Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Assassin's Blade

Writer - Scott McGough
Cover art - ...not credited! Perhaps Greg Staples, who did the next book as well?
First printing - December 2002

We are introduced to the empire of Madara, which is controlled by a mysterious emperor (who in this book only manifests as a face, not described in detail, summoned in a specific shrine) who rules through three individuals: imperial assassin Ramses Overdark, army general Marhault Elsdragon, and imperial champion Tetsuo Umezawa.

We open to Overdark asking the emperor for his blessing to attack the rebellious Edemi Islands. He plans to use this attack to rid himself of his rivals and thus sends his minion, the creepy wasp-lady Xira Arien after Umezawa. She finds him with his second Tor Wauki, his artificer Ayesha Tanaka and her student healer Kei Takahashi in the village of Sekana. The nekoru cat-dragon Wasitora has claimed the settlement for herself (mainly so the locals will give her loads of fish), so it is up to the champion to defend the emperor's honor and chase away the monster. He challenges her to a duel and at one point he has her on the ropes, only for the battle to be interrupted by an Elder Land Wurm from the Edemis. Waisitora attacks the thing, mainly to defend her turf, but Tetsuo sees this as an honorable act and thus after defeating the wurm he charges Kei with healing her. While the healer is looking after his charge he is attacked by Arien, who lays an egg inside him. She lets herself be seen and says she's going to the nearest Edemi island of Kusho, luring the champion and his people there. Tetsuo appoints Waisitora as his deputy defending Sekana and heads off after Arien.

When they arrive they find it has been ravaged by Overdark's "siege demon" Lady Orca. Orca has since moved on to the next Edemi island of Argenti, but since she attacked under Umezawa's phoenix banner the local resistance, headed by Gosta Dirk, attack the champion and his crew.

Meanwhile Overdark meets with Elsdragon, asking him to keep out of the struggle in the Edemis. Elsdragon wasn't going to interfere unless ordered by the emperor, so it seems a pointless visit, but while he's there Overdark insults Elsdragon's second in command, the Aerathi Berserker Jorgan Hage, goading him into trying to ambush the assassin on the road. Overdark has his minion Boris Devilboon kill all the attackers save Hage, then infuses the berserker with black mana, turning the second in command of the imperial army into his pawn.

On Kusho Tetsuo defeats the island's champion, Kasimir the Lone Wolf, and discovers he has been tricked into coming to Kusho. His crew heads to Argenti, faces off against Lord Magnus, the druid ruler of the southern half of the island, and defeat him. When they reach the castle of the island's northern ruler, Lady Caleria, they find Xira Arien there. The insect assassin tries to set Caleria against Umezawa, but the ruler sees through this and has all imperials arrested. Arien flees while Umezawa's crew fight their way out. Then Overdark has Lady Orca attack the castle. Tetsuo expands almost all his power defeating her. Caleria is grateful, but uses the opportunity to imprison him nonetheless. She offers his followers a chance to join her. Tor refuses and is also imprisoned, but Ayesha says she'll join if Magnus cures Kei, who has been acting more and more erratic and develops things like compound eyes as the baby bug inside him develops.

After a walk through the Mediation Plane (more on that later) Umezawa realizes he must act now to save Kei and Tor, breaks out and challenges Caleria to a formal duel... only for a wave of snakes to overflow the castle. Turns out Overdark had Arien hide a Serpent Generator in the building. Tetsuo and Ayesha stop the thing while Tor replaces his master in the duel and defeats Caleria. The defeated ruler gives the imperials safe passage through her island and allows them to talk to Magnus about curing Kei. Magnus can't, but makes Tetsuo realize that he can stop Kei's deterioration by going into the Meditation Plane and killing the insect growing inside him. Kei is left part-bug, but no longer mutating, nor about to die from a chest-burster. A seething Xira Arien, who had been tailing them, attacks, but is chased off.

In the epilogue Overdark once again meets with the emperor, who is furious about his failure in the Edemis. He orders Elsdragon to take the army into the islands. Overdark immediately starts plotting to use his control over Hage to his advantage.

