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.
by Doug Beyer
This was the last Magic the Gathering novel that was written in book-form. The Secretist was actually released as three eBook novellas, one for each expansion set of the Return to Ravnica block. They tell the story of how Jace Beleren became the Living Guildpact, preventing the ten guilds of Ravnica from obliterating each other.
At times, it’s a very frustrating story to read, and Jace is a difficult character to feel a connection with. In the beginning of the story he uncovers parts of the Implicit Maze, a challenge laid in the foundations of Ravnica by Azor himself as a fail-safe in case the Guildpact was destroyed.
The Izzet have also found the maze and they have been digging up parts of it all over Ravnica’s 10th district, where most of our story takes place. Jace’s old friend, Emmara Tandris, comes to him as an emissary of the Selesnya Conclave and asks him for help uniting the guilds.
Instead, Jace decides that he doesn’t want to get involved in planar politics like he did with Tezzeret in the past and instead he erases all of the memories from his own mind and his vedalken assistant’s mind to ensure they can’t be manipulated. Yikes. Emmara gets frustrated with Jace and Jace passes out. When he wakes up he finds that his sanctum has been destroyed and that Emmara has been kidnapped by the Rakdos cult.
What ensues is a pretty standard adventure tale as Jace works to piece together his memories in the second book. At the same time, Ral Zarek, believing that the maze holds incredible power for the victor, has been invading other guilds’ territories to plot out the best course. Eventually guilds began fighting with each other and an all-out war nearly breaks out but then Niv-Mizzet reveals to everyone the true nature of the maze. All 10 guilds have to run it at the same time.
In the meantime, Jace has discovered that not only must all 10 guilds run the maze, but their representatives must complete the maze. There is a magical entity waiting at the end of the maze. Jace knows that when the 10 runners arrive they’ll be tested by the entity and if they fail the test, Azor’s Supreme Verdict will be delivered, and the 10th district will be destroyed.
Overall Rating: 3.0 — The adventure and action in The Secretist is enjoyable, even if at times Jace’s behavior is pretentious. In the end he learns much about himself and his relationship with Emmara. He has some character development but it isn’t much. Mostly this book is held up by the fantastic journey through the depths of Ravnica’s 10th district.
All 10 guilds get some screen time which is very nice. Ultimately Jace is able to use his powers of telepathy to let the 10 maze runners peek into each other’s thoughts, preventing them from annihilating each other at the end of the maze. For his trouble, Azor’s baliff imbues Jace with the power of the Guildpact. Jace’s word is now law.
To test this law, Niv-Mizzet himself approaches Jace and asks if he can declare war on the Selesnya. Jace replies, “no.” Niv-Mizzet accepts the decision and departs. Life returns, somewhat, to normal on Ravnica but Jace Beleren will never be the same.
I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to read 52 Magic: the Gathering novels. From Arena through The Secretist it was very enlightening to see the changes throughout the years. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a big leap to say that the storytelling has improved immensely. If you go back through my weekly reviews you’ll see a lot of similar themes.
Character development was an issue that plagued much of Magic’s storytelling for many years. Most of the main characters never had to deal with any internal conflicts. Urza, for example, never really deals with the emotional challenges within him such as the death of Mishra, the death of Xantcha, or the death of Barrin. He is only ever working to defeat Phyrexia. Gerrard has some internal conflict for a dozen or so pages at some point as he struggles with the death of Rofellos, but ultimately all it takes to get him back on the Weatherlight is a quest to save Sisay (who was captured by Volrath).
Here’s an unpopular opinion: the Urza story and the Weatherlight saga are not good stories. Here’s an even more unpopular opinion: the modern adventures of the Gatewatch are vastly more interesting than the adventures of the crew of the Weatherlight. Many of you will disagree, especially those of you who have played the game since the 90’s, but after going back and reading 52 Magic stories across 20 years of the game’s history, I simply can’t find ways to defend the older story lines.
Urza’s story is about an omnipotent being (Urza) battling another omnipotent being (Yawgmoth) for the fate of a single world (Dominaria) across an immeasurable span of time (4,000 years). There’s absolutely nothing about the story that a reader can connect with. Even the characters we’re meant to be able to connect with such as Barrin, Gerrard, and Karn, are just pawns of Urza. This is a story about pure fantasy adventure in a universe full of magical power but ultimately there’s no substance.
The modern story succeeds in so many ways that the novels never did. Characters nowadays have depth and emotional connections. We, as the audience, can relate to the awkwardness when Nissa tries to make friends. We can relate to the pain and anger in Chandra when she wants to fight against authority. We can relate to the difficulties Gideon faces when trying to lead this ragtag group. All of these characters bring something to the table and through their adventures we see them grow personally.
But let’s not just focus on character development. What about the multiverse itself? Before traveling to Mirrodin, the game only visited a handful of planes and the main story really only focused on Dominaria, Mercadia, and Rath. The latter two were basically proxies for the plane of Phyrexia, which didn’t real lend itself to storytelling (unfortunately). Instead, Dominaria served as the equivalent of Middle Earth for the Magic story. It was full of interesting places and changed dramatically over time.
Fans of the game love Dominaria, but one has to wonder why, for any reason other than the fact that so much of the story took place there. Do people love the swamps of Urborg? Or the mountains of Keld and Shiv? Or the islands of Tolaria? Or the plains of Benalia? Or the forests of Skyshroud, Yavimaya, and Llanowar? Do you see a pattern here?
Dominaria is a world designed specifically for the game of Magic the Gathering. Plains. Islands. Swamps. Mountains. Forests. Soldiers. Merfolk. Zombies. Goblins. Elves. That’s all there is too it. When the designers wanted to tell another kind of story for the Odyssey block they simply added a whole new continent we’d never heard of before in Otaria.
There is, unfortunately, very little cohesiveness to Dominaria from a storytelling perspective. The broad strokes exist but where are the details. I can paint you a picture of Ravnica’s 10th district but I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to walk the streets of New Benalia or New Argoth. I can feel the humid jungles of Zendikar but I don’t feel that kind of depth in Yavimaya. Dominaria is a generic fantasy world and it shows, especially in contrast to worlds like Kaladesh and Innistrad.
Last but not least we can talk about the plot but I think the stories speak for themselves. The modern storytelling features multiple concurrent multiverse-threatening entities including the traditional enemy of Phyrexia. This, coupled with the inner-conflicts most of the heroes and some of the villains go through, has made for vastly more entertaining plots.
Better character development. Better world building. Better story telling. I’m glad I went back and read 52 classic Magic novels, but give me the modern stories any day, please. And I didn’t even touch on the fact that the story actually gets told through the cards in ways it never was in the past. It’s a great time for Magic storytelling.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed this trip. In the next few weeks I’ll be looking to collect all of the reviews somewhere on Hipsters of the Coast for easy retrieval in the future. Feel free to contact me on Facebook or Twitter if you want to talk more about the Magic story!
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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.