Sunday, 29 April 2018

Odyssey


Writer - Vance Moore
Cover art - Kev Walker and Donato Giancola
Internal Art - Matt Wilson, Arnie Sweckel, Darrell Riche and Glen Angus
First released in September 2001

SUMMARY
100 years have passed since the invasion, and our story visits a continent of Dominaria we haven't seen before: Otaria, where gladiatorial battle between magic users is the main form of entertainment.

The barbarian Kamahl leaves his home in the Pardic Mountains, where there are no more challenges for him, and heads to Cabal City, where he hopes to become champion of the pits. While there he befriends a streetwise youngster named Chainer and a huge centaur named Seton, who is fighting in the pits to get a chance to talk to the Cabal about the creatures they are capturing in the Krosan Forest. Also in the city are lieutenant Kirtar, who fights to win artifacts that his religious order, imaginatively called The Order, then destroys, and ambassador Laquatus. This last character was exiled from the court of the Mer Empire by emperor Aboshan and is now plotting to return and claim the throne for himself. He has been sneaking military forces into the underground caverns that stretch from the ocean under most of the continent.



As the pit fights get underway, the city is suddenly attacked by a Krosan dragon. The pit fighters help defend against it, and Laquatus calls in his secret army to fight as well. Kamahl ends up crushed under the body of the dead creature, leading to lieutenant Kirtar getting all the glory. Kirtar is offered a pick of the Cabal vaults for his victory, but first Laquatus takes him aside and completely rewrites his memory, to make it seem like Kirtan called in the Mer creatures as part of some Order/Mer alliance. Laquatus hopes to use this to his advantage, but then Kirtar is shown the prizes, and among them he finds a small orb that emanates immense power. He takes it, gets a glorious vision of conquest, and then goes back to the Order lands after a scout tells him there have been attacks from Krosan beasts there as well. Laquatus also felt the power of the orb and heads after him, as do Kamahl and Seton. Kamahl claims he's just mad that Kirtar got the prize for his kill, but he is clearly entranced by the orb as well.

Kirtar spends some time defending the Order plains from beast attacks, but then decides to head into the forest to deal with the problem at the source. This angers the Order's leader Pianna, who recalls him to the Order Citadel just as Laquatus and Kamahl were about to catch up on him. Laquatus gets there first and infiltrates the Order, getting into their good graces after altering the memory of a captured Order soldier to think that the merfolk saved him from an attack by Kamahl and Seton, when in reality mercenaries hired by Laquatus himself were the culprits.


Seton is wounded fighting Laquatus's Anurid minion Turg and stays behind in the forest as Kamahl heads to the Citadel. He gets there just as Pianna has figured out the beast attacks on Cabal City and the Order lands were caused by the magic orb Kirtar is hauling around. Before she can act on that knowledge, the lieutenant assassinates her to gain control of the Order, but then loses control of the orb which encases the entire Citadel in crystal. Kamahl and Laquatus both try to get the orb themselves, but end up fleeing for their life. In the end it is one of Laquatus's Mer forces who gets it, but he decides to bring it back to Aboshan instead.

Laquatus returns to his emperor, who is slowly going mad with paranoia as he and his estranged wife Llawan have been sending assassins after each other (Laquatus has been sending a few more to feed that paranoia). The ambassador manages to ingratiate himself with the emperor and quickly takes over the running of government, as Aboshan sequesters himself in his chambers. Unfortunately for Laquatus the treasure vaults are a complete mess, so he can't find the orb. Aboshan has Cabal forces, including Braids, sort things out, so Laquatus bribes them to bring the orb to him if they find it. But in the end Aboshan himself decides to visit his treasure chamber on a whim and stumbles upon the orb which whispers its name to him: Mirari.


The emperor, who was always racist against land-dwellers, plans to use his new prize to flood all of Otaria but he also loses control of its power. He dies and destroys his own capitol in the process. Laquatus and Braids escape, with the latter taking the Mirari back to Cabal City.

Kamahl had meanwhile set himself up in the coastal town of Borben, as he was unable to follow the trail under the sea. The book ends with him staring down the tidal wave caused by Aboshan's use of the Mirari.

REVIEW
Ah, the Otaria Saga. That weird period between the end of the Weatherlight Saga and the beginning of the Planes-hopping era. An interesting attempt at trying something new, which never really came to fruition. As we will see in the coming months, it is a time with lots of ups and downs. Chainer's Torment makes quite a few people's "Best Magic Books" list, while Scourge regularly tops the list for the absolute worst. And while by the end it goes completely of the rails, it starts out as one of the most basic, dare I say formulaic, stories in the Magic canon.