The summary above might give the wrong impression of this book. Usually when my summaries are relatively short and full of "and then they fight X" it isn't a good sign. But here it actually works! You can consider the Legends II cycle as Magic doing a blockbuster action story, and doing it well. Sure, the plot is fairly simple and a lot of it is taken up by action scenes, but the action scenes are spectacular, the simple story just means it gets to the point, and it has good pacing, cool ideas and fun characters. This is probably what Magic needed at the time. Remember that concurrently to this we got Onslaught, Legions and Scourge, stories that tried to make deep statements about war and religion and failed spectacularly at it. Some simple, well written action sequences that remind us how cool and fun Magic can be are the perfect pallet cleanser.

The great thing is that all the action is part of the plot, so despite the abundance of fight scenes there are none of those random encounters I hate so much. Perhaps you could call the fighting with Waistora that, but even there the action is used to introduce the main characters and their role in the empire, and it sets up the cat-dragon's role for the next two novels. The characters do face a gauntlet of conflict when they enter Lord Magnus's woods, but unlike Legends I, where every battle tended to get written out, here it is properly summarized. It's all minor stuff after all, we know no one important is going to die from a random animated vine or wild animal, so just fast forwarding through it is the way to go. It'll set the mood of them being harried while going through the forest but you'll still get the the actually interesting confrontation at the end in a decent pace!

In stories like these the characters can also be a bit broad, but Scott McGough manages to give them all a distinct voice. Tetsuo is stern and honorable, Ayesha is also stern but more practical and no-nonsense, Tor is a bit unsure about himself, et cetera. Bad guys like Overdark and Arien are a bit on the unsubtle, mustachio-twirling, minion-killing side of evil, which I usually don't like, but they too get enough personality and menace to keep me interested. The scene-stealer here is Wasitora, who is by far the funniest character in the book, but still a credible threat. If you liked the catlike habits from that sphinx in the Ravnica Allegiance Azorius story, you will love this arrogant cat-dragon! McGough's more humorous characters are often the stand-out figures in his works and it is no different here. We will be seeing more of those in the rest of the trilogy.

So can I say anything bad about this book? Well, there are some massive continuity issues between this trilogy and the Legends I trilogy, but those don't really impact the quality of the story, and we'll talk about those in a separate article. Other than that, eh... Oh, yeah, here is a big mistake: you've got a character with a name as metal as Ramses Overdark, and then you almost never refer to him as that? He just goes by the utterly generic "Lord Dark"? And at the end (Over)Dark kills and resurrects one of his minions, the almost as metal Boris Devilboon, and from that point on he is only referred to as Dead Boris!? What a waste of two epic sounding names!

Oh, and... why on earth is the Onslaught symbol used at the start of each chapter? You've got a perfectly good Legends symbol, which you managed to put on the book's spine and the opening page, so why use another random set symbol elsewhere?

But now I'm really nitpicking. This is perhaps a shorter review than usual, but there is not all that much else to say about the book. It's just well written, uncomplicated and fun.

