Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Gathering Dark

Writer - Jeff Grubb
Cover Artist - Gary Riddell
Released June 1999

We are back in the Dark Age, between the Sylex Blast and the coming of the ice, and with that comes intolerance, plague and war. We follow the young wizard-in-training Jodah,who is not having a good time during the first half of this book. First he is captured by the inquisition, who kill his mentor Voska. He flees to the city of Alsoor just as it falls under plague quarantine. He gets a job selling folk cures, but his own magical improvements of the healing balms bring the inquisition down on him again. To flee persecution he joins the army, only to have both his fellow soldiers and the opposing army be slaughtered by attacking goblins and giants. Eventually he hooks up with Sima, a wizard of the City of Shadows, who promises to bring him to this mysterious school to study magic in peace. But then he is kidnapped by merfolk working for the Rag Man, who instead leads him to the rival school called the Conclave of Mages.

Jodah quickly makes friends with the wizards at the Conclave, and when their leader, Mairsil, takes great interest in him it seems like he has finally found his place in the world. But then he starts to figure out that here things aren't all on the up and up either, as he discovers what the audience knew since the prologue: Mairsil has usurped control of the Conclave from its founder, Lord Ith, who he keeps in locked in a cage that allows Mairsil to drain his powers. Ith has gone completely insane, but in a rare moment of clarity he summoned the Rag Man and ordered it to bring someone to free him to the Conclave. Why Jodah? We don't really know. Perhaps it has something to do with the magical mirror Voska gave him? Or with the fact that he is the great-great-grandson of Jarsyl, the grandson of Urza himself?

His famous ancestors certainly are why Mairsil is interested in him, as he hopes Jodah can recreate Jarsyl's famous journey to Phyrexia. You see, Mairsil thinks the Phyrexians can turn him into a planeswalker. Luckily for him he never finds out just how mistaken he was about that. The inquisition has been following Jodah, and launch an huge attack on the Conclave. The mages defeat them, but meanwhile Jodah has been joined by Sima, and the two free Ith. The insane wizard kills Mairsil, but then is shown his reflection in Jodah's magical mirror, which restores his mind before he causes further destruction. Ith decides to head off, while Jodah and Sima take the remaining wizards from the destroyed Conclave to the City of Shadows.

Oh, and amid all this, there is also a very strange chapter in which Jodah has to hide from goblin in the fountain of an abandoned village, and afterwards discovers his wounds have been healed. If you just read this book it feels completely random, but if you are familiar with the cards in The Dark, and if you know how far in the future the next novel in this cycle takes place, things should be a bit clearer for you.

Ah, the Ice Age cycle! I have been looking forward to doing this one, as I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. Let's start positive, with the love: these books are just damn good. Maybe not in the upper echelons of my Magic novel ranking, which I save for when Magic gets seriously tragic (think The Brothers' War and Nemesis), but but certainly directly after that, at the top of the "really good adventure stories" list.

Jeff Grubb is back, and now that he doesn't have a decades long fraternal tragedy to cover he gets to lighten up a bit. There is plenty of humor to be found here, though the novel can get serious when it has to. Grubb manages to mesh those two tones very well, and even uses it very effectively to show contrasts. For example, compare the silly antics of the Conclave mages during a dinner when Mairsil is not present to their solemness when he is. This cycle also has lots of great characters, cool action scenes and a looooooot of neat little details in the worldbuilding. Oh, and plenty of fun continutiy stuff. Not just in references to previous stories, though there is a lot of that as well, but also in exploring Magic's entire premise. Picking up on Jeff Grubb's previous story, Loran's Smile, this cycle devotes a lot of time to explaining the workings of magic, mana, summoning, planes... perhaps not so much the workings of planeswalkers, but certainly the effect they have on normal people (in a way that feels much more organic and real than in the Greensleeves cycle and certainly better than in the Loot Niptil stories). These books probably contain the most comprehensive explanation of Magic's mechanics in lore, and I would thus have made it compulsory reading for anyone who wants to write stories in this continuity.