Imagine playing Magic, but not knowing anything about the storyline. You just know the cards and the mechanics. Then someone gives you the basics of the color wheel. The philosophies of the colors, what colors are allies and enemies, that sort of stuff. Then that person tells you to come up with a setting and a story for the cardgame. Chances are your setting will look a lot like Otaria and the story a lot like Odyssey. Everything here is based on the color wheel. The continent is just two color wheels smashed together, which the southern one being upside-down. The political organisations are all mono-colored, embody their colors to the fullest and form alliances only with their allied colors. The main characters fit on the color wheel. Their friendships and animosities are linked to the color wheel. The story itself is based on the color wheel, as from the moment the plot kicks in with Kirtar claiming the Mirari we really are just following that ball across the wheel, from Kirtar's white to Aboshan's blue, to... well, I won't spoil the next two novels here. Let's just say that if you can do basic pattern recognition you should be able to make a very good guess.


Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The colors of Magic and their philosophies are a fantastic invention, so it makes sense that you want to showcase them. It's also nice to have them all balanced, as far too often the Magic story becomes about white versus black, or black versus all the other colors combined. Over the course of the Odyssey trilogy all colors get to show their good sides and bad. But I do think Odyssey goes a bit overboard by tying the whole plot to the Mirari's journey across the five regions of the continent, which makes for very choppy reading, especially in this first novel.

First we are introduced to Cabal City, but then we leave it behind to go running around on the Order plains and in Krosa. Then when the Mirari goes to the Mer Empire all that came before is completely jettisoned and we are suddenly introduced to the political machinations under the sea. At that point even our main character Kamahl is essentially out of the story, just because he can't hold his breath that long! What is especially odd is that it leads to quite a few dropped plotlines. Laquatus has this whole plan to invade Cabal City, but all that becomes irrelevant when the Mirari comes into play. Then he has a whole plotline about infiltrating the Order, which becomes irrelevant when we switch to the Mer story. Finally he has a whole plot about becoming the de facto ruler of the Mer Empire, which becomes irrelevant in the next book as Aboshan has destroyed it all... Perhaps the most random thing is the death of his bodyguard, Turg. After all the build up towards a confrontation between him and Kamahl, he instead gets eaten by a giant squid loyal to Aboshan. It's fine to surprise us by subverting your own foreshadowing, but this is bit of a let down.


But it's not all bad. There are a lot of things to like here. I like the high magic use in this story. Kamahl, Laquatus, all the dementia casters... there really is a lot of practical magic going around. There is mention of spells used in architecture, steeds have enchanted hooves for durability and speed, the Mer Empire has high class portals and telepathy... I think this is the most high magic environment so far in the storyline. Maybe Zhalfir and Shandalar could hold a candle to it, but this is the first time we really see a high magic setting in action. It's nice to see for a change, and it fits very well for a story about a game literally called Magic.

Furthermore I like the Cabal's pit fighting organisation, the Mer Empire politicking, the Order's hatred of artifacts in the wake of the Phyrexian invasion... but all of these things (well, maybe not the Order, but certainly the other two) are done way better in the next two novels. Here it all falls a little flat. We are told the ideologies and the workings of these organisations, but we are not shown it. We never get into the ideas the regular Order soldiers have on religion, Laquatus says he takes over the empire by clever politics, but it mostly happens off camera. That sort of stuff. The seeds of a great setting are here, but they do not come to fruition.

The same goes for characterization really. When I first read the book I found the characters very flat. Everyone has one shtick, and that's it. Laquatus manipulates minds, Braids is insane, Kamahl smashes... but upon rereading it I find that I like them all a lot more, because you can see the basics of their characters that will get developed further in the next two books. So at the moment I have little interesting to say about them, only that here Vance Moore lays down the groundwork for the next two writers to make these characters interesting.


Actually, there is one thing I want to talk about regarding characterization, and that is Laquatus, as he has a lot in common with Johan, who I just spend three reviews in a row bashing. Like Johan, Laquatus is also a sadist. He also makes up elaborate plans that don't work out as planned. He also fails a lot. And yet I can handle him a much better, which made me wonder: why is that?

A large part is Laquatus' telepathic link with his bodyguard/pit fighting jack Turg. This link makes Turg more intelligent, but also causes his primal viciousness to seep into his master, which makes for a very interesting dynamic. It also gives a reason for his sadism. At one point he lets Turg sabotage the mercenaries that accompanied him into Krosa just for the fun of it and I was thinking "Okay, this is going too far. Now we're into Saturday morning cartoon villain territory again". But just as I thought that, there was a scene where Laquatus realized that he had only allowed that action because Turg was getting bored and stir-crazy, which was seeping into his own mind. He then decided he should restrain himself in the future. Touche mister Moore, you knew just when things where getting too much for me and was ready with an explanation. Well done!

