Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Shattered Alliance


Writer - Jeff Grubb
Cover Artist - Gary Ruddell
Relased December 2000

SUMMARY
Slightly less of a time jump this time. It is now twenty years after the World Spell, and Terisiare is a little worse for wear. Regions are being flooded, plagues are breaking out, and politically it is in upheaval. The School of the Unseen has emerged from its seclusion and is aiding where it can. Jodah is now the Archmage Emeritus, letting Gerda Äagesdotter do all the hard work. She wanted a promotion so badly that she sold Jodah out to Lim-Dûl last time, so he's punishing her by giving her exactly what she wants. Furthermore, Jodah is scared of the next time he'll be forced to use his mirror to remove the emotions from his memories, as he feels Freyalise did something with the artifact before giving it back to him after casting the World Spell.

Then Jaya Ballard returns with bad news: she found the mummified hand of Lim-Dûl, but the finger that contained Mairsil's ring is gone. Jodah and Jaya immediately head out to track the ring down, to see if their old enemy has resurfaced again.

Their first stop is Tresserhorn, where they find Chaeska, Lim-Dûl's right hand zombie, defending the keep against the zombified Agents of Stromgald. He's propped up another zombie, one which has a passing resemblance to Dûl in his armor, as the Lord of Tresserhorn, but the real master is nowhere to be seen. More curiously, Jodah also discovers that the bottomless pit under the keep, the semi-portal to Phyrexia that Lord Ith was suspended over, has disappeared. The readers learn that it has been transported to Lat-Nam as part of the deal Gerda made with Lim-Dûl: he takes Jodah of her hands, she takes the inconvenient bit of non-euclidean furniture. Now though it suddenly starts growing! Gerda decides to handle it herself. Her pride refuses to let her inform Jodah about it.


After a quick stop at the former battlefield where Dûl was defeated, which includes a meeting with Lovisa Coldeyes and her son Lothar, and the discovery a shaman who has Dûl's finger but not the ring, Jodah and Jaya head to Kjeld. There Jodah uses the materials from Gustha's old tower to create a device that tracks down Lim-Dûl's influence. He exempts Jaya from the device's sight, as she has been carrying the hand for so long that she's bound to set it off. While working in the lab Jodah is suddenly attacked by a Phantasmal Fiend send by Dûl, but before he can follow that lead Jaya falls ill, having caught one of the plagues that's going around in Kjeldor. Jodah and princes Alexandrite, the daughter of king Darien, bring her to the Balduvians to be cured, but then get caught up in grand affairs again. Varchild, the presumed-dead former general, has been leading renegade Kjeldoran soldiers on raids against the Balduvians, and Lovisa's main camp comes under attack. Jodah holds the attack of with his magics just long enough for Alexandrite and Lothar to bring reinforcements. Almost accidental to his main quest Jodah creates another alliance between the two nations, which Lovisa and Darien hope to seal with the marriage of their children. Jodah even coins the name for the new country thus formed: New Argive.


After that diversion of geopolitical significance, Jodah and Jaya return to their Dûl-tracking device, only to be attacked again, this time by a Soldevi Sentry. Since Soldev is also where Jaya found the hand, that is their next destination. Soldev is a city run by the artificer Arcum Dagsson, and is patrolled by his Steam Beasts. Jaya discovers that the Soldevi Adnates, creepy machine worshipers, may have relevant info, so she and Jodah follow one of them through the sewers. They end up in the vaults of Soldev where Dagsson keeps a number of Phyrexian War Beasts. They were excavated at Koilos and the basis for the design of the Steam Beasts. Before Jodah can do anything though, he is stabbed through the throat by Jaya, who reveals she had been the one controlled by Mairsil/Dûl all this time! She uses Jodah's blood, which is special due to his close relationship to Urza, to activate the War Beasts. Those in turn take control over the Steam Beasts and level Soldev, before teleporting to the biggest source of black mana on the continent: the bottomless pit under Lat-Nam!


Jodah retreats into his mirror and uses it to bring himself back from the brink of death, but not before discovering what Freyalise did to it: the planeswalker felt the presence of a Spark at the World Spell casting and figured it was Jodah. Wanting revenge for him scolding her she, inspired by his handling of Gerda, imbued the mirror with part of her essence, so that when he used it he would ascend and know what it was like to be in her place. Jodah is certain he doesn't have the Spark though, as he would have ascended long ago if he had, so he flees the mirror just before the spell takes hold. He faces Jaya/Dûl/Mairsil, who turned gigantic and is messing with what's left of Soldev. Jodah realizes that if he wasn't the one with the Spark, it must have been Jaya. He smashes his mirror into her forehead, which causes her to ascend and burns away the influence of Dûl/Mairsil. The newly ascended planeswalker then heads to Lat-Nam and stops the Beasts (who have already destroyed the School), and then Jodah helps her destroy the bottomless pit.

