Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Secrets of Magic

The Secrets of Magic
Editor - Jess Lebow
Cover Art - Kev Walker
Released May 2002

Like The Dragons of Magic this anthology divvies up its stories in 4 parts. This time this is especially interesting for my project, as the the four parts are "Ancient History", "Pre-Invasion", "Invasion Era" and "Post Invasion". (Yes, with a hyphen after Pre and a space after Post.) We don't get introductions from the editor with additional information this time, but the headers are pretty self explanatory. The only vague one is "Pre-Invasion", but it seems clear those stories are supposed to go in the "original present" between 4000 and 4200 AR. We'll see in the discussion of the individual stories if these placements can be made any more specific. Lets dive in!

For Want of Ink, by Paul B. Thompson
Pharon, an ancient wizard, lies dying in Kjeldor. The Sorcerer's League hires a bunch of scribes to record any knowledge that they can get before he passes. One of the scribes, Barrinalo, has very good rapport with the old man. When Pharon starts to talk about the Blare of Doom, supposedly the spell Urza cast at the end of the Brothers' War, various mages get very excited and try to get the spell for themselves. Barrinalo makes sure they get a faulty version. The spirit of Pharon names the scribe his successor, and he is now the only one who knows how to cast the Obliteration spell. He leaves Kjeldor, but upon exiting the city he first has to put his name in a register. The ink runs out before he can finish and he decides to assume what he wrote as his new name: Barrin.

This is a great story that manages to do a lot of character work, interesting world building and neat references in a very short space. It's odd to say in an anthology review, but my summary really doesn't do it justice. It is also a great addition to the canon, delving into the backstory of a major character that really just sort of appeared in Time Streams without any explanation. Paul B. Thompson's previous works in anthologies weren't that great, but here the skill he showed in Nemesis really shines through. This is exactly what I want from my anthology stories!

Continuitywise there are a bunch of references. One of Barrin's fellow scribes is a Fallaji. Pharon says he always hated Storgard. There is mention of a "Tocasian pattern" and "the signs of Adarkar". One weird thing is that Pharon talks about King Kjeld of the Ruby Clan as the founder of Kjeldor. Of course Kjeldor was founded by Clan Pearl and Clan Emerald, as we saw in the Ice Age comics. Ruby was the clan of Freyalise, the champion of those who wanted to stay in Storgard. I guess Oriel Kjeldos married someone from Clan Ruby, and her kids took the name of their dad's Clan despite leaving Storgard with Oriel? It seems a clear mistake, but one we can talk our way out of. Although it does mean Kjeld was founded by someone apparently named Kjeld Kjeldos.

As for the timeline, it is stated "The great wizard [Pharon] had stood at the right hand of the kings of Kjeldor since the nation was founded 400 years ago". We know that Kjeld was 500 years old at the end of the Ice Age, so we can put this story 100 years earlier.

Song for the Plague Rats, by Philip Athans
A young woman lives in a city ruined by plague, losing her mother and father to the disease. One day she meets a strange young boy who teaches her a song she can use to get the plague rats to follow her. She uses it to lead them away from the village, but they just return. Then the boy says that it was his father, the local baron, who caused the rats to appear with his dark magic. They confront the baron, finding him doing experiments on the corpse of the girl's mother. The girl and the baron both try to control the rats, but the baron freaks out when his son is caught in between them and gets mauled by the creatures. The baron casts some sort of spell on his kid and is then eaten by the rats. In the aftermath the boy has survived his mortal wounds, but is now harmed by sunlight. The girl and the boy end the story by telling each other their names: she is Ravi. He is the new Baron Sengir.

Wow. Not only did Wizards publish a story about the backstory of Homelands in 2002, they even remembered Ravi existed! And that Grandmother Sengir wasn't literally Sengir's grandma! This anthology is amazing!

