Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Song of Time

Song of Time
Written by Teri McLaren
Published by Harper Prism, 1996

Our story starts during the Brother's War, where the wizard Mishra leads an army of wizards against his wizard brother Urza's army of wizards! Eh... yeah. This does not fit with current continuity at all, but more on that later. For now all you need to know is that Urza summoned a cockatrice but can't control it. Mishra calls in his elite wizards, a group of songmages called The Cirlce. They try to kill the cockatrice, but there is a traitor in their midst who screws up the ritual, so they can only trap it. Mishra is delighted though, charging the head songmage, known as the Collector, with crafting a song that can release and control the creature. Knowing that the release of the creature will mean armageddon (Yes, cockatrice is the scariest creature ever according to this story), the mage actually makes a song that will use the crystals in a magical valley called the Chimes to kill the creature upon its release. But the traitor in the circle, called the Raptor, comes in and kills him before he can write all the instructions down correctly.

Cut to post-Ice Age Terisiare. The last member of the Circle, an archaeologist named Javin (it seems the Circle has since become some sort of mystery cult, as Javin shows no signs of being a songmage) and his adopted song Cheyne, are excavating a site which they hope is the final resting place of the Collector. They stumble on a corpse of a guy who couldn't pay of his debts with the local mobsters, who just happens to hold a totem with symbols on it similar to a totem Cheyne has. This triggers Cheyne to go and find out the truth about his birth parents. While investigating in the local city of Sumifa, he befriends a hobo, Ogwater, who just happens to be a down-on-his-luck songmage, and just happens to be in love with the local lady mob boss, Riolla. Ogwater, agrees to guide Cheyne to the Chimes, where the local elves might be able to translate the symbols on the two totems. First they go and buy a map though. The girl selling the map, Claria, just happens to be the niece of the guy whose corpse Cheyne and Javin found, AND just happens to be a descendant of the Collector (unbeknownst to the characters) AND just happens to be the ex of the local ruler, who put her aside to marry Riolla. You are probably already getting my main problem with this book. Anyway, Riolla has Claria's shop burned down. Claria then decides to tag along with Cheyne and Ogwater.

All the stuff I've just described cover about the first half of the book. The second half covers the journey from Sumifa to the Chimes, and the adventures our heroes have along the way. They pass throught an orc kingdom, a selkie kingsdom and an ice-monster kingdom. All the while they are followed by Riolla, who is working for the Raptor, who is somehow still alive after a few millennia, and who wants to control the cockatrice. In the end the baddies get their hands on the various macguffins of the Circle that the heroes had found or inherited and release the cockatrice. But Ogwater has recovered his own magical gems from the orc-, selkie- and ice kingdoms and starts fighting it with songmagic. In the end Riolla gives him the last of his artifacts back (He had given it to her years ago when he had first fallen in love with her) and he defeats the cockatrice at the last moment.

Everybody goes their merry way, and Cheyne vows to find out the truth about the Raptor and defeat that evil wizard! Except the rest of the trilogy never got made, so... you can decide for yourself whether he succeeded or not.


I was not looking forward to this one. It's by the same writer as Cursed Land, Teri McLaren, and Cursed Land was a chore to finish. As it turned out, Song of Time isn't that bad, but it's still not very good either. On the plus side, there are no out of nowhere plot points, nor are there plotlines that just peter out or are forgotten about. Everything is nicely foreshadowed, and everything has a proper pay off. (Well, except for the Raptor plot, but that is clearly being saved for the never-made sequel.) But even with those improvements, it still caries over other problems from Cursed Land. Characters are still very bland. 

The good guys do little more than trading backstories and stumbling from one close escape into the other. There is no space left for proper characterization. The bad guys do get some characterization, but unfortunately their character traits can be boiled down to "evil" and "unpleasant". The big bad Raptor is just insane, just like Nazir was. The main baddie Riolla is power mad and unlikable, mistreating not only her slaves, but even her main assassin henchman. She's petty, cruel, unlikable in every way and has no redeeming qualities. Not only does that make for a not very interesting character, it also raised a questions like how on earth is Ogwater in love with her? And of course every single bad guy plans to stab every other bad guy in the back, even when it would make much more sense if they would just work together. Personally I find villains much more interesting if you can see their point, or at the very least if they have some charisma, but here being a villain just means you have to be vile in every way possible.