  • Above you can see the map of (a fraction of) Madara given in the book. There is no hint as to where Madara is on Dominaria. Scott McGough himself once said on a forum post (which I think got lost in the latest changes on MTGSalvation) that it was located in the sea in the middle of the three sub-continents of Jamuraa (there are in fact a bunch of Jamuraa references in this trilogy) but eventually the Dominaria map put it west of the Jamuraan supercontinent instead.
  • The Madaran emperor is said to have many vassal kings and queens throughout the world. We never hear of those in any other sources, but once you learn who the emperor is in the next book you'll see it is very possible that he might be secretly ruling nations from behind the scenes or something like that.
  • Madaran imperial horses have 8 legs.
  • The history of Lady Orca remains fairly mysterious. It is said Overdark tracked her down to claim her, and that she hasn't been human for a long time.
  • Overdark's assassin banner is an owl holding snakes, Tetsuo's champion banner is a phoenix and Elsdragon's army banner a falcon.
  • Xira Arien's race of wasp-humanoids are called Eumidians.
  • The Elder Land Wurm has feet! It is also really pissed about being forced to swim from the Edemis to the mainland. It seems to be a wild animal just repeating learned words, so if it was ever an Elder Dragon it has long since devolved.
  • Kei has an innate danger sense. You'd think that was a spider-man reference, but he has it even before being bitten by a radioactive wasp-lady. He can also turn intangible to avoid danger. According to Scott McGough those are both interpretations of his damage prevention ability.
  • On the Edemi Island of Kusho there live Chelonians, which are humanoid turtle warriors. the Nekoru eventually made it into the cardgame, so who knows, maybe we will get ninja turtles when we next return to Dominaria!
Proper ones.
  • The army is called the Hido Tsurai Kentsu, usually just called the Kentsu, which stands for "the emperors terrible dolorous fist".
  • One point of interest after the Otaria Saga is that in this cycle the colors of mana also play a very important role. For example, we are explicitly told the Kentsu's headquarters are near the Gitte-Yatay mountains to be close to all that red mana. This will become more important in the sequels, so we'll talk more about it in the Champion's Trial review.
  • Elsdragon is rumored to have elf-blood, though no one can prove it. Clearly they didn't look at his updated creature type.
  • Kusho has no clear leader. All the different tribes govern themselves, but in times of trouble they look to Kasimir for help, and since Kasimir listens to Gosta Dirk, they also listen to him. The healer Ragnar is another member of Gosta's crew.
  • Argenti is protected under a Greater Realm of Preservation that keeps out all black and red mana. Overdark manages to smuggle Lady Orca in by hiding her in while hidden by blue mana (Sea King's Blessing?) and later turns the Realm off by casting Gloom, making it too expensive to activate.
  • Caleria has a Hyperion Blacksmith working for her. They look silver because they actually completely cover themselves in a layer of metal!
I already mentioned this in the Legends I reviews, but there are massive continuity issues between that cycle, the Greensleeves trilogy and these books. There really is no way to fix this other that to assume that there have been multiple characters with names like Tor Wauki or Boris Devilboon throughout history, perhaps named after each other. When I've wrapped up this cycle I will do a separate article to discus all the inconsistencies in one go.

Perhaps there are even three Tor Wauki's, unless one of them became a bandit king after their book appearance...
  • In the ocean next to Sekana stand the Talon Gates. Later in the trilogy there are some hints that they are important to the emperor, but it is not until Time Spiral block that we get an actual explanation about what they are and why they are important. 
  • Xira Arien says she saw Nekoru before, in Jamuraa. In the Dominaria Storyline Podcasts we heard that both the Eumidians and the Nekoru come from the middle part of Jamuraa, a region that was a complete mystery when Legends II was published. Most people assumed at the time that the references were to the more famous parts of the continent seen in Mirage block.
  • The Meditation Plane in this trilogy is a mysterious place the servants of the empire can use for all sorts of things. Communication over long distances, spying on one another, ruminating on their own mind, soul and destiny, killing bug-monsters living in their healers... We will talk more about the continuity issues its depiction causes in the Champion's Trial review, as the real problems are featured in that book.
  • We'll also talk about the emperor more in future reviews, after he's revealed who he actually is. (I mean, I'm sure 99% of the people reading this know who it is, but I've been told of for spoiling stuff for people who are reading along with the reviews in the past, so I'm being a bit more careful these days!)
There really isn't anything in this book that helps us place it on the timeline, but there are certainly things of interest in its two sequels. We will discus the timeline placement in the Champion's Trial review as well.


  1. Looking at the map of (part of) Madara, Umizawa's home is next to the Gitte-Yatay Mountains. The "Gitte" part of the name is only one letter off from Jitte. Kamigawa block has a Jitte, that is specifically identified as belonging to the Umizawa in that block's story. That Umizawa ends up being the ancestor of this trilogy's Umizawa. Are the mountains named after the Jitte? Something worth thinking about.

    1. Unlikely. Umezawa's sword happening to be a Jitte doesn't really matter all that much (outside if it being a primarily defensive weapon I suppose.), the important bit was that he channeled magic (I think it was just called Kanji Magic?) through the thing.

  2. Sekana is one syllable off from Sakana, the japanese word for fish. Glad to see all the set-up that happens to affirm that this is where are hero of the Kamigawa block ends up.

  3. Minor nitpick: Madara is west of Jamuura on the map, not easy.