Saturday, 12 May 2018

Chainer's Torment

Writer - Scott McGough
Cover art - Mark Zug & Greg Stapels (back art is Laquatus's Champion)
Interior Art - Brian "Chippy" Dugan, Dana Knutson, Todd Lockwood, Anson Maddocks, r.k. Post, Mark Tedin and Anthony Waters
First released in January 2002

Our story begins before Kamahl leaves his mountain home and ends a while after Braids makes off with the Mirari, thus the entirety of Odyssey fits inside it, Russian nesting doll style.  

We open on a young cabalist named Chainer finding the Mirari in an abandoned villa outside of Cabal City. He feels its immense power, but as his greatest desire is to serve the Cabal, he returns home and hands it over to the organization. Before he can though, he is accosted by some Order soldiers led by Major Teroh, who want to confiscate the artifact. With the help of his mentor Skellum he gets past them and hands the Mirari to The First, the leader of the Cabal, who from then on takes a personal interest in Chainer's development.

The First makes the Mirari the main prize of the fighting pits to lure people in. One of those who turns up is Kamahl, who the First sees as a serious contender. He sends Chainer to befriend the barbarian. Despite never giving a hint that he was with the Cabal in Odyssey, here we learn Chainer did own up to that fact to Kamahl, but that the two stayed friends anyway. We also learn that Kamahl was being set up to be a huge moneymaker in the pits by the First. Unfortunately that Krosan dragon attacks and ruins those plans. During that attack Chainer protects the vault that keeps the Mirari from both Mer and Order forces.

While Kirtar, Laquatus, Kamahl and Seton go of one their chase across the continent, Chainer resumes training under Skellum and becomes a great pit fighter himself. In one fight he faces Jeska and Balthor, Kamahl's sister and mentor, who have come to look for the barbarian. In the heat of battle Jeska burns of Chainer's arm, so he is fitted with a mechanical replacement. Despite this he still trades information with the pair. They return home knowing Kamahl is safe.

Shortly after Kamahl returns to Cabal City, as does Braids, who returns the Mirari to the First. Kamahl and Chainer become a tremendously successful pit fighting duo, until the Cabal wants them to throw a match, at which point Kamahl walks. Around this time Skellum wants to take Chainer on "Shikar", a pilgrimage into the Krosan Forest during which a dementia summoner tags as many creatures as they can to add to their collection of summonable monsters. The First wants to foster Chainer's relationship with Kamahl to bring out his savage side though (and is maybe annoyed by the way Skellum keeps looking out for his pupil's sanity), so he arranges for Skellum to die in a pit fight against Teroh. Just before his death Skellum casts a spell that allows Chainer to see through his eyes, and tells his student "we deserve better than this, my boy".

It is thus Kamahl who accompanies Chainer into the forest. Chainer kills and claims loads of creatures, then after one fight he falls into a trance and has a vision of Kuberr, the Cabal god of avarice. While Chainer is out, Kamahl finds the corpse of a druid that defended Krosa from their incursion, thinks back of his other friend Seton, and begins having doubts about his allegiances. The two return to Cabal City to find it under attack by the Order. They help repulse the invasion, Chainer once again defending the Mirari, but Kamahl is grievously injured. The First sends Chainer into the camp to where the Order retreated and has him kill everyone inside, including Teroh. The First rewards Chainer by allowing him to use the Mirari to heal his friend. He does so by replacing Kamahl's injured flesh with that of a snake-like dementia creature. Kamahl is repulsed by this unnatural tinkering with his body, cuts and burns away his friend's "gift" and disappears into the night.

While all this is going on, we also get chapters following Rillu Veza, a merfolk send by Empress Llawan to spy on Laquatus. They make all sorts of plans, but they keep getting interrupted by what happens to the Mirari in the Odyssey plot. After Aboshan kills himself and destroys his capitol, Llawan claims the empire. Llawan and Veza head up to the huge trench through Otaria that Aboshan created with his flooding, but find that Laquatus has claimed it, triggering a civil war in the Mer Empire. Both sides open up diplomacy with the Cabal. Laquatus gets a Mirari-made minion from Chainer, to replace Turg, called Burke (aka Laquatus's Champion). He also secures a whole bunch of dementia monsters for his war.

