Saturday, 10 March 2018

Johan


Writer - Clayton Emery
Cover art - R.K. Post
Cartography - Rob Lazzaretti
First released in April 2001

SUMMARY
Hazezon Tamar, the ruler of the city-state Bryce, goes into the desert to meditate. There saves a starving tiger-man called Jaeger Ojanen from jackals and vultures. On his way back he runs into a druid who gives a very cryptic prophecy:
"When none meets one, only two shall remain."
The druid then also tells him Bryce is under attack by the forces of Tirras, a city-state ruled by Johan. Hazezon mounts a counteroffensive, during which Jaeger reveals himself to be immensely quick and strong. Afterwards the two go to Palmyra, the city-state in between Bryce and Tirras, which is ruled by Hazezon's estranged wife Adira Strongheart, leader of the Robaran Mercenaries. The city initially refuses to take a side in the war, but then Johan sends assassins after both Hazezon and Adira, Those are easily defeated, and Palmyra accepts the alliance with Bryce. Adira goes on a pirating trip with her elite troops, the Circle of Seven, to pay for the war effort. (She and Hazezon were both pirates before becoming rulers.) Jaeger joins the Seven to "experience humanity".
When the pirating crew returns, they find Palmyra changed, as the building of fortifications have brought in a whole bunch of new inhabitants. There are also mysterious killings happening, which turn out to be the work of merfolk who lived in caves underneath the river who were none too happy about the dam that was created to stop Johan's boats. Hazezon makes peace with them by offering trade.

Eventually the war breaks out. The merfolk come to the aid of their new friends by draining the river completely but Tirras still seems to be winning, until Hazezon summons a giant sandstorm that swallows the opposing army. Jaeger, thinking he is bound by the Prophecy of None, One and Two, goes out to kill Johan, but is defeated and fed to a sandwurm by his opponent. Johan then heads east, looking for Jaeger's homeland of Efrava, to see if he can find and enslave the rest of the tiger warriors.


REVIEW
Yes, you read that right. Clayton Emery. The writer of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Magic novels, which were released about 6 years before Johan, and about which I wrote two years ago on this blog! There is of course no reason why he couldn't come back, but it's still surprising to see. Imagine our reaction if the next Magic Story article turned out to be written by Scott McGough or J. Robert King! Add to that the fact that this trilogy is an adaption of, and replacement for, the Jedit Ojanen comic (although this entire novel is essentially prequel, the start of the comic coinciding with the start of the next novel, Jedit), and you've got a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in a single package!

Unfortunately it's not the happiest of reunions. Too put it bluntly, this book isn't very good. The characters are flat, the conflict boring, the story stretched out to the breaking point with random monster attacks that do nothing for the plot but take up a few pages of space. And I think I know why. If we look at an archived version of Clayton Emery's website (with thanks to @SamFateKeeper for digging it up!) we find a little article he wrote on the process behind creating these books, and it is... interesting to say the least. The whole article is him griping about the weird restrictions he was given, the lack of support from the pr-department, the fact that they messed up the map he created for the book... it is of course only his side of the story, but it is clear that the collaboration wasn't going smoothly. No wonder the entire Legends I trilogy reads like the work of an writer whose heart wasn't in it.

I go into this background for two reasons. One, this book is very boring, so it is more interesting to dig up some behind-the-scenes drama. The second reason is more important though: this chaos seems to be emblematic of this period of the Magic story. We know very little about it, as WotC is very good at keeping its dirty laundry from getting out, but the few things that did come out paint a picture that suggests the storyline wasn't foremost on WotC's mind at the time. There is the Clayton Emery article I linked to above, where he paints a picture of a book department that just kept on producing novels that the pr-department then refused to promote. There is the fact that Mark Rosewater was in charge of names and flavor text for Odyssey because WotC "was between teams" in the creative department. There is the fact that R&D decided to do an entire block without merfolk while creative had already finished a first draft of a novel in which the ruler of a merfolk empire was going to be the main antagonist. Most damning of all, there is Onslaught block, where the cards tell a story that is not even close to what's going on in the novels. We don't have nearly enough of the picture to truly say what was going on, but it seems the people working on the books and the people working on the cards weren't talking. This is going to be a recurring theme for the next leg of our journey, so I thought I would highlight it here at the beginning with Emery's article, probably the biggest bit of dirty laundry that actually made it out.


I guess I do have to say something about the book though.

I've talked about "Random Encounters" on this blog before, but this trilogy uses that device much more than what we've seen so far. A quick reminder: a random encounter is a monster or obstacle put into our heroes' way that in no way contributes to the plot. I like them in roleplaying games, because there they are part of the gameplay. I like them in movies, if done well, because they can be spectacular action scenes. But I hate them in novels, because there they do nothing but take up space. Very few authors can write action scenes that are still fun to read when nothing is on the line, and you know nothing is on the line when Jaeger and Adira are fighting random pirates, or a big tree that can put people to sleep, or a big fungus that can make people angry. No one that matters is going to die before the big confrontation with Johan. Sure, a bunch of the Circle of Seven die in some random battles, but they are immediately replaced, had virtually no personality to begin with, and contributed nothing to the plot anyway.

