Sunday, 29 January 2017

Mercadian Masques

Writer - Francis Lebaron
Cover artist - Kev Walker
Released September 1999

We start where Rath and Storm left off: the Weatherlight just went through the planar portal, only to crash on a farm on an unfamiliar plane. They immediately get mistaken for Ramos, a local deity who also famously crashed from the sky after traveling from another plane, and thus the crew is immediately in trouble. The ship, with Orim still on it, is taken by the Cho-Arrim forest dwellers, while most of the crew is arrested by the Mercadians and taken to their inverted mountain city.

In a scene similar, but not quite identical, to the comic we looked at last time Gerrard and the crew escape. This gives them a fearsome reputation as "giant killers", which they use as leverage against the magistrate of the city. They break in to his parlor and make a deal: Gerrard will train the Mercadian troops, and in exchange those forces will help the crew retake the Weatherlight. Unbeknownst to him though Orim has struck up a friendship with the Cho-Arrim, and has fallen in love with their leader Cho-Manno. So when Gerrard shows up with an army, and when the Cateran mercenaries that are part of that army start slaughtering everyone, this creates a rift between Orim and the rest of the crew. Even worse, ultimately it was all for naught: the Mercadians and Cateran turn on the crew, capture them and keep the Weatherlight for themselves.

The crew have another escape attempt, but they botch it. Gerrard, Karn and Tahngarth remain in custody. With them as hostages the Mercadians force Hanna, Sisay and Orim to go to the city of Saprazzo to collect the Power Matrix, an artifact that was also part of the god Ramos and that could greatly empower the Weatherlight. However, they are once again betrayed by their Mercadian handlers, who steal the Matrix, kill its guardians and try to frame Orim. Luckily the Saprazzo have telepaths, so her name is quickly cleared. Then Cho-Manno turns out to be alive and in Saprazzo for some reason, and he's brought Lahaine, the leader of the Ramosian rebels, a group of Ramos worshipers who oppose the rule of the Mercadians. These events cement an alliance between the crew, the Sapprazzo, the Cho-Arrim and the Ramosians, who head out to topple the Mercadians and save the Weatherlight.

Meanwhile in the city, Gerrard, Tahngarth and Karn have twigged that Takara is trying to tear them apart. And sure enough, we the readers discover that the Takara they took with them from Rath is actually Volrath! Volrath is the secret leader of Mercadia, and kills Starke as vengeance for his betrayals. The rest of the crew turn up and save Gerrard and co, and then head off to the Henge of Ramos, where they expect to find five smaller powerstones, without which the Power Matrix will not work. Despite the crew's misgivings about Takara they allow her to tag along.

After fighting their way through ghouls and other nasties the crew meets a bunch of dryads near the Henge, and eventually Ramos himself'. It turns out that Ramos was a dragon engine who was supposedly reprogrammed by Urza to save people from the Sylex Blast. He took the ancestors of the Cho-Arrim, the Sapprazzo and the Rishadan to Mercadia. (This is of course utterly impossible given the timeline of events in The Brothers' War, but more on that below.)  Ramos is disillusioned and refuses to help, but Gerrard gives a speech about no longer running away from his destiny, and the dryads sing a little song, which convinces Ramos to help. Unfortunately after giving up the five powerstones, "Takara" steals them.

Hanna, Karn and Squee stayed behind in Mercadia during all this, but they were captured and Volrath is now forcing the former two to rebuild the Weatherlight by threatning to kill their goblin buddy. Hanna does so, but just in time the revolutionary forces attack and the Weatherlight crew invade the Mercadian air-ship hangar. They retake the Weatherlight and start blowing up the skyships stationed there in preparation for the Phyrexian Invasion of Dominaria. The rebels win, the Weatherlight has one final dogfight with Volrath's flagship which they win by shooting it down (though Volrath himself manages to use a planar portal to escape), all the locals think this dogfight is the fulfillment of a prophecy about Ramos and his brother having a big fight, and then Ramos himself turns up and proclaims himself protector of his "children". The Weatherlight crew, with a powered up ship and a Gerrard who now accepts his role as savoir, say goodbye to their new friends and head back to Dominaria to prepare for the coming invasion.

