Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Children of the Nameless

Writer - Brandon Sanderson
Cover art - Chris Rahn
Released - 12 December 2018

As requested I'll do a summary here, but I really want to urge you to go and read the whole thing here. It is a mystery story, and I don't want to spoil the main plot for the people still planning to read it. Also, it's free, so why miss it?

The story starts rather dark, with a girl named Tacenda being the sole survivor of an attack on her Innistradi village. She and her twin Willia were born with a strange condition: she can only see at night, her sister only during the day. In exchange for this strange curse the girls have powers: Willia is a fantastic warrior, and Tacenda can sing the Song of Warding which can protect against all the nasty creepies of Innistrad. The song failed to work though when mysterious spirits known as Whisperers attacked the village during the day, leaving Tacenda fairly helpless. Yet she survives and blames the Man of the Manor, the local aristocrat, for the attacks, as he was previously seen killing the twins' parents while they were making an offering to the Bog, a magical spot worshiped by the villagers.

Yeah, this story is fairly complex, so the summary is going to be veeeeeery info-dump-y.

Tacenda vows revenge and tries to kill the Man that very night but is thwarted. The story then turns to the Man's point of view. He is Davriel Cane, a planeswalker who killed the previous lord, a vampire, and took his place as local ruler. He can steal spells from other people's minds, has a bunch of demons working for him as he's a master of small-print, making deals with them that work out in his favor, and, oh yeah, he has a mysterious Entity living in his head that is constantly trying to convince him to tap into its immense power. We later learn it is the remnant of a destroyed plane. Despite all this backstory, he turns out to have no idea about all the killing. He just wants a relaxed life as lord of a backwater region, but someone framed him for the killing of Tacenda's parents. She gets him to promise to help her find the real culprit by threatening to ruin his peace and quiet by telling everyone he did it so monster hunters will come trying to kill him.

Their research leads them to the Bog where a mysterious power supposedly resided, but which is now gone. They also visit the local monastery, where they worship a being know as the Nameless Angel and oversee an artifact known as the Seelenstone. Willia was working for the monastery and was supposedly killed by the Whisperers as well. As this is going on they are attacked by both cathars and the Whisperers, who they eventually discover are the souls from the people of the village, meaning they could be restored to their bodies.

Eventually they discover that a) the Entity in the Bog was another remnant of a dead plane, b) Davriel's Entity specifically brought him here so he could claim another being like it, c) the Seelenstone kept souls of the dead from entering the Bog Entity, this d) weakened it) In response to this the Entity tried to manifest in a body, but was split in two as the body turned out to be the twins, giving them their powers/curses. f) when Willia joined the convent she entered the catacombs where the spirits where now going, which gave her (or the Entity-fragment in her) more power, g) she lost control of those powers and killed her parents. When she returned to the convent to confess she discovered that h) they killed the Nameless Angel when she went insane alongside all the other angels during the Shadows over Innistrad story. Willia then i) lost her faith, fell for the Entity's promises, j) started feeding souls to the bog in exchange for power, and k) didn't actually die, just faked her death.

Told you this was a complex story!

Powered-up Willia is about to kill Tacenda and Davriel when they find the body of the angel. Tacenda can see its spirit is still there (although Davriel and later even the Entity say this should be impossible, as angels are creations without souls) and inspires Tacenda to sing, not the Song of Warding, but the song she used to sing as a child. This restores all the Whisperers to their bodies. She then kills Willia for her sins and takes her part of the Entity. This gives her immense power and shows her different worlds, after which she vanishes, presumably becoming a planeswalker. Davriel gets back to enjoying himself as Man of the Manor... at least until he'll get sucked to Ravnica for the War of the Spark story.

Children of the Nameless was the big surprise of last year in two ways. One, it was released unexpectedly in the middle of Nicky Drayden's Ravnica stories and two, it turned out to be the best part of the Magic storyline in a long time.

It manages to strike a fantastic balance between the dramatic and the humorous. The story starts out very dark, with murdered parents and a massacred village, yet when Tacenda attacks Davriel and the perspective switches to him the tone shifts entirely with a whole lot of snark between Davriel and his demons. You'd think that wouldn't work, but after that initial, intentionally jarring shift, the two sides of the story merges seamlessly into an almost Pratchettian combination of the serious and the silly.

Always remember that due to a cameo in Fifth Dawn Discworld is totally and completely canon in the Magic continuity!
The plot itself and the drama surrounding the twins is very engaging, but the showstealers are clearly Davriel, the demons he tricked into working for him due to simply being better at writing infernal contracts, and the sinister entity in his mind. There is a still a lot of pathos there, with Davriel refusing to give in to the entity's goading, but they are also just fun, having cute quirks and very snappy dialogue.