That said, this story is also amazingly bleak. There is a scene where Ravi hears her father crying and wonders if it is because of the death of her mother, or because he discovered he has the plague himself. After he dies she tries to get him to the cemetery, but he's too heavy to move, and no one can help her because the neighbors all either moved away, died, or are to traumatized to function. So not a story for the faint of heart.

The one thing that bothers me is a continuity niggle. In the Homelands comic it was said Sengir was dropped of on Ulgrotha by a passing planeswalker and that he then found Ravi trapped in the Basalt Spire. Now we learn they knew each other before that. So was it just an amazing coincidence that of all the nigh-infinite planes of the Multiverse the Baron got dropped on the one where his childhood friend was staying? Weirder things have happened in fiction, but it seems awfully suspicious. We could explain this away though. Perhaps the planeswalking duel that brought him to Ulgrotha wasn't completely random. Maybe Ravi introduced Sengir to one of her fellow Tolgath planeswalkers, who took him across the multiverse, and it was thus a Tolgath returning to their base in Ulgrotha that brought him there? Or, and this is a ret-con but one I would really like, perhaps it wasn't a planeswalking duel that brought him there. Perhaps Ravi, trapped in her vault and going insane, subconsciously tried to summon help and thus dragged her oldest friend from their homeworld to Ulgrotha.

Or maybe it really was just chance. Everyone can decide for themselves how much coincidence they can stand.

On to the timeline. I have the prologue of Homelands in 3200 AR, and there Ravi is described as a "young magician" and "another Tolgath whelp". If Ravi is still young you'd expect this story to happen shortly before that. This works out very well, so that's where I'll put it. Going by the timeline in the comic, that gives the Baron over two centuries to spread his brood over Dominaria and who knows what other planes.

There is however one more thing I should talk about: the comic Serra Angel features a Sengir Vampire. Back when I did my review of that comic that proved a problem for the placing of this anthology story, as I had that story before 3000 AR and Ravi ringing her chime after that date. Later I moved the ringing of the chime even further ahead of the timeline, before moving it back after listening to the Magic Story Podcasts). Since then, this problem has solved itself though! As explained in the Hazezon review, the placement of the Legends I story and the related Serra Angel and Summit of Minorad stories have moved forward in time past 3300 AR. No more need to explain away the Sengir Vampire in Serra Angel, or to say "young is relative for planeswalkers" and to move this story way further back in time!

(Perhaps I should go back and edit some of the continuity considerations I've since altered from those early reviews...)

A Nut by Any Other Name, by Nate Levin
The elf scout Kylor discovers a bunch of human loggers wrecking part of her forest. Aided by a Deranged Hermit and his squirrels she manages to defeat them.

The Do You Want to Know a Secret article I mentioned last time, which features some short blurbs on each of the stories in this anthology (and which was copy-pasted to the Wiki verbatim in lieu of a summary) mentions this story features "an odd character" that "will be very familiar to many Magic players". Well, that piqued my interest! The last two stories featured last-page reveals of Barrin, Ravi and Baron Sengir, but this story is promoted by the mystery guest star? Who could it be? Who could be a bigger name than Barrin or the Baron? Is this Kylor secretly someone we know? Is that red-robed wizard helping the humans someone I should recognize? Wait, a new character gets introduced, he must be the star! It's, it's... oh. It's just a Deranged Hermit.

Now don't get me wrong, I love the card Deranged Hermit. I played a Hell's Caretaker/Deranged Hermit deck for about a decade, and only took it apart because my entire playgroup moved on to Commander. That deck (and my notorious bad spelling) led to the online moniker Squirle that I use to this day! But when you are looking for a way to promote a Magic short story, and the best you can come up with is "it features a Magic card!", that's a bit sad.

Actually, some previous anthologies had a bunch of stories that didn't even have that, so this story would look a lot better if it had been included in those. But now I've been spoiled by actual continuity-heavy stories and it is no longer enough for me. Maybe I would've been nicer to the story if it was really good, but it's just a bit meh. No real characterization for many characters, just a basic "fight the nature despoiling humans" plot... the hermit isn't even that deranged!