Which brings me to the other reason I like Laquatus more than Johan: he is never sold to us as anything other than what he really is. We were constantly told Johan was calm, collected and patient when he clearly wasn't. Laquatus admits he can get angry or scared, and accepts that he's a sadist and enjoys it. And while I do think it's odd to have the main villain lose three times in a row in his first story (by having the Mirari slip from his grasp to go to Kirtiar, Aboshan and Braids), at least he isn't still presented as an infallible mastermind. He admits he's lost and needs a new plan, and starting next novel other characters even start commenting on the fact that he messed up. It makes the character so much easier to stand.

I promise I will now shut up about Johan, as you are probably all getting sick of me griping about him after four reviews.


I am going to talk about Legends I a little longer though... specifically about the "random encounters" I complained about there. This is especially relevant as it was also a huge problem in Prophecy, Vance Moore's last Magic novel. You'd think it would also plague this book, as there is a looooooooot of fighting. First there's a bunch of pit fights to introduce Kamahl, Kirtar, Seton and Turg. Then there is a huge battle as the Krosan dragon goes all kaiju on Cabal City. Then we get a fight scene introducing Pianna, then another fight scene in which Kirtar decides to go into Krosa... it goes on and on. No wonder the community's nickname for Kamahl's was "Mister Smash" for a long time.

Like in the case of the weirdly-Naya-colored-Legend-that-must-not-be-named though, I can handle the fighting here a lot better than in Legends I. Mostly because the fights aren't just there to pad out the story. They introduce characters and their capabilities. They introduce important concepts like the internal struggle in the Mer Empire or the lure of the Mirari. They are major plot points as cause the Mirari to change hands or Kirtar to decide to invade Krosa. That is not to say it doesn't get repetitive. It does, and I could have done with a few more conflicts that were resolved with diplomacy, or just a couple fewer conflicts to make room for more quiet talks and characterization. But again, no real "random" encounters and that alone works a treat for keeping me engaged.


Finally, it's perhaps worth mentioning that this book ends, but doesn't really have an ending. The quest for the Mirari is still ongoing, and pretty much nothing is resolved. But that's fine. From Invasion onward Wizards really embraced the block format, forcing every story to come in trilogy form. We wont see another novel that I would rate highly as stand-alone until Ravnica.

Ultimately Odyssey is a pretty mediocre story, but one that introduces a setting, characters and ideas that I actually think have a lot of promise, and which we will luckily see developed a lot further in the next two novels... before being completely wasted in the next trilogy. But we'll get to that eventually.