Another thing I like about the story is how it feels important to the canon, despite being completely stand-alone. I am kind off surprised that Sanderson was allowed to introduce beings that are the remnants of dead planes in such a story, as they seem to be a rather big addition to continuity. I'm all for it though, as it makes them much more intriguing than if they had been just some random Innistradi bog monster.

That's not to say the story is perfect. While it presents a very interesting mystery, I found the ending a bit convoluted, with multiple dead plane-entities, a soul sealing stone and a dead angel all interacting in some strange meta-magical way. Still, when you are actually reading the story it doesn't come across nearly as convoluted as in the summary, which itself is quite an accomplishment.

As usual with these positive reviews I end this section of the article with a "if there is one point I want to complain about...", and this time it is a particularly embarrassing one. Check out these quotes:
"Hellfire! He was supposed to have been able to fade away into obscurity [here]. He’d moved [here] years ago, then finally settled on the Approaches as the most remote location on an already remote plane. [Here], consorting with demons was seen as only a minor oddity." 
“There’s lots of [space] here,” Rom said. “Whoever built these catacombs made plenty of [space] for bodies. But your people don’t often choose to be buried here, as is proper.”
What on earth is going on [here]!? Don't you specifically put your editing notes in square brackets to easily search them out before going to print?

It's a bit unfair for me to still be complaining about it now, as the brackets have been removed from the version of the story I've linked to at the start of this review, but when I first read it they were still there, and it's a easy thing for me to moan about to make this review seem balanced rather than uniformly positive ;)

Despite that little hiccup, Children of the Nameless gets a glowing recommendation from me. Ever since Return to Dominaria Magic's story has been written by established fantasy writers, with varying results, but this is the first time one of them gets to do whatever they want, telling their own story, unhampered by the demands of the cardgame. If that results in such a resounding success as this I hope WotC will follow up on it, both by giving Sanderson a chance to continue the story of Davriel, Tacenda and the Entities, as well as allowing other writers to play in the Magic Multiverse sandbox like this.

  • There are hints at a very interesting backstory for the Entity in Davriel's head. Davriel used its power once and really doesn't want to do it again, and there are powerful people hunting the Entity down. We only get vague references to all this though, so this is something I really want to see picked up upon in the future. It would be a shame if we looked back at this story in several years time and would have to put this down as a forgotten plotline.
  • Another weird backstory tidbit: Davriel apparently died at one point, but came back to life! No explanation is given for this.
  • Davriel's cloak has "an old shadow charm from his days living among the demons of Vex." No idea what Vex is exactly. It might be a plane or a more specific place.
  • Miss Highwater at one point throws some serious shade at Griselbrand, disparaging ugly demons with hooks for hands.
  • On the more praiseworthy side, Davriel appreciates Innistrad's hat-game, especially remarking that the church has the best headgear.
  • Miss Highwater is the first female demon we've seen in a long time. Well, not on this blog, we talked about Lady Orca like three reviews ago, but ever since Orca's demise in 2003 we haven't seen any. 
  • Miss Highwater's real name is Voluptara and she started out as a typical succubus, which is new in Magic. Her deal with Davriel is that she gets his soul if she manages to seduce him. He constantly rebukes her avances though, and gets her to do his accounting instead. It's perhaps a bit unfortunate that one of the only female demons in the game is such a sexual character, but I guess you can't subvert a trope without first invoking it. 
  • I especially like the following bit from her:
"Perhaps we were all created for a specific purpose, but that doesn’t prevent us from finding other purposes as well."
  • Okay, so how can we get Miss Highwater to meet with Tiana?
  • The Entities are described as "the remnant of an ancient plane. Destroyed, consumed, its power condensed. It is the soul of an entire land, you might say." That "soul of an entire land" bit makes me wonder if it is supposed to be on the same level of other World Souls, like Gaea, O-Kagachi and Progenitus. Perhaps we should take this with a grain of salt though. In a Reddit AMA Sanderson says they were inspired by the Soul of [Plane] cycle from M15, which don't have any story to them, but do not seem to be on the same level of importance as the beings mentioned above. Sanderson also says "something special" happened to the Entities' planes, so I guess we'll just have to wait to find out.
  • The Vorthos Cast brought up that we're not sure if Tacenda is a planeswalker now. Sanderson talks about it in his AMA but is very coy about making canon claims. He says he was given permission to create one planeswalker, which was Davriel. When he decided to let Tacenda ascend as well, he was asked to keep it ambiguous. So who knows, maybe she just planeswalked on the power of the Entity, maybe she merged with the land, or just dissipated. Though with the generally good reception of the story and most people assuming she planeswalked away (her Entity was showing her other worlds just before after all) I would be very surprised if WotC didn't go with "she's just a planeswalker" in the end. It seems the most simple explanation, and it doesn't open up a whole can of worms about who does or does not count as a proper planeswalker because they are powered by Entities rather than sparks...
And I've had quite enough "are they proper planeswalkers" debates already about guys like Dakkon and Garth One-Eye!
  • In the AMA Sanderson says he had this Innistradi story brewing in his head for years, so he never considered another setting, though if he had done something else he would like to do a story about one of the legends from Legends that doesn't yet have any lore. To which I can only say: give this man an Adun Oakenshield story!