Not too long ago Mark Rosewater mentioned on his Tumblr that Mercadia was "a bit of a mess" creatively, and I tend to agree. Let's think about it: what is the theme of this plane? First we have the upside-down mountain, the apparently non-euclidian street pattern of Mercadia city and the dust storms that warp space. This all suggests that Mercadia is a truly alien plane where the laws of nature are off. But then it is filled with bog standard farmers, merchants and your average collection of humans, goblins and merfolk, which rather detracts from that. Another hook is that it is "the plane where everything is for sale", but other than the crew continuously running into markets nothing is done with this theme. There is the whole down-to-earth rebels versus fancy-pantsy decadent people who literally live above everyone, so... is the hook that this is Magic's version of the Hunger Games?
Ultimately the plot revolves around the way Mercadia is tied to Dominaria and Rath, as there are constant hints about this which culminates in the reveal that Ramos is a dragon engine. Yet that doesn't coalesce into a coherent whole with all those other themes. All in all, "a bit of a mess" is a good way to describe it.

The incoherence is not just a problem with the setting however, you also feel it in the plot. Sometimes it gets really grim, like when all Orim's new friends are cut down in front of her eyes. Yet at other times it is very silly, like during the first escape attempt, when Karn is dancing with a giant and Squee is chucking melons at Cateran Enforcers. We just looked at the Ice Age cycle, which managed to merge humor and drama much better, so naturally I started comparing the two to see what the big difference was. I noticed a few things.

First, Ice Age had smart alec-y characters who made funny remarks, but no real comic relief. The characters themselves were cracking jokes at points, but were capable of being serious at other times. And if there were any scenes you could describe as purely comical they were used as downtime, to give you a breather between scenes of action or intrigue. Here some major plot developments acutally hinge on Squee's antics: the first escape attempt, the discovery of the Phryexian war fleet... it leaves me wondering if I am supposed to take this whole story seriously or not.

Another problem is the way the story deals with death. In the Ice Age books very few people actually die, but you care a lot about even minor characters because Jeff Grubb gives every one of them a clear personality. Here almost every big battle involves the death of a bunch of red shirts, but these are not given a single shred of personality between them. The impact of these deaths on the main characters is also handled poorly. We get a few scenes of Gerrard lamenting their deaths, only to immediately forget about them. Even Mirri, Ertai and Crovax are seemingly completely forgotten about after the ceremony the crew have for them at the beginning of the book. Which is especially odd given that there is a whole subplot about "Takara" trying to tempt Gerrard to the dark side. Surely the death of his best friend would be good material for that? But no, "Takara" just gives some bland speeches about how hate is a fantastic motivator, which Gerrard buys into for some reason.

Even when it comes to characterization the book is inconsistent. At some points it is really bad. For example, when the Mercadians first attack the ship Gerrard realizes he's far outnumbered, then attacks anyway... and then surrenders when people die because they are outnumbered. Eh... huh? Isn't this guy supposed to be a tactical genius? Well, at least he is not as dumb as Tahngarth, who jumps out of an elevator to save Gerrard at one point, only to realize he's miles up in the air. The only reason he doesn't end up as a smear on the ground is because Karn happens to be down there with a piece of tarp. There is a difference between writing a character as impulsive and suicidally stupid you know!