There is no indication this happens anytime specific, so into the "traditional present" it goes.

Goblin King, by Jim Bishop
A human legion is send to fight goblins, but finds themselves outmatched. Army scribe Wolsey, who is hated by his commander, gets captured by the gobbo's, but manages to impress them with the miniatures he made. He then presents the goblin king with a poisoned dagger, which kills the king, allowing Wolsey to take his place, as that is how succession works among goblins. He then has his new subjects capture his former commander. It ends with the commander being told he gets to face Wolsey in a fight to the death over the kingship.

Not important, but a fun enough story. It's really just an excuse to reference a bunch of goblin related cards (goblin grenades, goblin gliders, goblin chirurcheon...), but it is nice to see the goblins as impressive soldiers rather than just cowards for once. I was surprised none of the mentioned goblin kings were named Numsgil, Blog, Unkful, Viddle, Loll or Alrok though.

Burning Vengeance, by Chris Pramas
A pirate ship captures a Suq'ata merchant vessel. They keep its captain imprisoned , but at night the brig burns down, killing him. The pirates also find the cabin boy of the merchant vessel stowed away on their ship, and the boy tells them the captain committed suicide by fire because he didn't want the pirates to find out he was a slaver, something that is very much against the pirate code of honor. They take the boy on for their own crew. Then they attack another vessel, but this one turns out to be filled with Zhalfirin military forces. They manage to get away, with the new cabin boy saving the captain's life. The boy then reveals that she's actually a girl, that her name is Sisay, and heavily hints that it was she who burned down the brig, to take vengeance on the captain who enslaved her.

Another last page name reveal! Many anthology stories rely heavily on their twist endings, but if they are going to do continuity relevant twists like this I really don't mind! Other than that though this story is a bit strange. It is very well written, and it does excellent character work, really making you feel for characters like captain Murad and ship's mage Aziz. But then it just ends. It really feels like this should be the first chapter in an "The Origin of Sisay" novel considering how much time it devotes to setting up these characters. I would have loved to actually see that novel, as this story was great, and Sisay is of course bad ass.

Unfortunately among all the good bits there are two lines in here that kinda tarnish the story for me. The first is the pirates saying "let's hope those Suq'Atans don't have a penchant for buggery" about what they think is an eleven year old boy and then laughing about it. The second is Sisay saying about the Suq'atan captain "If you knew the right people and paid the asking price, he would get you young girls. Very young girls."

I've already discussed in other reviews how much I hate that older Magic stories only seem to mention queerness in the context of rape and pedophilia, so I won't go into that again for that first remark. Just know that I still really really hate it. That second one though... Maybe it's just me, but sex trafficking of minors is a immensely heavy topic, and one I feel uncomfortable with when used as a motivation for a simple revenge plot. It's also something really big to dump into the backstory of a major character, especially when that characters is no longer regularly appearing and you thus can't explore it further. You're just sort of putting it in there as if it is something minor that wouldn't have any further impact on her. I don't think I'm explaining it very well, so let's just say it makes me uncomfortable to see the subject used this way and leave it at that.

Back to something I do feel comfortable with: timeline issues! This story is also from the "Pre-Invasion"section, but it would feel wrong to put "Between 4000 and 4200", as clearly Sisay can't have been around for most of that period. Unfortunately Sisay wasn't covered in the online material for Tempest which gave us the ages of most other Weatherlight crew members. The MTG Wiki puts her birth at 4176, and's profile on her puts it at ~4170, but I've not been able to find a source for either date. Both seem plausible. It would make her a bit older than the rest of the crew, but that makes sense. Remember she's already the captain of the Weatherlight around 4196, in Sisay's Quest and Scalebane's Elite. So we have a vague idea when she was born. Now things get even vaguer, as it is hard to say how old she is in this story. The pirates guess eleven, but that is when they think she's a boy and they specifically mention her not having a beard in making that estimate. So if she's between, say, 11 and 15, then this story could happen between 4181 and 4191. I'm going to split that difference and put it at ~4185. That puts Sisay's youthful adventure around the same time as part one of Born to Greatness, the first outing of the other "older" member of the Weatherlight crew, Crovax, which feels about right. It's all vague and approximate, but I'm afraid it's the best we've got. That's why you should always check out the "discussion" links in my timeline and not just assume that my placings are gospel!