  • Barl the Smith will of course travel back in time and become Barl the Artificer from The Gathering Dark. Well, maybe. It is just as likely as the cleric Rom travelling to the Marvel Universe and becoming Rom the Spaceknight.
  • The Nameless Angel is definitely not the fourth sister of Bruna, Gisela and Sigarda, as confirmed by the AMA.
  • One of the demons has a contract that gives him Davriel's soul if he correctly guesses what Davriel was thinking of back when they met, which turns out to be “a specific rock I saw once in Cabralin, shaped like a gourd.” Cabralin is a plane from all the way back in Roreca's Tale, one of the oldest Magic stories there is!
  • Miss Highwater was stuck in the Hellvault until Liliana got Talia to break it at the end of the Innistrad story. She was also the first demon Davriel summoned on Innistrad, right after she got out.
  • In the AMA Sanderson says Davriel is from a known place in the multiverse, but not which one.
  • In an article previewing Davriel's planeswalker card and signature spell from War of the Spark, Sanderson makes up a few details about Davriel's involvement in War of the Spark. The events of Children of the Nameless blew his cover, and soon after he was visited several times by "extra-planar entities looking for planeswalker to recruit for their cause" (Ajani perhaps?) and also received a cryptic message that Sanderson might write about in the future. Davriel then went to Ravnica and made an attempt to appear useless so people wouldn't bother to invite him to big crossovers ever again.
  • This sort of stuff, a few facts in a non-lore article on an unofficial site, is exactly the kind of stuff that gets repeated ad infinitum in the community long after the original source is forgotten, but at least the Wiki has included a link to it this time.
  • Davriel at one point uses an ink spell to write some scary eldritch symbols on the walls to scare of some monks. It is actually a recipe for buttered scones in Old Ulgrothan.

We are back in the present, and thus in a vague space in my timeline. We've now reached a point where I'm putting so much stuff on it that I really need a more in-depth timeline for this period than the one I quickly mucked up at the end of the Dominaria reviews. There are just so many things happening at roughly the same time these days that figuring out the exact order is getting tricky. For now I'll put Children of the Nameless alongside the Ravnica stories between which it was released, but after the Gathering Storm chapters are all out I'll take another look at the whole post-Mending timeline.

So I wont have to go through this story again when making that more detailed timeline, these are to temporal references in Children of the Nameless:

  • "The business with the angels" (that is, Shadows over Innistrad) is said to have happened last year, and the Nameless Angel's body hasn't decayed despite it being there for "months".
  • The power of left the Bog, and Tacenda discovered her Song of Warding, "two years ago".
  • In this story Tacenda and Willia are 15.
  • The one time Davriel used the power of the Entity was 5 years ago.
  • The demon Crunchgnar gets Davriel's soul if he stays alive till he's 65, and says that will take another 16 years.


  1. What Sanderson said about the Nameless Angel being the W/B sister was "The team asked me to RAFO this, meaning leave it ambiguous for now." That's not at all saying they're "definitely not" the same.

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  3. So... I guess I really am the only one who found it totally surreal that we have a famous monster-hunting Cathar who tragically had to turn his skills against angels called... "Rom"?

    Seriously, that's Rem Karolus. That's the whole entire deal with REM. So, what, someone noticed that Rem made a cameo in Eldritch Moon's short stories, they asked Sanderson to change it to avoid any potential contradictions, but only had the budget to change one letter? Why give such a similar character such a similar name?

    Also, Davriel is probably from Dominaria, given that Sanderson said in the gizmodo interview that he was "someone I’ve had brewing in my mind for years, and who had been inspired by some Magic lore I’d read in the past," and Sanderson started playing in the Always Dominaria era. Plus, he's a "Rogue Shadowmage," and Shadowmage Infiltrator was a big deal in U/B control decks (Sanderson's favorite archetype) when Sanderson joined the game.

    That's not definitive, especially since the Infiltrator is from Odyssey, but has no lore of its own. Still, it seems worth mentioning.

  4. Wait, what cameo happened in 5th Dawn to include Discworld as canon?

  5. Aw, you forgot to mention Sanderon's delightful assessments of the character's colour identities

  6. “Then lose it,” Karn said. “To bring Glissa and the others back, you and she must both sacrifice the spark. We have time, Slobad, maybe an hour. In that time, I could show you worlds you’ve never imagined. Galaxies the size of a thimble, pocket universes, alternate realities, worlds shaped like perfect cubes, planes as flat as a serving dish that ride on the back of giant reptiles. You will understand that there are things greater than a single world, and they will all be open to you.”