It is at this point that Chainer starts showing signs of insanity, including an inability to sleep and hallucinations. That doesn't stop him from plotting his revenge for Skellum's death though. In exchange for his aid to Laquatus, the merfolk dug up The First's secret name in the Mer archives: Calchexas. Using this and the Mirari he attempts to kill his patriarch, but it turns out even the Mirari can't hold out against The First's Kuberr-given immortality. So Chainer instead banishes him to the southern city of Aphetto and takes over control of the Cabal.

Chainer goes ahead with the already planned Mirari Games, but these turn to chaos almost immediately when Order forces attack him in revenge of his killing of Theroh's entire camp. Chainer summons creatures to deal with the attackers, then retreats to his chambers to get the Mirari. He uses it to dump every monster in his dementia space into Cabal City, where they start an indiscriminate slaughter. Kamahl then emerges to face his old friend, and convinces him to duel fairly, without the Mirari. Chainer keeps this promise until one of Kamahl's spells blows up his mechanical arm. He then picks the orb back up to regrow his arm, but starts to lose control of the artifact. It only replaces his arm with monstrous versions. A frustrated Chainer thinks it may be overtaxed and tries to put all his summonings back into his dementia space, but... well, I can't describe it any better than the book itself...
"At first Kamahl thought his friend was coated in some kind of undulating ooze, but as he looked closer, he saw the truth. It wasn't something on Chainer's body that squirmed, it was Chainer's body. Though he still had the same build and the same shape, Chainer's arms, legs, chest, head, even his hair was now a turbulent mass of wriggling monsters. Tiny eyes looked up at Kamahl, and miniature fangs formed, struck, then melted again. Sometimes a head or a hand would rise above the surface of his skin, and snakes swam all through the unstable flesh like sharks in a feeding frenzy. His nose and mouth were only shapes, and those shapes were crammed full of tongues and scales and fingers and talons. Even his missing arm had been replaced with the cancer of living things. Worst of all were his eyes. Chainers' brilliant blue eyes had returned, and they bore mute and tragic testimony of the agony he suffered."

With his last breaths Chainer pleads with Kamahl to keep the Mirari safe. After he dies his friend burns his body and takes the artifact. Kamahl heads out, finding the city is disarray, yet numerous warriors from all sides of the conflict start challenging him for the Mirari anyway.

Meanwhile under the sea Laquatus' monster army disappeared when Chainer died, and he is driven into the chasm. Then Llawan's wizards create two humongous portals on either side of it, effectively trapping Laqautus' troops inside and creating a quick trade route across the continent for themselves.

Finally we see Braids, who was apparently warned by a vision of Kuberr to get out of the city in time. On the road she finds The First alongside the dead bodies of the minions Chainer send with him. He sends Braids on ahead to Aphetto to prepare for his coming.

Chainer's Torment is no doubt the high point of the Otaria Saga, and I've seen it make quite a few people's list of best Magic novels. So let me start of by simply listing all the cool stuff this novel has to offer.

The idea of retelling Odyssey form the Cabal point of view is cool. We get to see the scene with Kamahl meeting the master of games again, only this time we know he is being played, with the master even winking at Chainer. Or how about the scene where Chainer dismissively thinks Seton is brushing his tail after a battle, while we know he's at death's doorstep at that point. Or the scene just after Skellum dies where Braids, normally portrayed as a completely insane sadist, is actually nice, and tries to comfort Chainer (to the best of her abilities). It all adds to both the story and the characters. This is what I meant last time when I said that the fairly bland Oddysey novel became much more enjoyable the second time I read it, because scenes like these had given it all a bit more depth.

Quick aside, Chainer's attitude towards Seton also stems from the fact that he is a bit racist against centaurs, which again highlights the color-wheel-as-story motif I mentioned last time. See also: the way Chainer's unapologetic killing in Krosa begins to drive a wedge between him and Kamahl.

Speaking of that relationship, the Kamahl/Chainer interaction is also very fun. You really see them grow. In the beginning Kamahl is just a grump who accepts Chainer's help only because it allows him to make money and succeed in the pits. Later they become good friends, and you really see the two of them struggle when that friendship starts falling apart. The one thing I would have liked is a few more downtime scenes between the two. Just show them having a drink and talking about their youth, to show what their friendship is like when they are not fighting in the pits. It would also have allowed for more development of their backstory. We'll learn more about Kamahl's next novel, though not a whole lot, and Chainer's past remains murky. We know he grew up on the salt flats next to Cabal City until a dementia caster called Minat collected him... and that's about it. Which is a bit of a shame. These are cool characters, so I want to know more about them.

