Sunday, 12 March 2017

Prophecy


Writer - Vance Moore
Cover art - Brom
First released in July 2000

SUMMARY
A faction of Keld led by Latulla has gotten it into their heads that the end times are coming and have invaded north-west Jamuraa (don't worry, that's not the bit we saw in Mirage that we actually care about, just their neighbors), since they believe that it is their ancestral homeland. A Jamuraan soldier called Haddad is captured and enslaved by the Keldons, and through him we learn a lot about Keldon culture and religion. This is interspersed with scenes of Barrin, Rayne and Teferi mustering the Jamuraan defenses.



Eventually Haddad is taken to Keld itself, where it turns out a vampiric monster called Greel is working for Latulla. We also discover Latulla doesn't believe in the Twilight Prophecies herself and wants to use... very Phyrexian-y techniques to resurrect the dead warlords from the Keldon Necropolis. The guardians of the Necropolis successfully oppose her though, and she has to return to Jamuraa empty handed. The Keldon cause there starts to falter. In the final battle Greel manages to kill Rayne, but then he and Latulla are killed by Barrin. Haddad is killed by his slave collar when a healer tries to remove it. Teferi sees the destruction and gets mad that Urza kept the bulk of his forces in reserve for the coming Invasion. He vows not to work within Urza plans anymore.


Oh, and while all that is going on people, animals and the land itself starts getting sick. Both sides think it is a scorched earth tactic of the other, but a Jamuraan healer eventually discovers the disease is part-biological and part-machine, which shows us who is really behind it (although for some reason Barrin doesn't figure it out when he's told.) Since the disease appears to be linked to Greel, it seems he is Phyrexian in origin, which means Latulla is either a patsy or a Sleeper Agent.


 REVIEW
Prophecy has a terrible reputation. It is generally considered the nadir of the Weatherlight Saga, and was often called the worst Magic novel until Legions and Scourge were released. It was a long, long time since I had read it though, so when I picked it up again for this project I had sort off forgotten why it had this bad name. Then when I started reading the first character I was actually surprised to find that I actually quite liked it. The way Vance Moore builds up the courage and naivety of the Jamuraan army, and then has them getting blindsided by the true strength of the Keldons, is a really well done twist. After that first chapter things get a bit slow, but everything we get shown about the Keldon culture actually really interested me. So I was pleasantly surprised. Mentally I was already penning a paragraph on how this book was nowhere near as bad as it is usually made out to be. But then... then...
Then nothing happend.
Chapter after chapter after chapter Haddad just trudges along after Latulla. Occasionally he thinks about escaping, but then never manages to actually take a stab at it. The bits about Keldon culture keep being interesting, but if there is nothing happening alongside it I would rather just read a short article about that rather than an entire novel. The bits with Barrin are somehow even more boring. He just goes around checking zeppelin building sides, gets in some minor scuffles and shows us how truly uninspiring North-Western Jamuraa is.

Now you might be wondering: if nothing happens in this book at all, how on earth does it manage to fill 300ish pages? Well, by utilizing one of my least favorite Fantasy tropes: the Random Encounter. Barrin test a zeppelin on random Keldons? Oh no, Sea serpent attack! Latualla has a routine inspection of her troops? Oh no, Darba attack! The Keldons take a ship to Keld? Oh no, Giant Jellyfish attack! Jolrael does some scouting for the Jamuraans? Oh no, Thresher Beast attack! And so it goes on and on and on... It is really baffling. This story is supposed to be about as war. If you want to put in some action, gives us some battles or sieges to show how the conflict is developing! But no, all we get is dull fights with random monsters that have no impact on the plot and no tension at all.

Hey, we got to show of this powerhouse card that everyone will be playing in Standard! Huh? What's a Blastoderm?
This happens far too often in Fantasy stories. Perhaps writers think they are supposed to put this stuff in because they see it in roleplaying games and movies, but they seem to overlook the fact that these scenes serve a purpose there that they don't do in a novel. In a roleplaying game the battles are part of the experience, they allow you to very directly showcase your character's skills and get some XP. In a movie you can use fight scenes to show of your cool CGI or your actors' martial arts prowess. They are part of the spectacle people come to see. But in a written story? It is very, very rare to find an author who can write out the swinging of swords and the throwing of punches in a way that is actually exiting. There have to be stakes to the battles, or I will simply not care about them.
About halfway through the book, when we got to Keld and are introduced to the mystery of Greel and the awakening of the Witch-Kings from the Necropolis I got interested again. Stuff was happening again! Cool stuff even! The battle of Latulla against the guardian of the Necropolis was the one single battle that I found interesting: there were stakes here. This is where the tide of the war shifts. But all the other battles? You know Barrin is not going to meet his end fighting a nameless Sea Serpent in chapter 4. You know Haddad isn't going to have a stupid, meaningless death from a random jellyfish. Only in the final battle does the plot armor wear out and do Rayne and Haddad die.