And yet... the scenes of Tahngarth and Hanna talking about the importance society prescribes to beauty, of Gerrard and Sisay talking about how her imprisonment made her stronger, of Tahngarth and Gerrard admitting that they admire each other during a brawl... Those scenes are all genuinely great, so clearly Francis Lebaron can write very good scenes. Heck, the battles are generally pretty good as well, and I really like the way the crew slowly hears the local myths and wonders how bits of Dominarian history ended up in them. But then he turns around and writes scenes where Orim actually says "Live, damn it, live!" while giving CPR, or sentences like "Takara lied sprawling brokenly" or "Gerrard asks wonderingly", which seem to come straight from someones first attempt at writing a fanfic.

So yeah, while it is nice that we get to see the Weatherlight crew again after a year's absence, this book's inconsistency mostly just left me annoyed. Maybe Lebaron should've just written a book length story about the crew setting around a campfire, talking about their experiences in Rath and what they gleaned from the culture of Mercadia. Would've been interesting. Unfortunately all that adventuring business gets involved.

  • On Mercadia the Kyren goblins are the ruling class, and they accept Squee as one of them, though they also constantly make jokes at his expense. Squee is too stupid to notice they are actually being mean to him. The goblins being on top is another part of the "everything you know is wrong" element of Mercadia, but just like the strange geography nothing comes of it.
  • The book is full of weird names for stuff. There are Qomallen, creatures that apparently howl in the night but are never described, Simsass plants, Tartoo trees, Kava berries, Farfallen melons, Rada wine, Tralans, Morkrain... but since none of these are described, you just end up reading "berries" "wine" or "plants" and gloss over the weird fantasy prefixes. As a result all these names add nothing to the fantastical nature of the setting. It doesn't suddenly sound exotic because you call winter "coldseason" people. The only ones that get any description are the Jhovall, presumably because those made it into the cardgame.
  • A whole bunch of Weatherlight crewmembers gets introduced in this story, but most of them don't survive the experience. Danis, Groud, Erkika, Bevela and someone seriously called Steepen Willm, all die in the initial crash. Drianani dies in the Cho-Arrim attack, Klaars dies while killing Cho-Arrim in revenge for them amputating his arm. Tallakaster and Ilcaster die in the journey to Ramos and Chamas in the attack on Mercadia. Only Fewsteem and Dabis survive, and they will even appear in Invasion. (Don't get too attached to them though.)
  • Oh, and yes, you read that right, one of the crewmembers is called "Ilcaster", like the character from the framing story of Rath and Storm. Must be a common name on Dominaria.
  • We occasionally get references to animal people hanging around Mercadia. I assume those are the Mongers.
  • At one point "Takara" intimidates a Kyren in the exact same way "Jaya" intimidated/will intimidate Chaeska in The Shattered Alliance. It's quite odd that two books I review in succession each have scenes in which men impersonating women let one of their minions know their true identity through a stare, while passing it of as simple intimidation to the people they are stringing along.
  • Cho-Manno's return is really weird. He talks about how his people are hard to kill, and how he hid in a dark piece of the Woods where something dark lives... but we never get any explanation for why people said he was dead, or what that dark thing is.
  • Gerrard at one point uses the exclamation "By Urza's rack and Mishra's ruin!" Waaaaaay back in Whispering Woods Gull used the curse "By Urza's udders!" So... who has been spreading tales about Urza's bosom across Dominaria? (Seriously though, I do like "By Urza's rack and Mishra's ruin!" as a curse. Liliana has been using some Dominarian swearing in the current storyline, so I hope she picks this one up!)
  • Those weapons seen on Talruum Champion and Tahngarth, Talruum Hero are aparently not Bat'leth's. They are called Strivia, and are the signature weapon of the Talruum. Tahngarth finds them on a Mercadia, but no explanation is given how they ended up on another plane. The Phyrexians have planar travel, but I find it hard to imagine them bringing along Talruum weapons just to sell them on a market.
  • Another weird thing about the worldbuilding is the use of languages. After they crash the crew can immediately speak with the local farmers without anyone commenting on it. Then later the Mercadians show up and nobody understands their High Mercadian, except for Takara, since it sounds like Rathi, which makes Gerrard very suspicious. Why on earth he finds it strange they know Rathi on another plane but completely accepts them speaking Dominarian languages is a mystery to me. Later in the novel there is mention of "the common tongue", but later still the Saprazzo Grand Vizier telepathically learns to speak with Sisay, and then the language is suddenly called "Dominarian". Which is strange in itself, since there have been plenty of references to different languages existing on Dominaria. There is not just one world-language there. If you're going to make a plot point of the local language, at least pay some attention to the details and have things make sense. Otherwise you're better off just glossing over it all and having everyone in the Multiverse speak the same language.