There are more great characters in this novel. The First is properly terrifying. McGough does a great job of describing the horror and revulsion the mere presence of this immortal with his deathly touch causes. Perhaps his plans don't make a whole lot of sense until you read his origin story in The Secrets of Magic (otherwise you're left wondering why he takes something as powerful as the Mirari just to make it a prize in a competition) but we will get to that. Still, it is fun to see Laquatus and Kamahl as puppets in his plan. Again, it really puts Odyssey in a new perspective. When I first read this story I had hoped that Judgement would pan out even further, revealing how the Mirari ended up in that mansion, and then showing all the Odyssey/Torment events from yet a higher level, with even The First being a puppet of whoever created the artifact. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

I'm going to be able to use this card as an illustration sooooo many times in the upcoming reviews...
Of course, we must talk about the break-out character of the story, Skellum. If you haven't read this book you may still have heard of him, as his introduction has made a great impression in the Vorthos community of old. Chainer is in trouble because Teroh's squad is trying to kill him, and suddenly this old man turns up with hat made of folded paper hanging from a wire construction above his head. He introduces himself by saying "My name is Skellum, and I wear a silly hat."... and then proceeds to summon horrible nightmare monsters to save the day. It's hard to imagine a more instantly memorable character than him. No wonder he gets mentions so often when people talk about characters who should've gotten a card. Also no wonder that that introduction is always suggested for the flavor text.

Don't mistake him for just a comedy character though. Another great thing about him is that he is the one "good" (or as close to good as can be) character in the Cabal. He really cares for Chainer, and wants to spare him the faith of his previous trainees, who went mad from all the dementia magic they practiced. He tells Chainer to "never forget worldly delights, my boy", which is another great line, and he keeps trying to sway the First from pushing Chainer too far too soon, which is probably what gets him killed in the end. He is the one sane man among the Cabal, even though even he occasionally falls into fugue states due to the effects of dementia magic. Even the silly hat has an explanation, as spinning the thing around so that it sometimes covers his eyes and sometimes doesn't has a hypnotizing effect, which is what allows him to reach his dementia space.

Now for the problems I have with this book. First, the Veza/Laquatus plot a bit bleh, especially the first parts that are constantly made redundant by the events from Odyssey. Veza spies on Laquatus in the city... but then he leaves the city to follow the Mirari. Llawan makes a plan for a civil war against Aboshan... but then he kills himself. Only after that does anything resembling a proper plot develop with Laquatus outright claiming the trench and the civil war breaking out, but it is still very peripheral to the main plot. It really feels like it's just there to give Laquatus something to do until he can become the main baddy again next time. It is also weirdly out of sync with the rest of the story, as Laquatus has Burke by his side many chapters before Chainer actually creates him.

What really lets Chainer's Torment down though, is just that it doesn't stand alone. Yes, Chainer's story is completed, but huge chunks of the book are devoted to deepening the story of Odyssey, or to setting up the events of Judgment. There is of course nothing wrong with a fully serialized story, so I do not begrudge Torment for that, but the fact remains that by writing this way you tie the success of your novel to the other parts of your story. And unfortunately in this case those other parts are a) not all of the same quality, and b) not very well coordinated.

I'm kind off stepping on the toes of my own continuity section here, but in this case the bad continuity really effects the quality of the story. Odyssey ends with Kamahl staring down a tidal wave. This story has no explanation for how he survived, and even has him somehow show up in Cabal City before Braids and Laquatus! The ending of this novel is then contradicted by the beginning of Judgment. Worse, the main motivation of Kamahl and Laquatus to come to Cabal City is said to be the lure of the Mirari. Jeska even says Kamahl could talk of little else back in the mountains. This contradicts Odyssey again, which spend entire chapters on those guys learning about the artifact and being seduced by it, after they came to Cabal City! Add to that a bunch of inconsistencies in the names of characters between the three novels of the Odyssey cycle, and I really have to start deducting points just for sloppy editing.

Is Chainer's Torment a good story? Yes. I enjoyed it a whole lot. It has great character work, lovely world building and a lot of imagination. But there is also a lot that feels very vague or superfluous unless you read the rest of the Otaria saga. I'm not sure I would recommend it as a standalone story, and anything that comes with the disclaimer "you also have to read Scourge" is not making it into my "Best Off" list. But I know a lot of people disagree with me here, and say that it does hold up on its own. Which makes this review one of the ones where I am really interested in your opinion. Does Chainer's Torment hold up for you? Do you think it can stand on its own? Let me know in the comments!