TRIVIA
  • This book comes with a map of Otaria, which honestly is one of the less interesting ones on Dominaria. I remember Pete Venters saying one of his actions as head of continuity was to redesign Terisiare to make it look less like a misshapen potato. Well, we are firmly in potato country here. The fact that all the features are just two color wheels stapled upon the landmass isn't very inspiring either...
  • ...at least, that was what I wrote in my original draft of this review. But in the same week that I had finished it, WotC released the new map of Dominaria, which contains an entirely different version of Otaria! It's much thinner and longer, it looks more natural... it has Tamigazin, from The Prodigal Sorcerer stuck to its northern top! Ethan Fleischer has since released an article on the making of the map in which he reveals that this was always how Otaria looked on the globe Pete Venters made back when he ran the continuity department. It's a very strange situation, and it brings to mind the question we talked about in the review of The Gathering Dark: what is canon? Is it what has been released to the public (the potato-Otaria map, Dark Sphere with its flavor text claiming Barl is Lord Ith), or internal WotC documents (Pete Venter's globe, Jesper Myfors' claim Barl and Ith were always separate people)? There is no easy answer here. In this case I think Ethan did the right thing though. It would have been a shame to put that hideously bland version of Otaria on an otherwise extremely detailed map. Also, it turns The Prodigal Sorcerer from an obscure story with barely any links to the wider storyline into the backstory for the Otaria saga, with the fall of the Suder leading to the rise of the Cabal! I live for this kind of storyline integration!
  • Also, now we have two stories on the same continent in which an evil ambassador is one of the main villains. That's kinda funny.
  • I do wonder which part of new/old Otaria is supposed to be the realm of the northern Order. Is it all the way in the north, above Tamigazin? Or was it in that northern bay, but flooded/turned into swamps by Aboshan's tidal waves? That second option could actually solve a geographical screw up from the novel! Pianna claims that the attacks of the Krosan creatures follow the trajectory of the Mirari, but the whole reason Kirtar takes the Mirari north is because there have already been attacks by forest creatures on the plains. Now look at the potato map. Can you find a logical trajectory that takes these beasts through the northern planes to reach Cabal City? I sure can't. But if those plains where east of Krosa, rather than north, then it would make sense. If beasts on their way to Cabal City want to avoid the desert, they would have to go through those plains!
  • Okay. The release of the new map caused my trivia section to turn into a continuity discussion for a moment there, but lets get back to the book at hand. 
  • After the cephalid took over the Mer Empire its people have become very racist against land dwellers. Merfolk are also discriminated against because they look humanoid and can change their tails into legs. Laquatus is especially looked down upon because he looks like a handsome human. I guess his noticeably less-human 10th Edition look is him under an illusion of some sort.
  • In fact, when he's first introduced it is said he was made an ambassador to keep him away from court "like a malformed child hidden from sight." Later Aboshan thinks he banished Laquatus because of his links to Llawan though.
  • There is no evidence Chainer is a dementia caster at this point. He just seems a random streetwise kid.
  • When Kirtar is introduced we get an explanation for the Aven, Elen and Raypen that is pretty much copy-pasted from The Dragons of Magic. Unfortunately still no further explanation of those wars they fled to come to Domanaria.
  • If you believe the cardgame the Mer Empire is made up entirely of cephalids, with Laquatus being the last merfolk around. That isn't the case in the book. Not only are there more merfolk (they are still a minority, but they are around), but we also see selkies (last seen in Song of Time, and also mistrusted for their ability to turn into landwalkers), cetaceans, who are apparently just intelligent whales, sea anemone-merfolk, intelligent crabs (not homarids, not humanoid crabs, just sentient crabs. They tend to act as scribes.) tritons, who are described very vaguely as "hulking humanoids", and "molusc defenders", who don't get further description. Oh, and the military appears to be in large part made up of barracudas, giant squids, leviathans and other non-humanoid non-sentient creatures.
  • Finally there are the Tresias, deep-sea mer creatures I've always pictured them as looking sort of like murlocs. They are described thus:
"A small humanoid moved from the darkness of an overhang. Long whiskers twitched, searching the waters for scent and movement. Its body was small and its limbs spindly. For a moment it appeared harmless as it moved into the light. Then the ambassador again saw the cruel claws on its hand and feet. The sheer size always startled him, but it was the head that was most disquieting. Huge and stuffed with glassy spearlike teeth, the mouth beckoned his gaze. There in the center danced a tongue, endlessly undulating and shifting color. Blank eyes without pupils looked blindly at him as the creature swam closer."
  • Another race you rarely see in Magic, and which certainly didn't show up in Odyssey or Onslaught block, but which is present here: satyrs!
  • When Kamahl almost dies from being crushed under the dragon, it is said that "new planes of existence called to him". That sounds like foreshadowing but is actually a big red herring, as it won't be Kamahl who becomes a planeswalker at the end of the Otaria saga.
  • Barbarians have brass-colored skin, as a reference to Doc Savage. At one point Kamahl mentions "metal-hued races", suggesting there are others, but we never see them.
  • Seton gives Kamahl a giant gecko called Emerald as a steed at one point.
  • After Pianna dies someone named Bretath takes over the Order.
  • Briads is said to be too insane to fall for the lure of the Mirari. No idea why Satas, Laquatus's Tersias minion who brought the Mirari to Aboshan, wasn't seduced though.
  • We see several pit fighters with zombie limbs sewed onto their bodies, but there are also some with mechanical arms, "salvages from ancient war machines". I like the oblique reference to the Phyrexian Invasion, but...
  • The blurb on the back suggests a setting that is a lot more post-apocalyptic than what the story presents:
"The apocalypse has come and gone. The landscape is blasted, and civilization has been torn asunder. The world has turned to pit fights and blood contests where quick wits and a good grip on the blade may keep a man alive for another age."
  • This doesn't really come across in the stories. Nor in the cardgame. Otaria is in fact one of the more high-tech... eh... high-magi-tech settings we've seen so far. Not only is every major character using magic, but the Mer empire has long-range portal magic and telepathy, and the Cabal has flying sky-boxes for their arena's, standing forcefields to prevent the magic inside the pits harming the spectators and, judging by the art of Haunting Echoes and Malevolent Awakening, drones! Looking at all that I don't think of a post-apocalyptic world. I'm much more reminded of the flavor text of Tremble, which suggests Dominaria is as good as healed from the Invasion.
  • I'm not a fan of that though, as I feel it greatly lessens the impact of the Invasion. Luckily we later see the refugees from all over the globe in Onslaught and then the horrid state of Dominaria in Time Spiral, which makes clear that the Invasion did have a huge impact, it just missed Otaria for some reason.

