Saturday, 18 August 2018


Writer - J. Robert King
Cover art - Ken Walker (Actually Kev Walker, but the colofon calls him Ken...)
First released in September 2002

At the end of Judgment Jeska was left with Seton to heal, but she isn't getting better. Then Braids comes in, kills Seton, and offers Jeska life through the Cabal. Later she turns up in the Cabal Pits as Phage, a remorseless killer whose mere touch causes every organic thing to rot. Later we discover Braids presented the dying Jeska to the First, who tried to kill her with his own deathtouch only for her to be mysteriously transformed. In the pits Phage fights against the lovers Ixidor and Nivea, killing the latter. Ixidor, who was counterfitting Cabal money, is then exiled into a desert.

Meanwhile Kamahl finds his friend dead and his sister gone. With his new green magic he gets himself a staff made of a century plant and heads to Aphetto to retrieve his sister. There he is forced to battle her in the arena, during which she gives him an unhealing belly wound that mirrors the one he gave her while under the influence of the Mirari. He returns to Krosa. The First follows him, intent on killing him, but then decides to corrupt Krosa instead. The forest has already been growing like mad due to the Mirari, with a huge mountain of growth called the Gorgon Mount appearing around the spot where the Mirari sword is pinning Laquatus' corpse to the ground. Kamahl is able to stop the forest's corruption by talking to it.

A period of construction starts. Phage is tasked with building a new place for fighting, the Grand Colosseum. She does so, extending the swamp in which it is located enormously. Kamahl starts mutating the creatures of the ever expending Krosan Forest, creating an army to reclaim his sister. Ixidor discovers a strange oasis in the desert that seemingly gives him the power to manipulate reality. He dubs the place Topos and creates a personal paradise there. One night he dreams of being attacked by Cabalists who cut off his arm before he is saved by an angel with Nivea's face. Upon waking he finds the angel watching over him and his arm gone. He dubs his creation Arkoma and charges her with killing Phage.

When the forest and the swamp have extended so far they each have reached either side of a ridge known as the Corian Escarpment Kamahl leads his army to the Grand Coliseum. He is invited to yet another pit fight with Phage. The Cabal's superior numbers force him to agree to it. When things go sour during that battle he indicates to his general, the centaur Stonebrow, that his forces should attack and try to kill the First, but then Akroma appears. Suddenly Kamahl is trying to save Phage's life from the angel. The siblings manage to chase her off. Kamahl's had summoned grasping roots to hold her, so Arkoma has to tear off her own legs to escape. Kamahl decides that he can't save his sister if there is an angel around who wants her dead, so all of a sudden he makes an alliance with the Cabal against Topos. His century staff and the head of the First's personal axe are merged into Soul Reaper, a weapon that would be powerful enough to kill the angel.

At Topos Ixidor forces Akroma to tear the head of a jaguar and then merges her with it, the cat's lower body replacing her legs. Then the Cabal and Krosan armies arrive. Ixidor summons armies of mind reading will o' wisps called disciples and shapeshifters called putty men. The wisps enter people's minds, making them vomit up beetles that turn into their worst nightmares. Kamahl has to fight his Mirari-mad self from Judgment, but Phage produces a beetle for every person she killed, and these turn into gigantic deathwurms that kill everyone around them and tear holes in reality itself. Most just rampage, but the wurm associated with Nivea's death heads straight for Ixidor and eats him.

With all the darkness out of her Phage turns back into Jeska, but she quickly realizes that only she can hold in all this darkness. So Kamahl convinces Akroma to order the disciples to lure the wurms to Jeska, and she absorbs them all back into her body.

In the end Ixidor is thought to be dead, but Akroma still rules Topos and still wants Phage dead. Phage is still working for the Cabal, and Kamahl slinks off back to Krosa.

Oh god, this trilogy... it is widely considered one of the worst parts of the entire canon, but I can't say its my least favorite though. It's way to freaking weird and that weirdness is actually kind of entertaining. It's like someone dropping a match into a box of fireworks: an ungodly mess that destroys everything around it, yet you can't help but look at it. Just look at how incoherent that summary is. Partly incoherent in the sense that J. Robert King is seemingly just throwing random things to the wall to see what sticks (Ixidor summons little flying lights that turn into beetles that turn into deathwurms that eat reality itself! Akroma is turned into a half-cat creature after being forced to decapitate a jaguar!), partly incoherent because the plot just randomly makes 180 turns every once in a while (The First goes to kill Kamahl... but then doesnt! Kamahl goes to free Jeska/Phage from the Cabal... then teams up with them to kill Akroma! Cause if he had just taken his sister back to Krosa there is no way his army could've defeated the angel he ripped in two just by himself...) And here is the kicker... Onslaught is actually the most subdued part of the trilogy.

