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 Master Plan

Before we dive into Arena, which is a really great read for long-time Magic players, let me give you some background on where this column comes from. In case you’re unfamiliar, the 52-week reading challenge has been popularized by the website Goodreads. You don’t have to read one book a week. The goal is to encourage people to set a target number of books to read and then help them track that goal.

Obviously for a weekly review column it makes sense to read 52 books, so that’s what we’re going to do. There are, by my count, 68 published novels under the Magic the Gathering banner, beginning with Arena, published in 1994, and ending with Godsend, published in 2014. I’ve cut 16 books and also reordered a lot of the stories in order to curate a better experience. If you plan on reading along, here’s what you have to look forward to:

  • January, February, March – The Early Days of Magic
  • April, May, June – The Brothers War and Aftermath of Dominaria
  • July, August, September – Urza’s Saga and the Mirari Saga
  • October, November, December – The Mending, The Planeswalker Era, Kamigawa

Arena by William R. Forstchen

Arena will always hold a special place in the hearts and minds of the Magic community. Published in October of 1994, Arena is the very first fantasy novel to be published with the Magic: the Gathering brand attached to it. At the point of publication the only Magic sets in existence were the Alpha/Beta/Unlimited/Revised core sets, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark. Odds are, however, that Forstchen only had the original core set from which to base his novel.

Despite the novel’s special reverence among Magic fans, it is not without its shortcomings. Primarily, the lack of any character depth or growth is glaring throughout the story. The two main focuses of the story, Garth One-Eye and Hammen the thief, are one-dimensional caricatures who both harbor a secret past that they intend to keep hidden from each other for as long as possible. Garth is the quintessential Mary Sue, a fighter with extraordinary magical powers, an exceptionally keen wit, and an uncanny ability to execute his complex plans (which are never revealed to the audience until they unfold).  Hammen is a stereotypical older thief who has a soft heart and accompanies Garth for the thrill of adventures lost to his youth. Through them the story is told.

The supporting cast is equally uninteresting. Garth’s other supporters are another fighter who is the epitome of a dumb jock who lucked into his power and two women who fight over Garth throughout the story even while working together to help him. The villains are the heads of four houses of magic users and the grand master of the entire city. The grand master is obsessed with power. The house leaders are, respectively, obsessed with money, women, food, and cheating death. It’s all somewhat disappointing. Even when the house leaders show some kind of emotion, at their core they are still simple vessels for their obsession.

If the cast is one-dimensional, then the story is even flatter than that. The plot is fairly formulaic, and without spoiling anything I will let you know that it is also very predictable. A lot of this has to do with the nature of Garth as a Mary Sue character. He is unquestionably powerful and everything goes the way he wants it to, from the very first fight of the book until the epic final battles. Sure, Garth is faced with challenge after challenge, but thanks to his power, his wit, and maybe  once his friends, he pretty much walks through this video game on easy mode.

While Garth’s complete plans and secrets remain hidden until the latter stages of the book, the opening chapters feel very much like the 1962 samurai film Yojimbo. Garth is a warrior without a house who sets out to turn the great houses on each other. Sure, you want to know what’s really going on, but it’s pretty obvious from the get go how this is going to play out as Garth goes from house to house wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

So why is this book so popular? The characters are uninteresting and the plot is uninspired. But the fighting. Oh the fighting. If you’re a Vorthos, then this book is for you.

The description of the duels between the fighters in this novel gives an incredible amount of excitement to the flavor of two Magic players dueling with their decks of cards. Countless Magic cards are represented throughout the story as fighters battle one another in arena circles (hence the title). Here’s an example of a fighter casting a spell and another fighter defending it:

A thundering howl seemed to emanate from the Brown’s hand, a loud shrieking roar that struck with such intensity that Garth staggered backward even as he raised a protective shield about himself. The sound was blocked within his circle of protection but behind him he could hear the screaming of the mob as the demon howl bowled them over. With a wave of his hand Garth extended the wall of protection to the crowd, many of whom were writhing in agony, blood pouring from ruptured eardrums, so shaterring was the scream summoned from the demon realms.

Forstchen created that description of incredible pain and suffering from realms unknown based on the mechanics and art for this card from the Alpha set:

Descriptions like this are applied to tons of cards from the early days of Magic. Ironclaw Orcs battle Llanowar Elves. Fireballs are traded with Psionic Blasts. Fissures erupt in the streets and there is even an appearance made by a dreaded Lord of the Pit. As you read fight after fight you can almost imagine the explosions happening around two players seated at a kitchen table.

Another aspect that Forstchen captures so well for the Vorthos in all of us is the Ante mechanic from Magic’s earliest days. Throughout the story the fights are either “for spell” or “to the death.” The winner of the former battles are permitted to take one spell from their defeated opponent’s satchel of spells, basically taking their Ante card, while the death-matches result in the victor taking the entire satchel (deck) instead.

Where Arena fails to build a compelling narrative or even a single interesting character, it shines in capturing the flavor of two Magic players battling in an arena, which ultimately I suppose is its real purpose anyways. This would be the one and only Magic book that Forstchen wrote, so it will be interesting to see if any of the other writers took this style for Magic duels and expanded upon it. Somehow I doubt that will be the case, but we’ll find out. For now, I would recommend Arena to any Vorthos who miss the simpler times of Magic’s earliest days when you could send your Ironroot Treefolk into battle and win your opponent’s coveted Fireball as Ante.

If you’ve read Arena please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Overall Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

Next Week’s Book – Whispering Woods by Clayton Emery

Whispering Woods is the second Magic book ever published and is the first book in a trilogy by Clayton Emery. I’ll be reading and subsequently reviewing all three books over the next three weeks. If you’d like to read along you can click the image to the left to get a copy of the novels, or you can go to your local used bookstore. Odds are you won’t find these at Barnes and Noble. There used to be eBook versions of some of these, but they have seemingly disappeared from the main highways of the internet.

If you want to follow along with my progress feel free to add me as a friend on Goodreads! In the meantime, here’s the intro blurb for Whispering Woods:

“Gull shouldn’t have taken the job. This wizard is worse than any he’s heard about before. Between tavern brawls, magical battles, and a strange artifact turning up, Gull is kept very busy. And now that his half-wit sister is beginning to gather her wits, Gull really has his hands full.”

See you next week!

Full Disclosure: The images of books in this review will take you to Amazon.com where you can purchase these books (and many more items, so I’m told). If you do so, Hipsters of the Coast will receive a small percentage of your money which will be used to ensure columns like this and many others can continue to exist.

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.

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