CONTINUITY
  • In the review so far I've been referring to Braids by her card-name, but the book keeps calling her Fulla, only mentioning the "Braids" nickname when she is first introduced. This is the first of a bunch of card/book inconsistencies with the names of characters. More on this next time.
  • There is some book/card coordination though. At one point she is thinking to herself and brings up her own flavor text.
  • Speaking of book-card inconsistencies, check this description of Seton: 
"He was huge, towering over the other competitors waiting for their matches. He stood at least half again as high as the barbarian. His features were simian with glimpses of fangs showing as he breathed through his mouth. The lower body was catlike though in sheer size it reminded Kamahl of a dray horse. The fur over the body looked short and coarse. The barbarian could see the play of huge muscles under its hide as the creature shifted."
  • How on earth does an overly muscled dude towering over Kamahl end up as a measly 1/1? And what happened to his catlike body and simian features?
  • Seton fights to meet the master of games, to complain about the Cabal raiding his forest. I think that's a mistake and should refer to the Cabal First/Patriarch, because Kamahl can just make an appointment with the master of games. Or maybe this is foreshadowing that Kamahl is being set up, as we will learn in the next novel. Though I wonder if this story is that subtle.
  • Kamahl's sword is described as follows:
"...a remnant of a massive artifact from the invasion. The fighter he had defeated swore it was part of Urza's staff, but Kamahl had his doubts."
  • This description will be contradicted by the next novels, in which Kamahl not only believes this origin of the sword, it is also revealed his mentor Balthor made the damn thing, and that Kamahls dad and grand-dad both wielded it before him. In The Secrets of Magic we will then see Balthor finding the staff and turning it into the sword. I guess maybe the sword passed back to Balthor after Kamahl's dad died, and Kamahl had to defeat Balthor before the dwarf would pass it on to him? That does sound like something he would do. No way to square those supposed doubts with what we see later though.
  • The Order is a response to Urza, or at least its stance against artifacts is. They are said to be hundreds of year old though. But remember we saw in The Dragons of Magic that the Northern Order's founder was still around post-Invasion. I guess they made a big change to their ideology to focus more on destroying artifacts after the Invasion, perhaps leading to the north/south split?
  • Speaking of The Dragons of Magic, there is no mention of Pianna's appearance there. We also don't get a clear indication of how old she is supposed to be, so unfortunately there wont be a better timeline placement for the anthology story. Which brings me to...

TIMELINE
The official timeline gives us a very clear date for Odyssey: 4305 AR. Exactly 100 years after Invasion block. (According to that timeline at least, in the novels the Invasion lasted over a year, so it's exactly 100 years after the start of the Invasion on my timeline.) A bit odd perhaps to have the new story start exactly a century later, but that's what the timeline says, and there is nothing that discredits it, so that's where it goes on my timeline as well.

Shortest timeline discussion ever?


Well, that was the kick-off for the Otaria Saga! I hope you like it here, as we'll be sticking around for a couple of months. And if you don't... I dunno. Check out the Dominaria updates instead?

4 comments:

  1. The art for The Mirari Conjecture shows the approximate locations of the various Mirari-caused disasters, marked with small diamonds. So the location of Citadel is in the upper right, and that of the Cephalid Capital are in the Ilesemare Sea to the east.

    The geography was pretty inconsistent in the early Otarian books, but it settled down as the story progressed.

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  2. So, sentient crabs you say?... And you believed we wouldn't see those crabs from the Leviathan short story from Myths of Magic again! :-p

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  3. I had always explained the lack of calamitous residue on Otaria (as I noticed the same thing when I read the trilogy that Otaria doesn't feel very "post-apocalyptic-y") as a result of it's lack of importance or focus in the Phyrexian Invasion. After all, this entire continent was not mentioned once in the entirety of all Invasion-block material. Otaria just doesn't have that many key locations. It's small compared to Aerona and Jamuraa, and it isn't a hub of specific mana color sources, such as Urborg, Shiv, and Yavimaya. My guess (and head-canon explanation) is that Otaria wasn't hit very hard compared to the rest of the planet.

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    1. In The Secrets of Magic Balthor notes that while the Phyrexian plagues made it to Otaria, it was never invaded, so your head-canon is actually canon ;)

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