And these random fights just go on, and on, and on... Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are just the initial attack by Tirras on Bryce. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are just Adira and her pirates putzing around on a tropical island dealing with some slavers they stumbled upon when they should be making money for the war. The last 6(!) chapters cover the attack of Tirras on Palmyra. Every one of those scenes is interesting enough to hold my attention for about one chapter. But hey, we need to fill space. In his article Emery actually wonders about how he's going to fill the first book if Jedit himself only shows up in the second, literally using the words "hmmm... calls for some padding". Well, if there is one thing you can say about this book, it's that it is well padded.

Bizarrely the final battle between Jaeger and Johan then barely covers 2 pages, which is incredibly short compared to how the book smears out the rest of the story! Surely we could've done without the second mind-altering plant to give a few more pages to the climax of the story?

At least the comic could entertain us by getting all artsy with panel borders!
On to the characterization. What there is of it. Hazezon has some, as he complains about getting old and fat. Adira is your standard loud-mouth pirate action hero. Oh, and when you put them together their whole characterization becomes "bickering". Which includes slinging knives at each other! I think we're supposed to find that funny. And... that about where the characterization ends for the good guys. Jaeger is just enigmatic, by which I mean boring, and the Circle of Seven... I can barely tell them apart. In the Greensleeves trilogy Emery also had the main characters followed around by a bunch of minor characters that each had only one or two character traits and whose main purpose was to die to give some more gravitas to the battles, but at least there they had some variety. I remember the kobold, the Northern Paladin, the kid with the artificial horse, the polyamorous lesbian soldier, the centaurs... here we have... let me check my notes. There is Simone, who is a pirate. Cole, who is a pirate. Virgil, who is a pirate. Badger, who is an old pirate. Treetop, who is a dwarf pirate. And Heath, Wilhelmina and Marygold, who are... archers. I remember that Wilhelmina is a worshiper of Lady Caleria, and that Heath is half-elf, half-Radjan Spirit, but those two survive until the end of the last novel, so I had a little more exposure to them. For all the others I have literally just told you everything I can remember about them. That's how dull they are.

But the worst thing about this entire trilogy is Johan himself. He is a good contender for worst villain in the entire canon. He seems to be evil for evil's sake, petty, ill-tempered and stupid, and we are hit over the head with his evilness at every opportunity. Whether it's small evil (He doesn't bother to learn the names of his closest, most loyal servants) or big evil (He sends his minions on suicide missions, even when there seems to be no reason to do so), Johan goes for it. What makes it even worse, is that we are constantly told about how smart, charismatic, sly and powerful he is supposed to be.

You get a good idea of just how terrible a character Johan is if you put his first few appearances in a row. Every one of the opening chapters ends with a little scene of him and while he continuously claims his superiority, he is humiliated in every one of them.
  • First he tortures random prisoners who clearly don't know anything useful. He kills them one by one until the last one gives him some basic info on Bryce that anyone would know if they just took a stroll past the harbor, but Johan claims gaining that knowledge as a victory... and then kills the final prisoner anyway. Because that's the stereotypically evil guy he is.
  • Then he talks to a captured druid about the Prophecy of None, One and Two. The druid doesn't tell him anything useful, and then manages to escape after magically filling the room with sand. The supposed super-powerful ancient wizard is trumped by a random druid.
  • In chapter three he tries to get information from a leprechaun trapped in an ancient skull. The leprechaun tricks him into getting angry and smashing the skull, freeing the creature, which then escapes. Johan then gets so angry he smashes all his artifacts in frustration. The supposed genius super-wizard is driven to impotent rage by a bloody leprechaun!
  • Finally he leads some soldiers into a spying operation on Palmyra. After learning that the city has no interest in an alliance with Bryce, he rashly orders the soldiers to try and assassinate Hazezon and Adira, which they botch, because they are soldiers rather than assassins. The attempted killing cements the alliance against him that wouldn't have gotten of the ground otherwise. But of course Johan is telling himself it doesn't matter because he has plans within plans withing plans... which we never see, as he seems to do everything on a whim.
I've never seen the supposed big bad guy be reduced to a pathetic loser this quickly. He doesn't succeed in anything, he's portrayed as petty, stupid, quick to anger, full of himself and completely ineffectual, and doesn't seem to care about anything but being evil and gaining power. At least back in the comic book he got a little speech about how he was working for the good of his homeland, which gave him a bit of character. In this novel we are told Tirras suffers from overpopulation, but Johan doesn't care about anything other than his own ego. Overpopulation just means he has more people for his army. Also of note: in the comic he was actually working for a "King Terimund", rather than ruling himself. No sign of that guy here.