It's a real shame, because the story actually had a lot of potential. As I said, I liked the tension in the beginning, and the look into Keldon culture. I also liked the mystery of Greel, and the way the story never outright says that the Phyrexians are manipulating things behind the scenes, but assumes that you are intelligent enough to figure that out for yourself. The Keldons wanting their ancestral homeland back and the conflict that creates with the people living their now could have been very interesting. And the fact that the land contains "Tufa", or "Heroes Blood", which the Keldons see as proof that their ancestors lived in Jamuraa but which is also a clear fantasy stand-in for oil is an interesting one. The righteous cause for war literally gets conflated with a monetary one. I wouldn't have minded seeing that explored! But no. Jellyfish, Darba's and a shaggy dog story about a guy who thinks about escaping for ages, never manages it and then dies. That's all this book is.

So yeah. Dreadful. If you're looking for a fun fantasy novel, skip this one. If you want to read it for its impact on the Weatherlight Saga... maybe you're better off reading just Rayne's arrival in chapter 9, to get a sense of why Teferi gets mad at the end, and then chapter 18 to see Rayne die and learn that the Phyrexians have started releasing diseases on Dominaria. That's all you need to know. I would only recommend actually buying this novel if you are a me-level completist, or if you are the biggest Keld fan in the world and want to know everything there is about its society. Others, just stay away. You've got better things to do with your time.

TRIVIA
  • Between this book, Bloodlines and the Astor short stories from later anthologies, Keld may be the most well developed culture in Magic's history. (Perhaps Ravinca supersedes it if you count all 10 guilds as part of a single culture. Otherwise I wouldn't know any that comes close.) In fact, most of our knowledge of Keldon culture comes from Prophecy. We learn about their origin myth, which involves ancient heroes killing corrupted gods, the belief that there are "cycles of blood" through which ever more mighty Keldons are created (the last cycle of blood ended with Kreig), the Heroes Blood/Tufa, the Cradle houses where female slaves are forced to produce new Keldon warriors, the high position of the Midwives in their society, that they fill their warships with loads of warriors that are kept in a drug induced death-like stasis, and of course the prophecy about the Keldon Twilight.
  • The art in Prophecy is rather inconsistent in the Keldon's coloring, bu the book clearly states they are grey. In fact, Haddad at one point describes the crew of a ship as containing humans and Keldons, as if they separate species. We'll strike that up to Jamuraan racism.
  • Latulla and Greel play major roles in the book. The other legends in the set, Alexi, Mageta and Jolrael are all just minor supporting characters.
  • Airships are said to be flying under Urza's flag. I guess he finally stopped calling himself Malzra then. Or perhaps this is actually the coalition flag? We're never told what the flag looks like, so it could be that.
  • The books introduces giant killer birds called Parea, and for a moment I thought this was another miscommunication between the book and the cards, but later a Darba also turns up. These are said to be even bigger than their Parea cousins.
  • Latulla is a Spellshaper in the game, but an Artificer in the book. She should start a club with Ludevic for legendaries whose flavor took a backseat for the sake of a cycle.
  • Last time I said that the Mercenaries weren't a very good fit for Nemesis. Here at least they make sense: the Jamuraan forces are for a large part made up of mercenaries. But... doesn't that mean that the mercenaries are the good guys? And the fact that the Keldon attackers turn out to be a small, heretical faction of Keld... doesn't that make them Rebels? Not that anything is done with that reversal in this set...

CONTINUITY
  • We never get an explanation about Greel, but he is linked to the diseases, and those continue into Invasion, so presumably he's Phyrexian.
  • I'm not entirely sure why it was decided to have the Keldons attack a never seen before bit of land, if the idea behind the set was to showcase what was happening on Dominaria in parallel to Masques' events on Mercadia and Nemesis' events on Rath. Personally I would've had them attack the Zhalfir/Suq'ata/Femeref region. At least then you would have had nostalgia on your side. Oh well. On the one had it is cool to see more of Dominaria, and especially to see more of the massive Jamuraan continent. On the other, this region turns out to be pretty boring. The only thing that stuck out to me was Arsenal City, where they build mechanical ants, crabs and mantises to use in the war. (I guess Chimeric Idol is the only reference to it that made it into the game.) 
  • There is one weird link with the more familiar bits of Jamuraa though: the city states of North-Western Jamuraa are united into the Kipamu League, named after a Lord Kipamu who lived "centuries, if not millennia ago". The weird thing is: Ki'pamu (this time with an apostrophe) is also the capital of Zhalfir. The MTGSally wiki states that Ki'pamu leads the Kipamu league, but that's actually not mentioned in the book. Heck, Zhalfir isn't even name-checked once! Teferi is leading the war effort, and he is of course Zhalfirin, so it could very well be that Zhalfir is involved in the League, but it could also be that Teferi is acting on his own, without Zhalfiring backing, and that the League and the city are simply both named after that ancient lord.
  • Jolrael makes a quick appearance, after Teferi asks her to do some scouting for the League. She doesn't add much to the story, and her background with Kaervek and Mangara isn't mentioned. (Quick aside: I kinda love that when they finally made Kaervek and Mangara cards in Time Spiral, they put Jolrael in the Time Shifter set to complete the trio.)
  • The set adds two references to Shauku, Endbringer, in her Agent and her Revel. She's not in the book though.
  • Teferi fails to hide a jealous look when he sees Barrin and Rayne embracing. I assume he's still hurt of Jhoira's rejection in Scars of the Legacy.
TIMELINE
This is as easy as it was the last two reviews: the story happens in 4205 AR.