After all that is over, Jaya says goodbye to Jodah and gives him one last gift: the ability to live as long as he wants, without the pain of memory. She then drops off Gerda and the other survivors somewhere distant, where they can found a new school, before leaving Dominaria altogether. Jodah remains on Terisiare, erasing himself from history and hanging around to see if his skill with planeswalkers will be needed in the future. In the epilogue, another three-hundred years later, we see that it is. Jodah heads into the Ohran Ridge and knocks on the door of Urza's cottage, to tell his ancestor just what happened on Terisiare in the three-thousandish years he's been gone.


REVIEW
For the last two reviews I have been singing the praises of the Ice Age cycle, and I will certainly be continuing that here. Everything I've said about Jeff Grubb's writing style, his characters, his attention to details, all that stuff still applies here. But that said, I do think The Shattered Alliance is the least of the three books. So in the name of variation, let's start with the negative.

The main problem is the new style introduced here: the whodunit plot. The Gathering Dark and The Eternal Ice were set up fairly straightforward. We know the baddie, it's just a matter of how Jodah will defeat him. This time the whole plot resolves around finding out who the baddie actually is. Which means the first parts of the plot are all dead ends. Is he in Tresserhorn? No. Is he in Kjeld? No. Is he Varchild? No. And then up pop the Soldevi Adnates, who don't really have anything to do with the rest of the plot, and it turns out Lim-Dûl is with them. It's just not a very satisfying way to structure a story. The Gathering Dark similarly spend the first half of the book on Jodah stumbling from one situation into the next, but at least there those episodes were used to introduced the Inquisition and Sima, both of which become relevant in the ultimate climax. Also, by having Jodah occasionally bump into the Rag Man you got the feeling that Jodah was being herded towards the main plot. Here the early dead ends never come up again. Had Lim-Dûl's ultimate plan involved his Tresserhorn forces and Varchild somehow, then the ending would have tied everything together nicely. But that doesn't happen. All the earlier stuff is irrelevant by the climax.

However, as this cycle is so good that I can't critique it without also bringing up the good parts, while the use of the Phyrexian War Beasts is rather random in the context of this novel, they and the bottomless pit do tie this cycle into the larger history of Dominaria as a whole and specifically into the Weatherlight Saga. Lim-Dûl/Mairsil may have been the bad guy of this cycle, but indirectly the Phyrexians have always been "the man behind the man". Thereby making this whole story feel much more relevant to the canon than, say, its follow up Legends I. (Which is funny, since the original "man" behind Dûl was Leshrac, who eventually also went over to Phyrexia!)


The other problem with the whodunit plot is that none of the suspects are really plausible. Jodah quickly figures out that Lim-Dûl will have taken over someone significant and makes a list of who it could be. But in the story itself we never see Gustha or Avram, so it can't be them. Varchild is far too obviously a red herring, so... in the end, who is left? Couple that with some reaaaally obvious hints that there is something up with Jaya and, wel... I've lend this book to a few people, and none of them have really been surprised by the reveal. It would've helped if any of the other suspects were shown as more believably options. Or if there was more of a paranoid "who can we trust?"-vibe to the story. But nope.

But I want to reiterate that this is not a bad book by any means. The humor is still brilliant. The action scene are exciting. The world building and continuity references keep coming, referencing recent stuff like Planeswalker, but also works as far back as Song of Time. Heck, characterization-wise The Shattered Alliance might be even better than its predecessors! Jeff Grubb has always been great in bringing that, quickly yet believably showing us the personality and motivations of even minor characters. Yet in the previous two books he never went too deep with it. Jaya dealing with Jodah's occasional aloofness from mortals in The Eternal Ice was as far as it got. But here we have the pain of two friends who lost touch reacquainting and realizing they have grown apart. It's much more real and much more in-depth then what we saw before. Jaya getting annoyed with Jodah wanting to pick up as if nothing happened since they last saw each other, Jodah chiding himself for trying to see if Jaya is wearing a wedding ring (oh the irony!), it's fantastically done. It's real, somewhat understated, without melodrama, just two people talking things out, making things work without ever really coming to a neat solution. I'm especially impressed how Jaya is written as older and slightly more bitter, while keeping her humor and her snark; in other words, her Jaya-ness. Almost a shame to then have her be the carrier of Lim-Dûl, making it a bit unclear which parts of her new darkness were caused by the hardships she experienced, and which ones came from Dûl. We are clearly told that parts of it came from Jaya herself, but the whole thing is still a bit muddled.