But this talk about continuity brings us to the part about this trilogy that I hate, or at least that part that irritates me a lot: the ret-conning. WotC had already shown that it is quite willing to do ret-cons with The Brothers' War, which is of course my favorite Magic novel of all time. So I want to make it clear that I don't mind ret-conning itself, but the way in which it is done. The Brothers' War was a surgical procedure. The Antiquities comics were taken out, and the novel put in. Neat, fitting, perfectly fine. The Ice Age cycle is a lot more messy. It references a lot of stuff, from Feast of Kjeld to Song of Time to the Ice Age comics, even unpublished stuff like the Walker of Night and Alliances comics, thereby bringing some elements of those stories into continuity proper for the first time. Yet it does so in ways that don't match well. Lim-Dûl's appearances in The Eternal Ice completely contradict those in the Ice Age comic, yet the Freyalise parts of that same novel reinforce the Summit of the Null Moon and Tevesh Szat portions of that same comic. So what do we make of the comic-scene where Tevesh Szat and Lim-Dûl are standing right next to each other? Heck, it's not even just the "pre-revisionist" stuff that gets this treatment. Even stories from The Colors of Magic get contradicted! So for all its qualities, this cycle also requires a looooooooooot of continuity fan-fixes, and it really shows how far removed we now are from the days of Mirage, when Pete Venters' team made such efforts to consolidate continuity. (And think of how quickly this happened! This book came out in june 1999. Pete Venters' departure from WotC had only been announced in the September 1998 issue of The Duelist!)

All that being said though, of the three novels in the Ice Age cycle, The Gathering Dark is the one to which all of this applies the least. It is very good, but not quite as good as the next two books, and it has a few minor continuity issues, but nothing as bad as Eternal Ice. A good start to the cycle then: it introduces the themes that its sequels will build upon! The one part where The Gathering Dark comes top of the trilogy is in the explanation department. As Jodah spends this book going from master to master (Voska, Sima, Mairsil, Ith), this is where we get the most extensive explanation of how magic actually works. I guess those scenes might annoy some people who just see them as info dumps, but personally I really like them. They fit very naturally into the story, and are essential to not just this story but the entire franchise. The only problem I have with this novel is the pacing. Jodah spends approximately the entire first half stumbling from one disaster into the next, occasionally bumping into the Rag Man. When Lord Ith learns of Jodah's arrival at the Conclave and says "it begins", on page 156 of 342, I found myself going "well, that was a long intro!". But this is by no means a deal breaker. Just go into this book expecting an anthology that halfway through turns into a longer story and you're fine.