One final thing I want to complain about, and then I'll move on, is the Prophecy of None, One and Two. I get that you want to keep it a bit vague, so people can speculate on just what it means, but this is too much. We really just have "When none meets one, only two shall remain", and no clues as to what is what. Throughout the books some people think tiger-men might be two, because they are two species combined, or one, because they unite those two parts in one. Or two might be Bryce and Palmyra. Or the two mountains next to Tirras. And any of those things could be true, because those numbers can mean anything.

I'd like to compare this to the prophecies in A Song of Ice and Fire. There it is also unclear what prophecies actually mean, but at least you can speculate about who "the little brother" is. And with so many characters having animal motifs you get a few options for the identity of "the drowned crow" or "the mummer's dragon". But None, One and Two? That could mean anything, thereby making any speculation pointless. Hazezon himself even calls the prophecy "very vague and, frankly, not very helpful". Unfortunately he still keeps going on about it.

TRIVIA
  • As Clayton Emery mentioned in his article, the map in the front of the book is screwy. Ever bit of text on it is shifted too far upward and to the left. It's most noticeable if you look at the compass rose. Still, it's nice to have a bit more of the huge Jamuraan supercontinent filled in, even if you have to make some mental adjustments to the map. The next two novels will reveal even more locations, which I will talk about then, but neither contains the map. Which is a shame, as it would have been a prime opportunity to fix the mistakes made here.
  • Other places that aren't on the map are Yerkov, Kalan, and the warring states of Frysmatan and Lucrezia. Presumably the later is ruled by, or named after, Princess Lucrezia. We are not told what the relationship is exactly.
  • Adira also encounters a ship called "Pride of Perth", to which Adira says "wherever that is". Funny aside or proof that Australia in located on Dominaria? You decide!
  • Hazezon mentions having sons, but we never see any. Nor are they referenced in later books.
  • Jaeger is quite catlike, curling up to sleep in front of a fire during a war council.
  • There is a halfling among Johan's forces! I find it interesting how Tolkienian/D&D concepts keep sneaking into Magic lore, but perhaps even more so that the editors didn't remove them. WotC has been pretty diligent in keeping them out of the cardgame ("don't cross the streams" is a phrase often used), but apparently that doesn't apply to the storyline?
  • Speaking of thing that are not in the cardgame, the story also features flying desert rays and huge steeds called Monoxes. But at least for those we have the excuse that they were in the original comic.

  • Hazezon says at one point that magic comes in threes. Obviously that is true for a lot of fantasy literature and myths. But... this is Magic: the Gathering! Magic doesn't come in threes, it comes in fives! Perhaps that's an odd little thing to even notice, but it just seems to me that it is such an easy way to do some unique-for-Magic worldbuilding that I'm surprised they didn't go for it.
CONTINUITY
Another hint towards the suspected behind-the-scenes chaos is a decline in the attention payed to continuity. Not that continuity was perfect before, but this era of the game will first see the contradictions between the Legends I and Legends II cycles, one of the biggest problems when creating an Magic lore timeline, then we will get to Scourge, a continuity train-wreck so bad WotC actually suggested it never happened in Time Spiral, and finally we will move into the plane-hopping era, where stories became very self-contained, with any continuity references mostly pushed into the epilogues, if there were any at all. So that will be another recurring theme for the upcoming reviews: more shoddy continuity, and less continuity overall.