In the end this is still a great book that I heartily recommend. It's just not quite as good as its immediate predecessor, and as a result we keep focusing on the bits that don't work, which is a shame really.

TRIVIA
  • In a very neat and subtle bit of foreshadowing, Jaya at one point hums an endlessly repeating song. Earlier in the novel Jodah annoys an eavesdropping Gerda by enchanting his door to sing an endlessly repeating song from his childhood. So where does Jaya get knowledge about such ancient songs from?
  • In a lot less subtle bit of foreshadowing Jaya cows Chaeksa by apparently just staring at him. It's very obvious she revealed her true identity to him, but Jodah buys the explanation that she is just very intimidating. This scene is pretty much identical to a scene in Mercadian Masques (which we'll cover later, but which came out before) where "Takara" does the same to a Kyren goblin.
  • In the epilogue Jodah feels a taint upon Xantcha and Ratape. I guess that's Xantcha's Phyrexianness, and that Ratape just hung out so much with her that she rubbed the scent off on him.
  • Something I've always wondered: If the Mairsil/Dûl gestalt is in the ring on Dominaria, further merging with Jaya, who exactly did Leshrac take to Shandalar? Just Lim-Dûl the soldier, free from Mairsil's influence? Or would his mind be so altered by Mairsil that we now essentially have two gestalts? And if it is the former, would Dûl even remember the decades he was Leshrac's pet? I'd love to see a redux of the Shandalar story in a way that actually matches the Ice Age cycle!
  • Something else I'd want: more about Varchild. She was a very interesting character: prejudiced against the Balduvians, but at the same time feeling the prejudice of the city-Kjeldorans and even willing to work with the barbarians against Lim-Dûl. It's sad to learn she eventually became an anti-Balduvian rogue warlord, very similar to the Knights of Stromgald she fought against in the past. But perhaps even sadder that she ended up just playting the role of red herring in this book when her story has so much potential!
  • We don't get a very clear look at Jaya on the cover of this book, but she looks a lot paler than last time, and a bit blonder as well. Or maybe that is supposed to be Alexandrite?
  • The dude on the back is just a random picture of someone wearing Mairsil's ring, to throw us of the scent.

CONTINUITY
  • To finish the lists from the previous reviews: Argive turned into Giva Province, which turned into Kjeldor and Balduvia,which then merge into New Argive. The Gixian Monastery/Conclave of Mages/Tresserhorn just sinks as the continent breaks up, and the College of Lat-Nam/City of Shadows/School of the Unseen is trashed by the War Beasts, though some survivors set up shop elsewhere. But more on that next time.
  • Oh, and one more of these: according to the Ice Age comic Soldev is build up the ruins of Storgard, and that is where they get their artifacts from. However, this novel reveals it is also near Koilos, and it is actually there that Arcum found the War Beasts.
  • In addition to all that there are also references to Ohran Ridge and Eufan Pincar from Planeswalker, and Almaaz and New Sumifa from Song of Time.
  • The Coral Helm turns up again, as Jodah gets a letter saying the "long lost" artifact has been found. I wonder if Jodah even knows the Rag Man traded the thing for him with the merfolk back in The Gathering Dark.
  • When Jodah and Jaya reach Tresserhorn, the Knights of Stromgald are trying to tear it down to replace it with their own keep. According to Arkol Tresserhorn was only defeated decades later by the forces of New Archive. The Stormgald still being active in this period matches the story "Mirror of Yesterdays" from The Colors of Magic, although that story makes no mention of them being undead. Ah well... I guess that more of the Stromgald zombies could still be intelligent, like Avram Garrison was last book, and those could hire mortal agents if they needed to.
  • Gerda has another a vision of Gix and the Gixians while in the bottomless pit, just like Lord Ith did in The Gathering Dark.
  • There is a quick mention of a trading post called Darien's Roost. From The Duelist #14 we know this place eventually turns into Epityr and that it was instrumental in overthrowing the Sheoltun conquest of Terisiare.
  • The original version of the destruction of Soldev was revealed in an article by Skaff Ellias in Urza-Mishra War #1. There it is said the Steam Beasts were also of Phyrexian creation, rather than works of Arcum, and Jodah is of course missing in that version of the story. It's interesting to see the differences, and how much Jeff Grubb retained of the original version, but clearly this novel is the one that is canon.
  • By the way, that article by Skaff also mentions Sorine Relicsbane and refers to the characters as "she". Here Sorine is "a large, serious-looking bear of a man", presumably based on the art of the card Soldevi Heretic. Funny that this balances out Jaya being a woman, as she was supposed to be a man in the never-published Alliances comic!
  • Sorine's original name is Sorine Daabson, but he renounced it as "a machine maker's name". Arcum keeps him around because he thinks he is funny. Arcum is weird like that. He even has a random Zuran hanging around!