In fact, the main sin of this book is just how little is happening in it. We open with a bunch of battles that that introduce characters like Ixidor and Phage and set up some conflicts, but after that? Kamahl tries to claim the Mirari three different times, only to change his mind or be rebuffed. It gets really repetitive. And for most of the middle part people are just building stuff. Kamahl is creating warriors out of forest animals while some forest dwellers meekly protest he is making grotesques. Ixidor is building his oases and his palace while lamenting the death of his lover. Phage is building the Grand Coliseum and killing her underlings to motivate the rest... it almost feels like you are watching a Let's Play on the world's most depressing Minecraft server. Only in the final chapters does the plot, and weirdness, really kick into gear.

The prose is mostly okay, though like I mentioned in the Invasion cycle review, King sometimes writes scenes that I think are supposed to be epic and larger than life but which just end up sounding silly. When the First and Kamahl create Soul Reaver they have this ceremony where they present the crowds with the parts of the weapon and start yelling "Power of forest, to me!" and "Power of swamp to me!" and suddenly I feel like I'm reading a Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog novelization.

Characterization isn't great either. Kamahl keeps learning that he shouldn't use the Mirari only to forget that lesson by the end of the chapter, Phage is all angst, Ixidor is just insane and the First is slowly turning into a lovesick putz over Phage (more on that in the Legions review). Characters like the delightfully insane Braids and the snarky building overseer Zagorka are a breath of fresh air among all this one-note dourness.

The one thing the novel does right though, is creating a mood of something being very, very wrong. Whether it is Stonebrow being conflicted over Kamahl mutating the entire forest into his personal army, or Ixidor forcing Akroma to tear the head of a jaguar before he replaces her legs with its body, it is all very uncomfortable and shows that Otaria is slowly succumbing to a kind of madness. Unfortunately the revelation of the source of that madness in the next books will be very disappointing.

Two final things I want to mention:

The first is that this book has pretty much nothing to do with the set Onslaught. Yeah, there are a few cards like Ixidor and Grand Coliseum which match the novel, but other than that? Nothing in the trilogy talks about the tribes that are the center of Onslaught block, or the mutations that are shown to be happening in the art, or the Riptide Project and the Slivers... Sometimes it seems that King has picked up a snippet from the style guide and included it, but it never goes far. Take those mutants for example. Those are supposed to happen around the entire continent, among all the tribes, due to the energy of the Mirari spreading over the continent. Well, the growth of Krosa is the only example of the Mirari's warping power in the book, and the only mutations are the ones deliberately caused by Kamahl.

By the way, why is the first Mutant in Magic an Illusion? How do Illusions even mutate?
The final point I want to make is that while this trilogy is a direct continuation of the last one, the two do not neatly line up. This time it isn't an issue of continuity, like between the endings and beginnings of books within the Odyssey trilogy, more of a dropped plot issue. Remember how in Judgment the Mer Empire brokered an alliance between the Cabal and the Order? Well... now the Mer Empire is completely gone from the story! The Northern Order is said to be decimated (in its common yet incorrect usage, so read "obliterated".) Thriss gets a quick reference when a nantuko says he warned against the Gorgon Mound, then is never mentioned again. The Pardic barbarians are gone from the story altogether... None of this is a continuity issue per se. Maybe the alliance ended because the Order was too damaged and thus disbanded? Maybe the Mer Empire was busy with the Riptide Project off screen and was thus never seen? Maybe Thriss just buggered off and Talon made the Pardian barbarians isolationist? We can explain it all away, though it is clear that J. Robert King just wanted to tell his own story and dumped everything he couldn't use for that by the wayside.