  • Although I think Mirri, Ertain and Crovax are forgotten much too quickly, I do like that at the memorial Hanna specifically recalls her bonding with Mirri in the Skyshroud forest, which happened in Rath and Storm.
  • Even cooler, Karn uses the Juju Bubble to integrate the Power Matrix and the bones of Ramos into the Weatherlight, at which point Sisay thinks back to first mate Meida from Sisay's Quest for a moment! It always warms my heart to see an obscure story like that referenced!
  • Unfortunately there are also some continuity gaffs. For example, it is said the Weatherlight can't planeswalk because the Thran crystal is cracked. No one seems bothered about the fact they no longer have a wizard on board, while in Rath and Storm Ertai was specifically recruited because they needed a wizard for the planar engines to function. Then again, the Art of Rath book also assumed the ship could planeswalk of its own accord, so this has been inconsistent from the get go.
  • Worse is that when the female members of the crew head to Saprazzo, Hanna is said to be looking for the Legacy, while Sisay is just trying to get her ship back. That is blatantly out of character. Sisay has dedicated her entire life to finding the Legacy items!
  • Back during Tempest block there was some inconsistency in the sources about whether the crew knew of Strake's involvement in the kidnapping of Sisay. Here he is open about what he did, and fears the crew wants to kill him over it. Since he didn't fear this before Sisay rejoined the crew, I guess we are now going with the version of the story where she knew of his involvement, and in which he fled before the rest of the crew found out. In other words, we have to accept the Maelstrom/Torrent version of the story over Rath and Storm version.
  • Speaking of Starke, in this novel Karn finally recognizes Starke as the dude who hung around after Vuel's failed initiation ritual and corrupted him. Unfortunately Starke is killed before this goes anywhere. Shame. I would've loved to see Gerrard confronting Starke with this information.
  • Gerrard says that legend has it that the Thran became Phyrexian, and that the machine race tried to invade Dominaria during the Brothers War but were stopped by "Urza Artificer". Xantcha and Ratape discovered the Thran/Phyrexian connection in Planeswalker. I guess Urza seeded this information into Dominarian myths to prepare the world for the Invasion. And did some PR-work for himself while he was at it.
  • One of the red-shirts that gets killed, Dabis, is described as "a dark-haired Icatian." Icatia was of course a nation on Sarpadia during the time of Fallen Empires. This story happens a good 4200 years after its collapse. So what gives? The post-Ice Age, pre-Invasion status of Sarpadia has always been a bit muddled. Some sources (like the first installment of Dominian Chronicles and the 5th Edition version of Brassclaw Orcs) say it is still overrun with nothing but thrull. Yet Tapestries and Distant Planes had several stories that seemed to happen at, or at least near Sarpadia. Close enough for there to be old Sarpadian ruins around. My best guess is that travelers, probably from Terisiare, reached some islands near the continent, but that Sarpadia proper is still ruled by thrull. It thus seems unlikely that Icatia was recreated (Like Argive, Sumifa and Epityr were.) Perhaps some Icatians escaped the destruction of their nation and "Icatian" stuck around as a name for this ethnic group?