TIMELINE
Like with The Eternal Ice, placing the book itself is very easy, but there is a lot more to talk about, as it influences the placement of a whole slew of other stories. Let's start simple though: The prologue of this book is set during the final battle against Lim-Dûl in The Eternal Ice. The rest of the novel mentions time and time again that it is 20 years after that battle, so that puts it at 2954. The epilogue takes place 300 years later, so 3254... make that "+/- 3250". 

I already mentioned in my Planeswalker review that the "present day" parts of that novel were supposed to happen in 3437 AR, but that this has been made impossible because the Tolarian Academy was already founded in 3285 according to Time Streams. Heck, Time Streams and the official timeline both but all of Time Streams before 3437! Thus those parts of Planeswalker were without an official date for a long time, but now it has finally been nailed down again.

Now onto the other stories...

The story "The Mirror of Yesterday", from The Colors of Magic, happens during the Flood Ages but before the destruction of the School of the Unseen. So it has to happen between 2934 and 2954. Nice and easy.

A more problematic story from that same anthology is "The Crucible of the Orcs". It was supposed to take place a century after the retreat of the ice, but also during Varchild's rise as general. At the time there was no clear indication as to when Alliances happened exactly, just that the Flood Ages lasted several centuries, so that was no problem. (Although King Darien had to be reaaaaally old for his flavor text altercation with Varchild to work) Heck, "The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel" actually states it took centuries for Kjeldor and Balduvia to merge into New Argive. Now this novel changes that, and puts Alliances at the start of the Flood Ages, thus requiring Crucible to move as well. I think the presence of Varchild and Kjeldor is more important to Crucible than the reference to the ice retreating 100 years ago, so I'm also putting it between The Eternal Ice and The Shattered Alliance. Varchild was thought to be killed 5 years before this novel, so Crucible fits between 2934 and 2949.

Which creates all sorts of fan-fic possibilities about linking general Jonar to Sek'Kuar from Coldsnap...
Now we are going way back, to the second month of my blog and Song of Time. That novel had a bit of a weird attitude towards dates: the prologue, during the Brothers' War, happened "3000 years before Common Era", but then the main story was only indicated as happening in the "Present Day". No indication how far into the Common Era the present was supposed to be. Though at the end there was a reference to the Cockatrice, which was imprisoned in the prologue, awakening from its prison and screaming about 3000 years of anger. Thus I put the story at +/- 3050, and the founding of New Sumifa, which is said to be 1700 years old in that novel, at +/- 1350.

This is made impossible by The Shattered Alliance though, as it mentions New Sumifa as one of the cities the Scholars of the Unseen helped found in the twenty years between their emergence from secrecy and their destruction. I'm fine with that ret-con really. It makes thematic sense to have New Sumifa be another nation reborn after the Ice Age, like New Argive, rather than it randomly popping up in the middle of the frozen years, and it puts the founding of New Sumifa approximately 3000 years after the Brothers' War, thus tying it into the start of the Common Era calendar. Plus it creates links between disparate parts of the canon by involving Jodah in the founding, which I always like. Now we have a conundrum on our hands though: what to do with Song of Time itself?

If we retain the 1700 years New Sumifa is supposed to be around, that would put Song of Time somewhere between 4634 and 4654... make that "+/- 4640". But that is way into the future, after even the Invasion and Time Spiral! I don't like putting stories that were written before the Invasion after it, since it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that such destructive events would've happened without being mentioned in the stories. Furthermore, such a late placement contradicts the reference to the Cockatrice having been imprisoned for "3000 years".

The other option is to retain the "3000 years" reference, though that would put Song of Time about 100 years after the founding of New Sumifa, which is incredibly close compared to the original 1700 years. Still, I think this is the better option. You don't get the weirdness of putting a story from 1996 after Time Spiral, and as I mentioned in its own review, Song of Time actually has a bunch of details that make a lot of sense for the Flood Ages. Shame of that "1700 years" reference, but the other options are just worse in my opinion.