  • If you are wondering why I´m calling this novel "Chainer's Torment" rather than just "Torment", look veeeeeeery closely to the logo. You really have to squint to see the "Chainer's" in the title, but it is there!
  • Scott McGough is clearly having fun while developing the Cabal, as they have loads of cool quirks. Their name/nickname/secret name set up, the creepy family dynamic they have, their greeting of "The Cabal is here", with its customary response "And everywhere", all of the weirdness surrounding dementia casting... all put together it makes the Cabal by far the most well developed and unique part of the setting. I fully understand that for Dominaria they decided that the Cabal were the one thing worth bringing back from Otaria. Although the new Cabal does seem to be a more generic death cult, with more generic "make your worst fear come true" dementia magic so far.
  • About that naming scheme, Chainer's secret name is Mazeura, and Skellum's is Cybariss. Note that these are not their birthnames. We will learn in The Secrets of Magic that The First's birth name is Virot Maglan, but his secret name is Calchexas. The First got his secret name from Kuberr, the rest of the Cabal got theirs from The First.
  • If you're wondering what kind of nickname Skellum is, it's an old Germanic word for rogue or knave, related to the Dutch "schelm".
  • In all those incense burners you can see on various Cabal related cards they burn something called Dragon's Blood, which isn't actually blood of a dragon, but some psychotropic drug that allows dementia casters to reach their dementia space, a part of their mind where they store all their monsters. The Mirari sends Chainer much deeper into his dementia space than someone of his training should be able to do. Apparently the first level is filled with twisted versions of stuff you actually fought. He ended up right in the region with the monsters he dreamed up all by himself.
  • Chainer starts conjuring chains that tag people and monsters, dragging them into his dementia space, allowing him to summon twisted versions of them later in battle. Reading some of those passages made me want a Dementia Summoner game, Pokemon style!
  • Among the monster Kamahls and Chainer face in the Krosan Forest are Grendelkin, which are hairy, warty things with natural armor plates, with a huge head but spindly legs that drag uselessly behind them as they walk on their knuckles. They kind of remind me of the later Hurda. Another beast they find in the forest is a Gargadon, which makes a return appearance in the story after debuting in Prophecy.
  • The setting goes very dark here, as it is said the Order brainwashes its recruits, and the Cabal has indoctrination camps. Lots of  evil and grey morality here, not a lot of good. Even nominal main character of the saga Kamahl only starts having a change of heart after invading the Krosan Forest and slaughtering its innocent defenders.
  • To the already huge variety of mer-creatures we saw in Odyssey we can now add shark-men and Hydromorph Guardians.
  • In the pits Kamahl and Chainer face a Megolith, a giant sandstone cat-warrior. We'll later see one in the cards in Jareth, Leonine Titan, though Jareth himself never shows up in the storyline.
  • Let's start with the big problems I already mentioned above. According to this book, Laquatus and Kamahl both know about the Mirari before Odyssey even starts. That's a huge contradiction to what we saw last time. There Kamahl came seeking glory, rather than an artifact or power. In fact, he was so mad about the way the Cabal ran their pits that he was about to leave again until he saw the Mirari for the first time. And Laquatus even calls Kirtar picking his prize as "supremely unimportant" mere lines before the Mirari starts pulsating with power. There really is no way to square the version of events here with what we saw in Odyssey.
  • This seems especially problematic as Mer forces try to steal the Mirari during the Krosan dragon attack, before their leader has even heard of the Mirari. Perhaps these individual warriors felt its power and were seduced by it off screen? 
  • No explanation is given for Kamahl surviving the tidal wave from last novel, or how he ended up back in Cabal City before Braids and Laquatus. Maybe he summoned a surf board made of fire? Or maybe he just punched out the water. That sounds like a Kamahl thing to do.
  • As for the naming inconsistencies, these exist both between the books and the game, and among the various books themselves. The Cabal Patriarch is never called that in the novels, he is consistently called The First. Krosa is always called Krosan. Braids is always called Fulla here, but that will suddenly change to Braids in Judgment. And before you think this might be a Cabal name/nickname thing, Onslaught will reveal her secret name is Barra! Finally, Seton is called Seton in Odyssey and Judgment, but here he it suddenly written as Seaton.
  • Okay, let´s move on from the errors to the cool references, as Scott McGough clearly loves putting those into his story, giving Chainer´s Torment a bunch of links to the larger canon in the otherwise mostly stand-alone Otaria Saga. 
  • For starters, a Sengir Vampire turns up in the pit fights, to celebrate its return to the game in the Torment expansion. Chainer mentions the "ancient vampire lord" Sengir, who is said to have preyed on entire continents, but believes he may be a myth.
  • Skellum tells Chainer about a legendary dementia summoner called Cateran, who disappeared long ago. One of the theories about where he went is that Kuberr gave him an entire world to colonize with dementia creatures. We never learn the truth, but it is a very cool way to tie the Cabal to the larger canon, and to at least suggest an origin for the otherwise unexplained monsters among the Cateran Mercenaries from Mercadia.
  • Balthor mentions Fiers from The Myths of Magic, and is himself named after the Balthor from that story.
  • Samites show up after the Order/Cabal battle over Cabal City.
  • The angels working for the Order actually say "In Serra's Name" at one point! This seemed like a bit of a contradiction at the time, as the Order is supposed to worship "the Ancestor" (although this Ancestor person is never mentioned in any novel, only in the cards), but now that Dominaria is out, we can simply explain this away as the very beginning of the merger of The Order with the Church of Serra!
  • Chainer summons Shambling Swarms to kill the angels. Later, during the Mirari Games, he is attacked by Angels of Retribution who are said to have risen to take their place.
  • The First says "Mirari" is an ancient word for a fantastic wish-granting artifact. Considering its eventual origin, I guess that it is a word in Thran then?
  • It is said a third of Otaria was flooded by Aboshan! Everything between the upper border of the Krosan Forest and Cape Paradise (wherever that might be.) The newly formed Otaria Chasm put that whole region under half a mile of water, and turned the tip of Otaria into an island. How that matches with the new/old map that was released for Dominaria, I have no idea. The tip seems to be attached again, so presumably the water receded at some point in the next 260 years.
  • Teroh is only the leader of the "crusat" against Cabal City, Bretath still leader of the whole order, and there is no crystal sword of leadership mentioned. This will be contradicted next novel.
  • Veza talks about her grandfather fighting in the wars that brought Aboshan's predecessor to power. We'll learn in The Secrets of Magic that Aboshan himself overthrew the last merfolk ruler of the Mer Empire, but in that story the cephalids are already acknowledged as a vassal kingdom of the Mer, so I guess that means Veza's granddad got involved in some cephalid infighting despite being a merfolk.
Not much to say here. The official timeline puts the whole of Odyssey block at 4305, so that's where this novel goes.