No, wait! I've got another complaint! The utter lack of Uncle Istvan in this novel!
  • I've never been a fan of the cover art of this book. Jodah is described as a young man who is proud of the embarrassingly thin moustache he (barely) grow. So why is he Fabio-ing it up on the cover?
  • For all its talk about how magic and mana works, The Gathering Dark also showcases a rather archaic view of the color pie. Black is described as the "Balance between life and death" and blue both "Emotion and control". That sounds more like Black/Green and Blue/Red to me. Of course, we could always blame that on the fact that, in-universe, we are dealing with the experimental theories of the first wizard schools. On a meta-level though, I'm getting more and more interested in finding out when the modern interpretation of the pie finally developed. Something to keep an eye out for in the future!
  • All chapters are prefaced with a paragraph written by one "Arkol, Argivian Scholar", who writes about The Dark from his vantage point around 4000 AR. Sometimes he gives us little tidbits of worldbuilding, at other time he just has some snarky comments about historians. A snarky historian. For some reason I find I quite like him.
  • This novel introduces Watersilver, a metal that prevents wizards from casting spells when they are bound by it. You'd think that would play a bigger role in the canon, but it is forgotten about immediately.
  • The battle in which the army Jodah enlisted in and their enemy are both routed by the goblins is the Battle of Pitdown, of Bone Flute fame.
  • While in the army Jodah meets a young soldier who turns out to be the future hero Tivadar of Thorn. Of course that's a bit of a coincidence, which Arkol immediately pokes fun at. He mentions stories that say Vervamon, who you might remember from Dark Legacy, knew Primata Delphine, the main inquisitor chasing after Jodah, and that Tivadar knew the Rag Man.
  • The Rag Man gets the merfolk to capture Jodah by giving them a Coral Helm. Presumably it is the same one that keeps turning up in Jeff Grubb stories. It was last seen being fished out of the sea and sold to the Third Path in The Brothers' War. No idea how Raggy got hold of it.
  • This novel also introduces the Safehavens. Where the card just shows a cave you could hide in, in fact there is a whole network of magical caves throughout Terisiare, and a skilled wizard can use them to teleport all over the continent.
  • The Conclave of Mages is build on the spot where once the Monastary of Gix stood, and Ith's cage is hung about the bottomless pit that the Gixians used to sleep around to get visions of Phyrexia. Ith imagines (or does he?!) gremlins tormenting him, and at one point he actually gets a vision of Gix himself. I suspect Mairsil is also being influenced by Gix, or more likely whatever high ranking Phyrexian succeeded Gix after he was chucked into the punishment sphere in Planeswalker, in an attempt to get around the Shard that keeps Phyrexia out of Dominaria. This makes Phyrexia the real threat, the "man behind the man", of this novel (heck, of this whole cycle!)
  • The text drops a few hints, suggesting the original Rag Man is someone we should know. Both Ith and Jodah think they recognize something familiar about him. It is not followed up upon  though. Ith kills him in his insane rage (the dying rag man still pleads with Jodah to save his master from his insanity), and in the end he turns Barl into a new version, but we never learn the identity of the original. Perhaps this subplot was something left over from an earlier draft of the story? In the printed novel there really is only one missing character it could be: Jarsyl, who disappeared when Jodah's grandmother was a little girl. But why on earth would he be Ith's undead minion now?
  • By the way, Raggy is looking particularly Nazgûl-y on the back cover.
  • When he is leaving Ith says stuff about "going elsewhere" and then mentions that "this world is dying". And when he is just freed he turns into a huge ball of fire with a face. This has led some people to speculate about whether he is in fact a planeswalker. There is no real proof either way, but I'd say he isn't unless specifically stated. Plus, if he was, why didn't Grubb use him in the next novel, which prominently features planeswalkers?
  • Most of the Conclave wizards have random names: Shannan, Ophenian, Shan-lo, Lucan, Drusilla... but one of them is called Orm. That one is refusing meals, trying to survive purely on meditation. I wonder how that will work out for him.

  • The opening of The Gathering Dark raises an interesting question for us continuity minded people. In it Jeff Grubb mentions talking to Jesper Myfors, one of the creators of The Dark, who confirmed that Barl and Lord Ith were different people, despite the flavor text of Dark Sphere suggesting they were the same person. Of course, the fans would have no way of knowing that flavor text was wrong, and indeed Jeff Lee's site talks about "Barl, Lord Ith" as one character. So what counts? The official explanation held by the people at WotC, despite nobody else knowing about it? Or the interpretation of a piece of flavor text (which, to be fair, clearly suggests Lord Ith is just Barl's title) by fans, despite the creators not accepting it? Of course, the question is now moot since this novel makes the distinction quite clear, but it does nicely illustrate the vague line between canon and fanon during the early days of Magic.
  • Quick continuity overview: The Conclave of Mages used to be the Gixian Temple, Jodah's home of Giva Province was Argive, and the City of Shadows was the College at Lat-Nam.
  • Vervamon, introduced in the flavor text but featured in Dark Legacy is namescheck by Arkol.
  • Almaaz, from Song of Time is also mentioned a few times
  • Speaking of Song of Time: Jodah spots some Fallaji rugs and mentiones there haven't been Fallaji for centuries. In Song of Time we learned that some regions of Terisiare are still called the "Fallaji territories". Clearly the name stuck for millennia longer than the people.
  • One continuity issue is that of the Rag Man. Here he is simply an undead minion of Lord Ith. But in the short story Inherritance, from the anthology Tapestries, he was some weirdly undefined demon-incubus-thing that impregnated women, who all lived in the same village for some reason... and eh... Look, it's been a while since I read that story, and checking my review, I didn't understand it back then either. Suffice to say, it's a fundamentally different Rag Man, that can't be squared in any way with the one we see here. Maybe Ith based his favorite summoning on stories about that thing from Inherritance?
  • Oh, and in this story it is stated that if you get mana burn to often you turn into one of the Fallen. Clearly this means that removing it from the burn is a huge flavor fail and that is should be reintroduced immediately!
That was me being silly by the way. Please keep mana burn out of the rules!
This novel doesn't say much about the timeline, other than the obvious fact that it takes place between the Sylex Blast and the start of the Ice Age. The Eternal Ice will however give us Jodah's date of birth: 413 AR. This, combined with a few references to his age and the duration of Ith's imprisonment, allow for a pretty specific placement of this novel. (Normally save this discussion for the review of the novel that actually mentions the date, but... believe me, I'll have more than enough other continuity stuff to talk about next time!)