Like Spider's Silk, by Cory J. Herndon
An elf princes and a human prince are set up for an arranged marriage, but the ceremony is attacked by giant spiders. The two bond while saving their loved ones from these creatures.

Some decent writing here, with a few funny lines, but I don't really like the subject matter of people growing to like their arranged partner. It also gets a point detracted for being the one story in the anthology with no links to any cards or the larger canon. And no, Giant Spider's do not count. Those are a staple fantasy creature, not magic specific.

We're still in the "Pre-Invasion" part of the book, so it goes between 4000 and 4200 AR.

Behold, The Fish, by J. Robert King
A bunch of Eliterate merfolk are having a poetry evening when suddenly Yawgmoth's death cloud comes rolling in. They witness Bo Levar sacrificing himself to save their trench, as seen in Apocalypse, survive for a couple of days in darkness and when that passes they head out to see what became of their enemies, the Vodalians. They find that the empire is mostly kaput, but meet a few soldiers that have survived in basements and the like. The highest ranking officer among them wants to rebuild Vodalia in its old militaristic way, but one of the Eliterate actors manages to seize power by pretending to be a higher ranking survivor. He puts the country on a more peaceful course before faking his own death.

This is another one of those stories that sound worse in the summary as the plot really isn't the point. This is all about the feelings of the characters. About how the famous actor starts losing fate in his philosophy that satire can topple any tyrant when faced with Yawgmoth's genocide. It has scenes where the oppressed find a trench full of corpses of their former oppressors and then wonder if they should celebrate or mourn. It's fairly well done, and King manages to make good use of the mood whiplashes that were sometimes to the detriment to his other works. I think he does fairly well, although the happy ending is a bit too neat for the heavy questions the rest of the story asks.

Oh, and this story mentions both cephalid and homarids, making it a sort of bridge between the older and newer stories about Dominaria's underwater empires. That's nice!

Finally, this story raises a question about the timeline. Obviously it happens directly after the main body Apocalypse (but before the epilogue), but at one point the Eliterates discover the Vodalians knew about their trench but couldn't act on it because of the Phyrexian invasion. The main character then says they knew for "two years". Now, the official timeline puts the entire Invasion cylce in 4205, but we've already stretched that to 4205-4206 because in Apocalypse Multani says the war lasted over a year. Do we now have to go even further to make it two years? I dunno. I think we can make the case that this is just a case of rounding off. The war starts in 4205, so the characters assume the Vodalians knew in 4204. Plus, I'm already the only person on the internet who weighs Multani's remark higher than the official timeline, so I don't really feel like stretching the timeline for the war even further.

Journey Home, by Will McDermott
Balthor Rockfist is scavenging a battlefield after fighting in the Phyrexian invasion when he finds a 7 foot staff he identifies as belonging to Urza Planeswalker. Later he finds a countryman, a Pardic barbarian named Matoc, fighting some Phyrexian warhounds. After saving him the dwarf decides to travel back to Otaria with his new friend. On the journey Matoc in turn saves his life when pirates attack their ship, though he loses his sword in the process. As the two bond Balthor tells Matoc that he doesn't want to go back to the other dwarves as they are boring. Matoc then suggests joining his tribe. To do so Balthor must do two things. First he must give his most prized possession to the tribe. He gives his battle axe, said to have been forged by his ancestor Balthor Stoneface (From The Myths of Magic). Then he must defeat the tribal leader, which he does by using Urza's staff as a weapon. Some time later Matoc visits Balthor and accuses him of not giving his most prized possession over, as he fought under Urza and recognized the staff. Balthor then says the axe was worth much more to him, and that he is giving the staff away anyway: he has reforged it into a new sword for Matoc, as finding a new brother is worth much more than any weapon.