Now that I've brought up Song of Time again, let's take a moment to once more laugh about how it tried to paint Cockatrice as the biggest, baddest, scariest creature in all of Magic!
Next on the list of stuff mentioned here is Alliances, the unpublished comic. Or perhaps more accurately: the paragraph from "The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel" that told the story that was originally going to be told in the Alliances comic. Back when I talked about the comic I said it had to happen before The Shattered Alliance, since Jaya talks about those events as having happened since she last saw Jodah. A closer reading of this novel makes me a bit more cautious though. Jaya does mention the fall of Fyndhorn and the elves moving to Yavimaya, but she also mentions that "something nasty is growing" in Yavimaya. So clearly the conclusion of the comic/paragraph hasn't happened yet.

Presumably by the time of this novel Kaysa and Jaeuhl are still fighting the gorillas and whatever "malign intelligence" is behind them. In Coldsnap the elves seem firmly in control of Yavimaya though, so their deal with the apes has to happen shortly after, or perhaps even simultaneously with, The Shattered Alliance, as Coldsnap happens only 2 years after Alliances. I'm going to alter my timeline to clarify this.

So we've got a pretty clear timeline for the Kaysa/Jaeuhl parts of the pre-rev Alliances story, but what about the Taysir/Kristina parts? Originally their split was going to happen in that comic, with Taysir's imprisonment of Leshrac between the comic and the Summit of Minorad. That needs to be reevaluated now we've had to split up the comic. A very strict reading of "The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel" puts Kristina leaving Taysir before all the stuff with the elves and Ravidel's apprenticeship to Taysir and everything that follows from that after the calming of Yavimaya, so that will be how I will be splitting those events up. Lastly the Serra Angel comic has supposed to happen after the Alliances comic but still during the Flood Ages, but we have no indication of its relationship to the imprisonment of Leshrac, so I´ll just be keeping that with the later Taysir stuff in one single entry on the timeline.


Finally, I was hoping to find a reference to just how long the Flood Ages last in this novel, but alas. Just more vague statements about "centuries". Arkol does say that after the World Spell it only took 100 years for the coastlines to settle, but we know from Planeswalker that during that book Dominaria's climate still had not fully recovered. All of this is relevant for the placing of the Summit of Minorad, as we have no other date for it than "as the last vestiges of ice disappeared"/"at the dawn of a new age". Without clearer proof I'm going to keep the Summit between the last story that references the Flood Age and the first one that makes no mention of it, so between Planeswalker and Time Streams. That kinda makes it look like I have a fairly specific date for it, as it falls between 3250 and 3285. In reality it is of course a much more vague date, as it is entirely possible the climate hadn't fully calmed down yet during the initial parts of Time Streams, but that it just isn't mentioned because the story happens on a tropical island. But hey, it has to go somewhere.

FINAL THOUGHTS
And with that we've covered the entire Ice Age cycle! But before we return to the Weatherlight Saga proper, there is still one more thing to talk about. No, not Coldsnap, that was released much, much later, and doesn't even feature Jodah or links to the Weatherlight Saga, so I'm not going to be pulling that all the way forward. No, I am of course talking about the continuity conundrum that is the island of Lat-Nam. I've been talking about that since pretty much the very beginning of this blog, so at the end of its second year it seems high time to finally figure it out.

This Christmas you'll get another short article covering the last info pertaining Lat-Nam we haven't talked about yet: a few bits from a behind-the-scenes document Brady Dommermuth once revealed on the MTGSally forums. Then we'll finally have everything covered and I'll close out this year with the Lat-Nam overview article, so we'll be ready to tackle the rest of the Weatherlight Saga at the start of 2017!

2 comments:

  1. Can't wait for your Lat-Nam article.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Didn't saw you finished the trilogy during the holidays, you work fast! Not much to add to this one, as i said i felt a little let down by the conclusion of this cycle, and you seem to agree it's the weekest of the three books.
    It still makes it leagues above most other Magic novel thought, because Grubb is a fantastic author.
    While i enjoy the climax with the Phyrexian War Beast, I agree we spent too much time on B plots that were not properly resolved (did the knight of Stromgald manage to take over Tresserhorn? what happens wiht the heart of Yavimaya? does New Argive manages to reconcile its two people?) and didn't play directly into the conclusion.
    It's the first of these book to left me wanting to know more because i felt i was missing something. I guess the comic version answer most questions but still, i'm not a fan of a story that relies on outside content to tie all of its loose ends.
    As I say, still a great Magic book.

    ReplyDelete