Jodah started practicing Magic at age 15, and has been with Voska for 1,5 years at the start of this novel. This story certainly spans months, placing it at approximately 430 AR. From that we can calculate Lord Ith's imprisonment. It is described as "over a decade" and  "fifteen-odd years" in the novel, but on the flavor text of Barl's Cage it clearly says a dozen, which nicely falls in between a decade and 15 years. This then allows us to finally wrap up something that has been stuck as a "temporary placement" on my timeline for almost two years now! You see, in A Monstrous Duty, a short story in Distant Planes, there is a quick mention of peasants signing up with a rebellion that will try to restore Lord Ith. Clearly that has to happen while Ith is in his prison. It might seem a bit weird for peasants to do this, 'cause why would they care, but it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a few wizards unhappy with Mairsil's rule (he is the kind of boss who breaks your hands for failure after all) trying to raise an army against the usurper.

Two things might seem odd about placing this story so late though. First, the official timeline puts the set The Dark earlier, in ~300 AR. The original version of that timeline, from The Duelist #34, even puts The Gathering Dark there directly. This is not much of a problem in my eyes though. The Eternal Ice was released later, so you can see it as a ret-con, and the later version of the timeline doesn't specifically link the date to the novel, just the set. Heck, you can even go with a broad interpretation of that "~" symbol. Every in-story source says the Dark Age begins with the Sylex Blast and ends with the beginning of the Ice Age, a period of  almost 400 years. On that scale there isn't much problem with saying "~300" comes with an error margin of 130 years, putting The Gathering Dark at the end of the Dark Age.

I'm still keeping the "~300" date for any other The Dark-related stories though. Which I think is just Inheritance and Dark Legacy. That actually works out quite nicely: in Dark Legacy Coal Golems are seen as bizarre, never seen before minions of the Niroso, whereas in Monstrous Duty (which, as explained above, is tied to The Gathering Dark's later placement) Coal Golems are mentioned in passing as just another monster that roams the land.

The other apparently weird thing about the late date... Jodah is supposed to be Jayrsil's great-great grandson. But we saw Jayrsil as a little kid in the last chapter of The Brothers' War. So even if everyone in Jodah's family has kids at the age of 75, we still don't reach such a late date! We are told that Jayrsil only disappeared when Jodah's grandmother was a little girl though, so clearly this has nothing to do with a family getting kids at ridiculously old ages, but with one wizard getting ridiculously old using magic. It's a bit odd that nobody remarks on this, or on how he hid his age from the Inquisition, but clearly it must have happened.

And that is The Gathering Dark! Next up: The Eternal Ice, when we really get into the meat of this cycle! I'm aiming to put the review up this weekend, to make up for time lost during my broken-laptop-induced absence, so be sure to check back soon!


  1. Nice to see the reviews are coming back. And for the Ice Age trilogy no less, definitely some of the best Magic material ever written.
    Your review really says it all: the slight continuity problems are overshadowed by the great writing, wether it be plot, characters or in-depth lore analysis.
    I agree that this book cycle should be mandatory reading for Magic authors, because it solidified in my mind the most coherent way that the colors of magic and the act of summoning actually work in-universe.
    A quick note: it baffles me that Wizards didn't read this and ran with the concept of this book: the Conclave of Mages is a school of magic where student are separated in different houses based on what color they are studying, picking up extra ones at each new step of their curriculum... the Harry Potter vibe is strong, and with modern design's love of faction-based sets and block, I'd really like a "Magic School" setting to be explored in the future.
    Great job as always, and I'm eagerly waiting for the next book where Jodah gains the title of Archmage Eternal he's so renowned for, and for the introduction of the greatest Magic character, Jaya Ballard.

  2. Nice review. I really want to read that novel

    I am glad you started again to do review. I read your whole blog last holiday (2015) so I hope I have more stuff to read in the upcoming week.