[[Obligatory closing bit where I promote next week's Dominarian Annotations and the week after's Judgment review]] ;)


  1. You can see the Aboshan Trench on the northern end of Otaria in the Dominaria map, though it can be seen more clearly in the art for The Mirari Conjecture. It is perhaps not completely consistent with how it's described in the books, but I squeezed it in as best I could. (WOTCstaff)

    1. *Peers at a high-resolution version of the art for a while*

      Oh, there it is! I was looking for a gap that could be mistaken for covering 1/3ish of the continent! I guess Skellum was really exaggerating the situation!

    2. Yeah, the trench was later described as being one mile wide, I believe. Skellum was probably exaggerating, and/or he may have been describing the initial tidal wave, which then receded.

  2. If I remember correctly, that Sengir Vampire is actually fighting a Grim Lavamancer in the book. So that's another little neat thing. Though that fight might also have happened in Judgment - but I distinctly remember reading about that guy and thinking "Oh, cool, it's Grim Lavamancer."

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  4. I think it stands up on its own very well. Since Torment basically summarizes Odyssey from Chainer's point of view, the reader can actually skip the previous book without missing too much. While the ending does leave Kamahl's fate a mystery for Judgment, Torment is not about Kamahl. It's main character is Chainer and the tragedy of his character begins and ends here. That's the scope of the book and its a self-contained story as a result.

  5. What I want to know is what the flavor text of Cast Down is about. It's not from the novel, which would have been cool, but it refers to Chainer by his secret name, Mazeura. Since Chainer's Torment is a saga in Dominiara (indicating that even in-universe Chainer is a stand alone story from the rest of the Mirari Conjecture!), we can assume this is probably the Cabal's retelling of it.