For now though I will mostly just be noting a few characters that seem perfectly fine now, only to lead to horrible contradictions when we get to the second Legends trilogy. After I've reviewed those books I will do a separate article on all the problems between the two cycles (and the Greensleeves trilogy, which also gets contradicted at points) but the long and short of it is that for some characters Legends I would have to happend before Legends II, while for others they have to happen the other way around.
  • The biggest problem character is probably Xira Arien. She shows up here as a wizard working for Johan, nicknamed "The Glass Mountain". In Legends II she will play an important role and will be revealed to be a humanoid wasp creature. Now technically this book doesn't say she isn't a bug-person, but you'd think that would be worth mentioning if she was intended to be one. Note that her card wasn't errata'd into an Insect until after Legends II came out. Prior to that I also always assumed she was just a human or faerie in fancy dress. Her flavor text does mention a "Royal Masquerade" after all.
  • Oh, while we're talking about her, she has all sorts of knicknacks on her outfit, which she touches as a mnemonic device for remembering her spells, which Hazezon thinks is the mark of an amateur wizard. Personally I thought it was a neat call-back to Voska's explanation of magic to Jodah in The Gathering Dark.
  • Other problematic characters are more minor. We meet two "Archer Acolytes of Lady Caleria", but the Lady herself is only talked about. She is a god here, but will be just an elf in Legends II.
  • Finally there are two quite similar curses uttered that invoke legendary creatures: "By the Beard of Boris" and "Beard of Ragnar". Boris Devilboon and Ragnar both appear in Legends II, but we could simply say that it references other people named "Boris" and "Ragnar".
  • I'll quickly note that Boris Devilboon had another easy-to-ignore reference to him in Whispering Woods, when "Boris's Balls" was used as a curse, and that he was said to be a bogeyman for demons in Distant Planes.
  • Other, as far as I know un-problematic, curses and exclamantions used are "Scarzam's Dragon", "Lady Evangela give me strength" and "By the suffering of Sunastian". Oh, and the ship Adira and Hazezon's sailed on during their pirate days was called "Stangg's Talon."
  • AErath turns out to be a place in the mountains above Tirras. Another AErathi Berserker will be featured in Legends II, but this poses no problems. 
  • As mentioned above, the Legends I trilogy is a replacement of the Jedit Ojanen comics, but this novel ends with Johan heading east, placing it entirely before the comic. Up to this point it could almost be read as a pure prequel. There would be only one continuity issue: Here it is said that Hunding Gjornerson was the previous leader of the Robaran Mercenaries, the group of warriors from Jedit's flavor text, now headed by Adira Strongheart. Hunding disappeared 10 years ago. In the comic he was one of the mercenaries under Adira, and was still around to befriend Jedit. It's pretty odd that they changed this from the comic. Hunding could easily have been one of the Circle of Seven.
  • There are several mentions to Osai Vultures living in the desert around Bryce, but from the Shandalar comic we know that the Osai Desert is on Shandalar. I guess a random planeswalker could've introduced the vultures to Dominaria though.
  • There are a bunch of religious folk hanging around around the various cities, including Keepers of the Faith and Citanul Druids. The latter are pretty odd, as Citanul was the capital of Argoth, and thus hasn't been producing druids for millennia at this point. Thanks to some old Harper Prism stories we already have Martyrs of Korlis and Tourach worshippers hanging around post-Ice Age though, so I guess Dominarians just have a habit of reviving ancient religions.
  • There are quick references to "a prince's mansion in Corondor" and "efreeti or djinn from Rabiah". 
  • The jungle island where Adira's crew fights the slavers is compared to "the legendary forest called Pendelhaven, where all the trees are white". Jeff Lee's website "The Legends of Magic" called Pendelhaven a single tree, and the MTGWiki says it's a place in Llanowar, though I can't figure out for the life of me where that idea came from. I'll keep my eyes open for more references to it, so we can hopefully figure out the truth at one point.
  • Another exclamation used is "Fyndhorn's Fish!", which is sounds like it's just silly alliteration, but is actually pretty apt considering Fyndhorn was covered by the sea after the Ice Age ended.
  • Finally: while Jaeger is being eating by a sand wurm, Johan remembers some ancient lore on them: 
"Remants of elder land wyrms, legend made them, forlorn dragons that had lost their will to dominate. Stripped of their names and memories and magic, the sky-soarers had been cast underground to burrow in dirt like true worms."
  • Firstly: Why wyrms? Magic has wurms.
  • Secondly: it's neat to have the origin of wurms as degenerated dragons finally written down in an official source! Up to this point the only source we had on that was Jeff Lee (though later a card-of-the-day article on Magicthegathering.com would confirm Jeff's sources for this tidbit of information.) It would've been cooler still if it had also mentioned the actual elder dragon war, but alas. 
  • Also, the sand wurms here have degenerated really far from their draconic origins. Their description matches how they look in the comic, and they do not look like any dragon I've ever seen.

TIMELINE
Like I said above, at some point I will have to do an entire article on all the problems between Legends I, Legends II and the Greensleeves trilogy. Heck, even further down the line I will have to revisit that, since the placement of Legends II is caught up in the knot of the timeline placements that contains Homelands, Mirage, Legends II, Kamigawa and some references in Time Spiral. But for now we can rest easy: the Legends I trilogy actually has a very clear placement (the clearest off all stories mentioned in this paragraph), which will most likely survive all the scrutiny I will have to put it under in the future.

You see, Tirras' overpopulation is actually the result of climate change in the wake of the Worldspell that ended the Ice Age, and throughout this trilogy it is consistently said the glaciers evaporated 400 years ago. This is actually the same date given in the original comic. When dealing with time periods like that I always assume they are approximations, so I will put the story on the timeline at ~3350.

3 comments:

  1. A good analysis as always! Just a note: the page of Pendelhaven on the wiki has been updated and the reference to Llanowar removed since it was unsourced.

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  2. Beren: ¡Thanks, thanks and millions of thanks for coming back and continue to make this wonderful, and excellent blog!

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