Okay. Those were all the references and little niggles. Now let us focus on the big problem: Ramos. Throughout the book we are told myths about this guy, which all builds up to the reveal that he is a dragon engine from the Brothers' War. The final explanation we get, and the one that seems to be presented as the truth, is that Urza summoned him from Phyrexia and reprogrammed him to save people from the Sylex Blast. So he sped out in front of the blast, grabbed up whomever he could, traveled to Phyrexia and from there through a planar portal (the Erratic Portal that was later transported to Rath) to Mercadia. But he was damaged by the Sylex Blast anyway, so he dropped of all the people and then crash landed in what became his Henge. The refugees then became the Cho-Arrim, the Rishadans and the Saprazzo, who incorporated him into their religions.

The problem is, this story is utterly impossible to square with what we saw in The Brothers' War. We know Urza didn't reprogram any dragon engines to save people from the Sylex Blast, because there were only a few minutes between him getting the Sylex and activating it, and we saw everything he did in that time! The only way this could possibly happen is if Urza somehow found and reprogrammed the dragon engine after activating the Sylex Blast. Of course, given the speed with which the blast expanded he would have to do this in a fraction of a microsecond. Which I could perhaps accept from an experienced planeswalker, but from a just-ascended one? We just saw in the Ice Age cycle that ascending is a very chaotic, disorienting, even maddening experience, so I doubt this could be the case.


Luckily there may be a way out, though unluckily this way out leaves us without a clear explanation of Ramos' origin at all. You see, when at the Henge of Ramos, the crew is visited by a group of dryads. Their leader then beams the story of Ramos into Gerrard's head. The rest of the crew, and the reader, only get to hear what Gerrard tells us about what he saw. Ramos later backs up some parts of the story (that he came through the same Erratic Portal as the Weatherlight did, for example), but doesn't give his own account. So we could assume that either the dryads didn't know the true story either, or that Gerrard misinterpreted whatever he was shown. So who knows? Maybe Urza reprogrammed Ramos after the Sylex Blast, to bring survivors of the devastation to another plane where they had a better shot at surviving? Could be, but then why did Ramos go through Phyrexia, and why did he crash? Ultimately the story we are given is so impossible something else must have happened, but we can only speculate as to what.

There is one interesting possibility though: In the Cho-Arrim myth, Ramos fights his brother Orhop and has a redhaired female second in command. In the Saprazzo myth Ramos is a king who chases away his long time advisers after he falls in with mysterious cultists, and eventually transforms into a giant flying creature. In other words: these two myths seem to conflate Ramos with Mishra, not Urza! So perhaps the dryads showed Gerrard one of the brothers reprogramming a dragon engine, and since there are apparently myths on Dominaria saying Urza send the Phyrexians back to their own world back them, Gerrard assumed the brother in question was Urza, when in reality it was Mishra?

Of course, this option still has many problems. When did Mishra do this? He knew about the Sylex a day before Urza did, but dismissed it. He didn't know about its true power until it went of in his face and it vaporized him. Maybe the Mishra/Dragon Engine merger we saw in the conclusion of The Brothers' War was Ramos, and that vaporization we saw was actually him teleporting away? But then the question is why  would he be saving people? Mishra seemed completely gone down the deep end at that point. And what happened to Mishra's cyber-body? Surely the Weatherlight Crew would've noticed it if Ramos had an ancient man strapped to his body? Just like any explanation involving Urza reprogramming Ramos, any explanation involving Mishra is riddled with problems as well. But it is an interesting idea to think about.

After all that continuity wrangling, at least the timeline part of this review is easy. The official timeline places Mercadian Masques at 4205. It takes place directly after Rath and Storm, which took place in 4205. It is followed up upon in Invasion, which takes places in 4205... I think you can see where this is going.

Join me next time, when we check on the crewmembers that were left behind on Rath!

1 comment:

  1. Lurking...

    Minor[?] trivia.

    Francis Lebaron = Peter Archer.
    He edited Rath and Storm anthology and wrote the framing story there.

    So that's the real reason why the name Ilcaster is popular on Dominaria.