Here we have the first Otaria related story of the anthology, giving us an origin story for Balthor and for Kamahl's sword. It's okay, though its continuity implications are much more engaging to me than the story itself, which is a bit on the nose with its message, and doesn't really give us more insight into Balthor's character than we already got in Judgment.

Some interesting bits:
  • The Phyrexian invasion didn't reach Otaria, though the plagues that started it did, explaining why Otaria was still doing fairly okay in Odyssey block.
  • Balthor mentions that there are still pockets of Phyrexian resistance, and we see those warhounds attacking Matoc. The end of Apocalypse said all the Phyrexian went catatonic when Yawgmoth died and could be defeated by children with sticks, but there must have been spots where even the children were all killed, where the Phyrexians eventually recuperated. I wonder how long these remnants lasted after the invasion. Could they still be out there?
  • Matoc is already saying stuff like "Fiers' blood", implying the barbarians worship Fiers (and presumable Gaea and the Lady of the Mountain) as well. Previously I had assumed Kamahl and Jeska had taken this faith from Balthor.
  • Balthor is 45 years old at this point, in case anyone cares. 
By the way, we are not told where Balthor finds the staff, or how it got there. The thing was never a very important artifact in the Weatherlight Saga. Just a tool for Urza to activate some machines and to occasionally hit people. In fact, it just got sort of forgotten in Invasion block after Urza climbed into his titan engine. It was much more prominent in card art than in the story.

But perhaps the biggest impact this story had on the storyline community is that it is to blame for the belief that Otaria lies on the southern hemisphere. When remarking on the state of Otaria, Balthor compares it to "the northern continents". This explains why on older fanmade maps Otaria was somewhere at the bottom of the map, next to Sarpadia. The recently released map of Dominaria revealed Otaria lays mostly on the northern hemisphere though. The southern tip reaches the equator, but Krosa is on the same latitude as New Argive, Corondor and southern Aerona. So I guess either Balthor had only seen combat in really northern places, like Shiv or Northland, or he is just bad at geography.

Timelinewise this story happens shortly after the invasion. The last story starts during it, with the bulk happening a few days after Yawgmoth's deathcloud. This story probably starts a little later so Balthor can have heard of those pockets of resistance, and its bulk happens later still considering he and Matoc make an extensive boat journey to Otaria.

This Matoc seems to just be a barbarian, so either the Lavamancer Matoc is a different character, or Kamahl's granddad became a 'mancer in later life.
Stolen Harvest, by Vance Moore
The merfolk of the Mer Empire have a strange way of reproducing: they lay all their eggs in one spot, and then every 30 years they all participate in a gigantic magical spell that takes the lives of most of their population. All that life energy goes into the eggs, which then hatch fully formed adult merfolk who are instilled with loyalty to the survivors of the last generation, who become a new nobility. One noble, Laquatus, doesn't like risking his life and still hates the memory of the magically enforced loyalty he felt when he hatched. Thus he makes a deal with Aboshan, the king of the cephalid vassal kingdom. As the spell starts gathering the life energy of the merfolk, the cephalid forces attack. In addition to fighting, they also drop cephalid eggs. The energy goes into them, creating a whole host of new cephalids and ensuring the next generation of merfolk is never born. The cephalids then take over the empire.