The only semi-interesting timeline related thing I can mention is that the mercenaries we see are all still hanging around in north-western Jamuraa because of previous wars between the cities that now make up the Kipamu League. At first I thought this might tie in to the Mirage Wars, but one of the soldiers in the League is said to be too young to even remember those wars. So that probably places them a bit further back, during Mangara's Golden Age. This further suggests to me that Ki'pamu/Zhalfir isn't actually part of the League, as it had a much more devastating war a decade ago that surely would have been mentioned. The city wars were small, stylized and limited. Hence the shock of the Keldon invasion. Either way, we don't get any definitive date for the conflict, so I won't put it on my timeline.

4 comments:

  1. I didn't read the book, but I thought that the Keldon tried to invade North EASTERN Jamuraa, the portion where Zerapa is located.

    Another member for the club is Venser: Wizard in his card but an artificer on the books.

    Also, I enjoyed too when Jolrael was reunited with her pals in Time Spiral.

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    Replies
    1. You are correct, that is the region of Jamuraa the Keldon attack. It is just that the naming of that region is a bit weird.

      As you can see in the map above, Jamuraa is made up of 3 main landmasses: the south-west, where Zhalfir is, the south-east, which we know nothing about, and then the north, where Prophecy happens. This last region is above the south-eastern continent, and east of Zhalfir, so it would make sense to call it the north-east... but the Barrin's Journal online story (which I'll cover next) says Keld is sending its ships to WEST Jamuraa...

      The community has taken to calling the region north-eastern Jamuraa, which makes the most sense, but since I was working on Barrin's Journal as well while doing this review, I went with north-western. I get that this is rather confusing though. Maybe I should just call it "northern Jamuraa" from now on!

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  2. I was conflicted reading this book. I found it engaging at first but I quickly lost interest and instead of finishing it in one sitting like I had planned I ended up taking a whole month to read it because I simply felt I had better things to do with my time. I hate having the immersion experience broken , and this book slowed down my progress on finishing the whole series and made me lose some interest. I only finished it because I had hope that in the end, something would matter. The only important thing that happened in the whole book is that Rayne dies, which is critical as Urza shows little remorse for the loss of his closest friend's wife and that leads to Barrin casting Obliterate. I agree with the whole random encounter bit as well. I typically skip/skim for important details when I see a fight in a book. Anyways, great review again. Cheers
    -S

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  3. The slow pace is a big issue, but my main complaint about the Prophecy novel is how little it seemed to be about the expansion.

    I know that this is a looming problem across the Weatherlight saga from Urza's onwards (clockwork birds, anyone?), but novel-Prophecy is totally obsessed with slave collars (no representation in the cards), Keldon infighting (no representation in the cards), and airships (one whole card, the amazing Assault Zepplid). Reading it at the time, my theory was that Vance Moore had an unpublished manuscript lying around which he hastily repurposed.

    Looking back, there are enough metaplot references that this is unlikely, but that merely makes it more baffling. As you note, even the biggest continuity tie-in here (that through Greel and perhaps Latulla, this entire war is the Phyrexians weaking Dominaria before their attack) will never be followed up during Invasion. And the implications are massive! The last few decades in Dominaria have seen a huge number of random wars, precipitated by apparently insane red-black wildcards (Kaervek, Ravidel...) - was that all Phyrexian plotting as well? Why work to weaken Keld (who have been their pawns before) and largely-irrelevant chunks of Jamuuraa instead of Benalia or Tolaria or whatever? Surely revealing Urza's role in eliminating Krieg would point Keld in a more useful direction - what makes this target worthwhile? Perhaps "heroes' blood" is important in the creation of a DIFFERENT black, viscous liquid which Phyrexia cares about?

    But that is all TOTAL FANFICTION, because no actual relevance will ever appear. The only thing that will ever come up again is the split between Urza and Teferi, and come on. A guy with super-alienate-allies powers and a born rebel were PROBABLY going to have a falling out eventually, anyway. NONE OF THIS MATTERS.

    ...ahem. To sum up: I am less annoyed by Prophecy's lack of momentum as its lack of relevance. But, hey, there's always the consolation prize: the MOST backstory-relevant novel is right around the corner...

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