Perhaps the pinacle of blandness is Claria. I couldn't describe her character actually, she just becomes whatever character the plot needs. She's introduced as a mysterious veiled lover of the local king (in a lovely orientalist scene that Edward Said would probably have something to say about), then she suddenly turns out to be the lower class map seller Cheyne and Ogwater need, then she reveals she knows kung-fu because we need another fighter during an action scene, and in the end she is captured of screen to play damsel in distress. The only constant in the portrayal of her character is that she thinks Cheyne is hot!

Again there are barely any cards referenced in this book. There is the cockatrice, and its prison is called the Armageddon Clock, but that's it.

Another problem that rears its ugly head is one I already mentioned during the summary: coincidences. Loads and loads and loads and loads of coincidences. All the people Cheyne meets are somehow linked to each other: the dead guy is the uncle of Claria, who is the ex of the king, who is now marrying Riolla, who is the ex of Ogwater... Even worse is the way various macguffins move through the story. For example: Claria just happens to stumble upon a music box of the Collector, called the Chronicalve, when she inherits her uncle's shop. When Riolla has her shop burned down she just happens to take the Chronicalve along, out of all the things in the shop. She then hides it in an oasis when the group is captured by orcs. Riolla's group, who are also on the way to the Chimes, stop in the same oasis, and Riolla's main assassin just happens to find the Chronicalve. He then loses it IN A FLIPPING MAELSTROM OUT AT SEA, only for Javin to just happen upon it at the beach. And this thingamabob is later instrumental in defeating the cockatrice!  It's not even the only macguffin that this happens to! The notes of the Collector, the totem that sets the whole plot in motions, Ogwater's gems, all of them have a habit of just being dropped by their owners at exactly the right moment to end up where the plot needs them. Cursed Land also had this problem, but I didn't harp on it during me review since I already had enough other stuff to moan about. But the result of all these coincidences is that the world of Song of Time does not feel real. The fact that everyone knows everyone, and that every item that is dropped invariably ends up in another main character's hands makes it feel as if this setting only has about twelve people living in it, and like the whole story takes place in a space no larger than a small parking lot. 

Only thing I did like though, and that is Javin and Cheyne's relationship. It starts out a bit contrived, with Cheyne leaving Javin because he thinks his adoptive dad doesn't support his desire to discover who his birth parents were, while in reality Javin can't tell Cheyne about his identity since that would break a spell that prevents the Raptor form finding him, but later McLaren does get some good scenes out of it. I particularly liked the scene in which Javin sees Cheyne's hand print in the dirt of the archaeological dig, realizes it is as big as his own hands, and marvels at how quickly time has passed.

There are also a few surprisingly well handled death scenes for otherwise "humorous" characters (they are supposed to be comic relief, but the jokes tend to fall flat) near the end. But a handful of good scenes isn't enough to elevate the book to the level of "good". While I generally loathe dangling plot threads, I'm not actually that bothered that I don't have another two of these books to get through. I'm perfectly happy just assuming Cheyne manages to defeat the Raptor a short while after this. Whether that involves a heroic sacrifice or if he lives happily ever after? Meh. Song of Time hasn't made me feel enough about any of its characters to care about how they end up.

Since Song of Time references so few cards, I don't really have any good illustrations. So eh... here, have a picture of a Raptor that is much cooler than the one from this novel!

One last thing: For some reason this book is available as an e-book. No idea why, of all the Harper Prism novels it's only this one and Arena that have digital version. But if you do want to read this book, and you have the possibility to buy a paper version, do so. The e-book is absolutely dreadful. There are so many mistakes, they clearly just clicked "scan to word file" and then put it up on the store without having a single editor look it over. There are no line breaks, making conversations ramble on into one another, occasionally leaving me confused as I could not notice there had been a scene change and it was now another character talking. Quotation marks end up as everything from exclamation points to trademark signs! "I'll" gets rendered as "1*11" at one point. The name "Javin" gets turned into everything from "Iavin" to ")avin" to "]avin". Hell, it took me about half the novel to realize that these "Ore raiders" they mention ever so often are not some form of bandits that plunder mining towns for gold, but "ORC raiders". Seriously, the word "orc" is consistently spelled are "ore", except (somehow) when it's used in another word like "orcish". It is amateurish and just plain embarrassing.

TRIVIA There are two quick mentions of Fallajian territories to the west! The Fallaji played a big role in the story of Antiquities, but I think this is the only reference to them (or at least their name) still being around after 64 AR.

This book also holds the first reference I've found my project to the fact that the Glimmer Moon (aka the Glitter Moon, aka the Null Moon, aka the Little Moon) "just appeared one day". There was already a reference to the moon being artificial in the Ice Age comics though, which was released before this.