This premise is a bit strange. The merfolk were really asking for trouble with such a... drastic change in their society every 30 years. It's a miracle no one interfered with the spell sooner! Actually, Vance Moore doesn't seem to have thought all the implications of this idea through, as he introduces Laquatus by saying he is "still young". How can he be young? His entire generation should be exactly 30 years old! Not one of the best stories, but it is good to see Laquatus get at least one clear victory to raise his villain cred.

This story is part of the "Post Invasion" section. It's not entirely clear how long before Odyssey it takes place, but there must be at least a couple of years for Aboshan to cement his rule, for the Aboshan/Llawan split to develop and for Laquatus to fall from grace and to be send to Cabal City as an ambassador. I previously had all the post-Invasion, pre-Odyssey (the "new" present) stuff at "between 4206 and 4305", but I'm going to change that to "the generation before 4305". A bit vaguer perhaps, but clearly the origin story of Laquatus and Piana can't have happened 100 years, or even 50 years, before Odyssey block.

Family Man, by Scott McGough
Before you read the summary, this story was once posted online on Wizards' short lived Legendology website. That site is long gone, but from there it was reposted to the MTGSalvation forums. So if you want to read this story without my summary spoiling it, go there first before you continue!

Here we meet Virot Maglan, the enforcer of a crime family that is at war with various other evil families. Virot researches a spell that can easily kill people and is then visited by Kuberr, the ancient entity that wrote the scroll he took it from. Kuberr grants him more and more power and teaches him important lessons. The most important lesson to learn is "the value of life": life is the most valuable thing, so controlling as much living people as possible and sacrificing them to extend your own life is the right way of living. In the end Virot is given a new name of must renounce his own family to fully pledge himself to Kuberr. He does this by killing his mother and siblings. Then he forces the remains of the other families to be his servants, giving them new names as well and thus creating the Cabal. The story ends with the First dreaming of Kuberr on his throne, with all the people he caused to die in long processions between him and his god. The message is clear: so long as he keeps feeding life to Kuberr, he can live forever and retain his power. The First vows to keep the lines as long as possible.

This is another good story. It explains a lot of the First's character. While reading Chainer's Torment I found myself wondering at various points why the First was putting the Mirari up as a prize for pit fighting rather than using it himself. This story makes it clear that he only really cares about wealth and about causing death to serve Kuberr, for which having people fight over the Mirari does wonders.

Scott McGough is clearly having fun with the criminal families, portraying them as cartoonishly evil as possible. We're talking things like using children's entrails to tell the future and practicing murder spells on butlers. I guess it depends on how much of this darkness you can stomach whether you like the story. If that doesn't turn you away though, this is another story with good writing, good characterization and an important place in continuity, so it comes highly recommended.

The one thing this story does badly? Managing the timeline. Somehow it manages to give three(!) conflicting dates for itself!
  • First, this story is part of the "Post Invasion" section, which would put it between 4206 and 4305. 
  • The other families are acting against the Maglans because they have had a vision that "within a generation" "the Machine God" will begin "the Age of Undeath". This is a very clear reference to Yawgmoth's manifestation on Dominaria during Apocalypse, which would put the story a generation before the Invasion.
  • The dream at the end is said to be the only dream the First has of Kuberr for 300 years. Now, I don't want to spoil the upcoming Onslaught cycle, but let's just say it is unlikely that those dreams continue beyond that point. This would put the story at ~4000 at the latest.
  • Oh, and when Eidtelnvil made his timeline on Scott McGough popped in to say this story happens in ~4050, giving a fourth date for it!
Honestly, I'm too much in awe about how quickly this story manages to screw up its timeline to be mad about it.

Luckily last week saw the release of the Dominaria art book (look for a review soon!), which clearly states the Cabal was founded around 4000 AR. Now normally I say things like "actual stories trump background material", but when the story itself can't keep its own timeline straight I will gladly use a source like this to resolve the issue!

So, now that we know the First's origin, we can continue with the Otaria saga to see where his story ends up. Those reviews will go up in the coming weeks, and I'll try to fit the Art book in there as well. See you then!

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