ritual. Then in The Slowing of his Heart he writers another story about someone dying a pointless death because of a religious ritual. So when I saw he had a story here, in an anthology half filled with stories about religion, I was sure we were going to get another one of those. But apparently not. Instead he does another kind of retread: the set-up of a commander telling a story to distract a dying man was also used in The Slowing of his Heart. Hrm... between his two stories about religion-related death, two stories about telling stories to ease someone's passing, and two stories about recruiting Gerrard for the Weatherlight, I guess Ryan's thing is writing the same thing twice... how odd.

This is just a random fable. It's told by the Benalish, but it could have come from any society. If you like that sort of thing it might be for you, as it doesn't have any of the pacing or space problems that plague some of the other stories in this book. But it doesn't do much for me. The fight against the Phyrexians is utterly generic as well. It could be during the Invasion, but it could just as easily be any of the raids that have been going on since Bloodlines.

Hand of Justice, by Richard Lee Byers
Another story about an old man telling a story to a kid. In this one the Civic Guildmages summon an avatar of law called the Hand of Justice to put an end to crimes and corruption from other guilds and nobles, hoping to cash in on their opponents misfortunes with their own crime and corruption. The only one who figures this is not a good idea is Sabul Hajeen, the guy who summoned an angel to kill his enemies back in The Colors of Magic. Seems he learned his lesson from that story well. Sure enough, the Hand turns out to be uncontrollable, and also to have a horrendously draconian interpretation of with justice is. In the end Sabul teams up with the Ilmieras, the house who he was trying to exterminate back in Colors, to defeat the Hand, in the proces forging an alliance that will finally bring peace to Kipamu.

Well, that's one way of getting my attention! Sure, it's just a random adventure story, pretty decent though nothing special. But it's an obscure bit of Magic lore referencing another obscure bit of Magic lore! I live for this kind of stuff! Just about everyone else would says this also falls into the category of "pointless and random", but whatever. I'm happy with it!

The story ends with the promise of another story about Sabul, about a threat greater than either he faced so far. Richard Lee Byers didn't get to write any more Magic stories however, so I don't think it ever materialized. What a shame. (Says me, and only me.)

Timelinewise, the story with Sabul happens "ages ago" compared to the framing sequence. "Before my grandsire's grandsire was even born", says the storyteller. However, it also happens just 7 years after the events of Angel of Vengeance. This is relevant since Angel's placement on my timeline is still under review. Currently it is at "~4000 AR", but may have to be moved back. The framing sequence can't happen later than 4205, as Zhalfir will be phased out during the Invasion. So Sabul probably lived centuries earlier, which could be around 4000, but it could just as easily be much further back. What is interesting is that his time was one of civil war, which could mean he lived during that civil war Teferi fixed after returning from Tolaria. That's where I'm going to place Angel for now. The placement will not be finalized until I've covered the Mirage document however. But that will have to wait until after I've wrapped up the Invasion cycle.

Myth and the Many-Chinned Magistrate
The magistrate of Mercadia is insulted by an ambassador of Samarkeena (wherever that is), who asks "who is the Magistrate of Mercadia that he sets himself up as a god before whom all other nations must bow?" Thus the Magistrate has him tortured while being told the Mercadian origing myth. This myth involves the gods Iachem-oath and Arabeka descending from the city of the gods to bring glory to the plane of Mercadia. Halfway through a Kyren elder pipes up about the lack of goblins in the story, and suddenly the teller introduces a "green-skinned sage" among the gods.

This story should've been good, but it's a real let down. The way the Brothers' War was mythified by various societies was actually one of the cooler aspects of Mercadian Masques, so I had good hope of the same happening to The Thran here, but other than the names of the gods being bastardizations of Yawgmoth and Rebbec there is no link to that novel at all. No Dyfed, no mention of the goblin servants, no nothing. Instead we just get one of the most run of the mill origin myths in this book, interspersed with "funny" bits of the magistrate being cruel and decadent, and the torturer being unpleasant. And while this is a society we know from other stories, the fact that the myth apparently changes on the whim of a goblin means the stories apparently don't mean much to them anyway. Oh, and while we are talking about that... how the heck did the Kyren not complain about the lack of goblins in the story at an earlier point?

So... final verdict? Not good I'm afraid. The stories about the moon, the pirates, the Leviathan and the Benalish fairy tale were all utterly uninteresting to me. So was the one with the assassins, though I managed to entertain myself be pretending it featured Breathstealers. The one on Mercadia should be interesting, but failed pretty miserably. I like the Hand of Justice one, but I am probably one of the few people who does. Which leaves three of the ten stories that I can recommend. And the Keld and dwarf ones really only because later stories incorporated stuff from them into the larger canon. At the time it was released the Phyrexia story is the only one I can imagine people getting exited over. What a dreadful score. The anthology line got of to a decent start with Colors, but with its second installment it has already reached the dreadful quality level it is remembered for.

Myths also has a sample chapter from Invasion, but I will not cover that here. Nope, I'll cover it next time, alongside the rest of that novel! Strap in people, we're finally there! The climax of the Weatherlight Saga!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review as always, my friend. I do agree that much of that book (and indeed most of the anthologies other than monsters of magic in my opinion) is not super interesting. The only ones I liked were the Phyrexian priest one because it goes into their perspective and twisted beliefs and the Astor story because it had Astor in it and his blades were among my favorite characters in time spiral because Radha is an awesome character (I didn't really care for that book). Otherwise... yeah. You summed it up pretty well.