Welcome to our 2016 52 in 52 series. This year I will be reading 52 Magic: the Gathering novels spanning two decades of Vorthos lore. Each week I’ll share my review of the book along with a synopsis for those of you who are just interested in the core of the story.
The Quest for Karn
by Robert B. Wintermute
Our story begins on Mirrodin, or what’s left of it, where Koth and Elspeth have just kidnapped Venser from Dominaria. They’ve brought him to Mirrodin to help battle the Phyrexian invasion that is going on there. That’s more or less all of the exposition that you get. Similar to Robert Wintermute’s previous Magic novel, In the Teeth of Akoum, the call to action for our “heroes” is more or less assumed off-screen.
Koth, being the native, is the de facto leader of this group, but we quickly have a problem because Venser decides he wants to search for his old buddy Karn who created Mirrodin. This begins the conflict between Venser and Koth whereby Koth wants to battle the Phrexians on the surface while Venser wants to travel to the center of the plane to find Karn.
This conflict is reflective of everything that’s wrong in Wintermute’s style of storytelling. The conflict never actually has any impact at all on the story, even though it is the only defining characteristic of Venser and Koth’s relationship. The party spends nearly the entire book beneath the surface searching for Karn. The only scenes on the surface take place at the start when they first arrive on Mirrodin and in the middle between Act II and Act III when the party has to escape to the surface to regroup from their failures within Mirrodin’s core.
There’s also a conflict between Venser and Elspeth which is more psychological but also has no impact on the story itself. Venser has some kind of drug addiction to a liquid that heightens his senses (similar to the serum Memnarch is obsessed with in the original Mirrodin story). Venser and Elspeth have many discussions about Venser’s inability to cope with reality and Elspeth’s horrifying first-hand experience with reality when she was imprisoned by Phyrexians as a child on another plane.
But none of it matters because Elspeth quickly overcomes her mental barriers (within the first 20% of the story) while Venser doesn’t have to confront his because the author conveniently gave him a fatal palsy disease so Venser knows he’s going to die soon anyways. Because of this, Venser is constantly pushing Elspeth but then quickly avoids facing his own demons since he’s on his way out the door. In fact, Venser knows he’s never leaving Mirrodin from the moment he arrives.
The “plot” of the story, if we can call it that, is very simple. Phyrexians are invading Mirrodin and Venser believes that finding Karn is the only way to do anything about it. Koth and Elspeth are really just along for the ride. Venser has no actual reason to believe that Karn is on Mirrodin other than a cryptic message Karn sent Venser some unknown time in the past. Koth and Elspeth have no reason to follow but they do anyways because they just want to kill Phyrexians.
Along the way, Tezzeret shows up and confirms that Karn is in the center of Mirrodin being held prisoner by Glissa and that the party will need the help of Melira, who is immune to Phyresis and is 100% non-metal, to save Karn and prevent the complete integration of Mirrodin into New Phyrexia, something Tezzeret’s master, Nicol Bolas, would like to prevent.
Tezzeret exists in this story because none of our main characters are actually able to progress the plot. Venser knows he’s looking for Karn but has no idea where he is. Elspeth knows she wants to kill Phyrexians but needs to be pointed in their direction. Koth knows he wants to defend his people but he has no clue how to go about doing it. So instead it’s up to Tezzeret to fix the problem.
Eventually the party finds Karn, while Tezzeret battles Glissa to give the party a window to escape and help Karn. Melira cures Karn’s body of disease but his “heart” is still impure. Venser then, because this makes perfect sense, teleports his own heart into Karn’s body. Venser dies, Karn is reborn, and they all live happily ever after.
Except they still have to do something about all the Phyrexians so Karn goes on a journey to back-pedal through all the planes he’s visited and see what other problems he’s caused. The end.
Overall Rating: 0.0 — So why is this book one point higher than In the Teeth of Akoum? Mostly because Phyrexians are cool, that’s why. Otherwise this story is completely unreadable. Act I is entirely missing. Our characters have no compelling motivations. There is no conflict outside of the painfully obvious one of the Phyrexian Invasion.
Furthermore, the story takes a lot of liberties with the audience’s memories of Venser and Glissa. Venser was a shy but well-liked scavenger on Dominaria who, with Teferi and Jhoira’s help, became the first of a new breed of planeswalker in the multiverse and then helped close the time rifts on that plane. Now he’s a drug-addicted academy-trained artificer who has been teleporting since he was a child. This is not the Venser we knew and loved. Glissa also somehow went from being the hero and savior of Dominaria to being a compleated Phyrexian who is now queen of the invasion. What the hell?
Wintermute’s visual depictions of New Phyrexia are incredibly detailed but they become boring after the first few hundred dead Phyrexians. Instead of a half-dozen descriptions of how Elspeth can turn a scouting party of Phyrexians into a pile of dead Phyrexians it would have been nice if this book had an actual plot. Oh well.
Next Week’s Book—The Secretist by Doug Beyer
Next week we return to Ravnica for the final book-form publication that Wizards authored before moving to the modern form of weekly storytelling. The Secretist features Jace Beleren and Ral Zarek and features the story of how Ravnica was saved from itself.
This will also be the 52nd and final book review for 2016. It’s been a wild ride and we’ll recap everything in 2017.
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52 in 52 is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.