  • J. Robert King seems to have developed a love for the extinct giant ape Gigantopithecus. They are fighting in the Cabal pits, they are around in Krosa, one of them will be hauling a cabal car up and down a mountain in Legions... but they're suddenly gone in Scourge. 
  • When Kamahl goes to Aphetto for the first time he heals Zagorka's donkey Chester, who grows to giant size due to the infusion of mana. He's mostly in the story for "big ass" jokes, but for a long time the conventional wisdom in the storyline community was that he was the only good character in the Onslaught cycle.
  • When he is stalking Kamahl the First's power is greatest at night for some reason. This is never explained or brought up again.
  • Stonebrow is originally from the Cailgrath centaur tribe and his name used to be Bron. He is also huuuuge by the way. Tall as a two-story tower! Kamahl just mutates and renames him, not giving him a chance to object to it.
  • Among Kamahl's army there are "emerald eyed elves" and "forest goblins", and there are goblin chain gangs among the builders of the Grand Coliseum. No explanation is given for their sudden appearance, and they are apparently not refugees from the rest of Dominaria, as Legions makes clear the elves have been around all along.
  • Kamahl's army also has spinefolk (mutated flaming tumbleweeds), toad-men (Not elaborated upon, but I guess that means Anurid?) and brownies.
  • Ixidor has no Dream Chisel here. He does summon an easel and paint brushes to aid his creations at one point.
  • Oh, and there are no morph-spiders anywhere in the story either.
  • When Phage is fighting in the pit the crowd starts chanting "Death-Touch! Death-Touch!". Sorry guys, you'll have to wait another 5 years for that ability, and even then Phage won't get it.
  • In the city around the Grand Coliseum someone is selling mandrake roots dressed up as Kamahl, claiming the give virility. The seller yells "Whether you want to conquer your sister or get conquered by her, you can't miss with a Kamahl mandrake." I'm surprised Kamahl let him get away with that...
  • The last line of the book is "In the belly of the beast, Ixidor finally found Nivea." That sounds like a sappy way of saying the two were reunited in death or something, but no, we'll find out next novel that the soul of Nivea is actually trapped inside the wurm and that Ixidor just starts hanging out around it. I honestly don't know whether this makes that final line better or worse.
  • Among the Cabal minions that work on the Grand Coliseum there is a guy called Gorgoth, a "goat-headed, bat-winged, lizard-bodied" demon who was "a leftover from the War" that hid in a cave until the Cabal found it. It sounds like Gorgoth was one of those goat-headed Phyrexians King often mentioned in the Invasion cycle.
  • One of the forms of entertainment in the Coliseum is a reenactment of the Phyrexian Invasion, with real killing of course. Among the participants are Gerrard and Urza cossplayers (the later wearing a goggle to simulate Urza's gemstone eyes), a bunch of Keldons and a demon made of metal and flesh that "evaded a century of hunters". Sounds like another Phyrexian.
  • When Akroma says to Ixidor that she is incomplete without her legs, he thinks she mocks him and brings up compleation, the Phyrexian concept. A pretty gratuitous reference that goes nowhere.
  • Oh, and by the way, just like Seton Akroma doesn't get her feline body on her card!
The official timeline says Onslaught block happens in 4306, one years after Odyssey block. That'll get a bit problematic in Legions, but for now it works.

Well, we've started down this path. Check back next time for Legions, when the insanity really gets going...


  1. oh onslaught... a novel so bad after I read I just gave it away while telling someone how bad it was just because I didn't want it in my house anymore.

  2. Yes, it's that time - the block which led me to quit the game for three years.

    Much as I hated it at the time, I do have to admit that, in hindsight, some of the insanity is just so insane it's fascinating (that big revelation about Topos, say), so maybe these reviews will bring me around.


  3. I think the worst thing about this book is the wasted potential. Ixidor could have been such an amazing mono-blue antagonist, something we've only seen in the previous trilogy, and there are even points in the book when his motivation and actions aren't totally out of left field, and in the right context, could have been cool. But it all gets blasted away by the crazy train of this books plot.

  4. Kamahl talks about the magma below a few times, evidence against the Hollow Dominaria theory?

  5. I put more stock in what Kolo Meha has to say about magma, but yeah... maybe there are really big bubbles in the magma? Or it's reaaaaaaaly deep down, underneath all sorts of tunnels? :P

  6. Guys... the one with the Mirarri interacting with a hollow plane is NEXT block.