When I started this book, I thought this would've been the sources of that "Almaaz conquered by Rigada ice beasts" that keeps popping up on MTG timelines, as this is the only novel to feature Almaaz. Turns out there are no Rigada mentioned anywhere at all. There are ice warriors here, and they did rule over Almaaz during the Ice Age, but they are called the Rimscalla. The oldest reference to the Rigada I could find was on Jeff Lee's site. Since Jeff had personal contact with Terri McLaren when they were trying to get the other parts of this trilogy published by Wizards of the Coast, you'd think he would know. Perhaps more information about the Rimscalla/Rigada connection would've been revealed in the other books?

Have you ever noticed how some illustrations have no relevance whatsoever to the review they are in?

CONTINUITY So yeah, Urza and Mishra as wizards who command wizards. Previous continuity issues in the Harper Prism story I could explain away one way or another, but this is beyond problematic. It is a major plot point for the Brothers' War novel and the entire Ice Age cycle that magic is around during the time of the Brothers. So I can really only see one solution: strike the prologue from continuity. Or at least, have it be a mythical representation of what really happened, rather than a hundred percent factual account. This has the unexpected advantage of making the writing less hacky as well. Minutes after the cockatrice has been imprisoned, Mishra comes up with the idea of shaping its prison into an Armageddon Clock, and immediately everyone is talking about "The Beast of Hours" and "The Great Awakening" (Capitalization included in the text!) It sounds completely hockey and stilted. But if this is a myth, rather than what's actually going on, I can forgive it. I don't like removing stuff from canon, but in this case there simply is no other way.

Those of you who have been keeping up the timeline portion of this project will know that the usual way of counting years in Magic is Argivian Reckoning, a system in which year 0 is the birth year of Urza and Mishra. Song of Time introduces a different system, the much duller sounding "Common Era" system. The prologue set during the Brothers' War is said to happen around 3000 BCE (before common era). It makes sense really, as that would put the start of Common Era reckoning shortly after the end of the Ice Age, which seems a very appropriate time to start a new calender.

After I saw that the prologue happened around 3000 BCE, I had hoped we would get a definitive date for the main events of the novel, but unfortunately the time frame is only called "Present Day". So for while reading the book I was expecting that I'd have to put Song of Time in the same category as I'd put the previous books, at +/- 4000 years after the Brothers' War. But then, in the final parts of the book, it is stated that the newly awakened Cockatrice had been imprisoned 3000 years! So that would put this book around the beginning of Common Era reckoning, or around 3050 AR. When I stopped to think about it, that actually made a lot of sense. The book makes it sound like there are a lot of archaeologists working in Terisiare at the moment, which fits well with the established continuity of Alliances-era Terisiare as a period in which lots of artifacts from the Brothers' War were unearthed after the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated. In addition, there are a few stray mentions of an inner sea, and the ruins of a bridge crossing it. Since the inner sea of Terisiare would eventually become so huge it breaks up the entire continent (see the map below), the ruins of a bridge crossing it would long since have disappeared under the water if this story happened around 4000/4100 AR.

One final note: New Sumifa is said to be 1700 years old during this story.

Yeah, it's a fan made map, but it's a lot clearer than the few incomplete official peeks we got at post-Ice Age Terisiare.
(Oh, and I told you I'd use a different map this week!)


  1. So, would this novel be the only reference to selkies living outside of Shadowmoor?

    1. Jup. But they're nothing like the Shadowmoor ones. These are humanoids that can turn into otters, not the seal hybrids we see there.

  2. Ugh... I bought the novel, but it's no fun to read. I could barely slug through it. I hated how Cheyne gones from the dig site, to the town, to the dig site, and back to the town before the plot starts moving. It's such a waste of time!

    Before this, I also disliked the cursed land, so I guess Teri McLaren just isn't the writer for me.

  3. Ugh... I bought the novel, but it's no fun to read. I could barely slug through it. I hated how Cheyne gones from the dig site, to the town, to the dig site, and back to the town before the plot starts moving. It's such a waste of time!

    Before this, I also disliked the cursed land, so I guess Teri McLaren just isn't the writer for me.

  4. Also, her biography lists this tidbit:

    Teri McLaren is well known as a fantasy writer, her novels The Cursed Land, and Song of Time for the first "original nine" series of Magic:The Gathering {Harper-Prism} books claiming best seller honors way back in the day. She completed the tenth novel {Shadows of Time, the sequel to Song of Time} in that series as well, but it was never published, due to a change in ownership of Wizards of the Coast.

    Do you have anymore information about the Shadows of Time?