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.

Agents of Artifice
by Ari Marmell

This is the story about Jace Beleren. It’s important to note that a lot of the details have been ret-conned by the modern Magic creative team, and that’s okay. The major change from Agents of Artifice to the current-day story is that Jace is aware of his past and of his life on Vryn. This isn’t really a big deal to be honest, because it doesn’t drive the plot very much and Jace is a more compelling character having forgotten everything about his life before becoming a planeswalker.

But I digress, this is the story of Jace Beleren going from being an arrogant mind-reader to a mind-manipulator, mind-taker, mind-destroyer, and worse. Jace is a mild-mannered mind-reader living off of the money he makes extorting Ravnica’s aristocracy for the secrets he steals from their minds. When offered a chance to expand his mind-control powers by joining a crime syndicate run by Tezzeret he does so willingly.

The plot, if you can call it that, is needless complicated and told backwards. Chronologically, the first part is about Jace joining the infinite consortium, developing his powers, learning more about the evil of Tezzeret, betraying the organization and going on the run with his friend Kallist (a mercenary), meeting Liliana Vess, falling in love with Liliana, hiding out from Tezzeret, and then being manipulated into conflict with Tezzeret.

Part two chronologically, though it’s the first part told in the story, is about Kallist living in hiding with Liliana, discovering a plot to kill Jace, and seeking him out to warn him, only to have to help Jace defend himself against the attackers resulting in Kallist getting killed.

But there’s a twist!

At the end of the first part (which is told second) Jace actually had swapped bodies with Kallist! But you don’t know that for the first half of the story. This is a classic case of an author being too clever for their own good to the complete detriment of the story. Perhaps its meant to show just how powerful Jace is, but it makes the plot (which is really non-existent) hard to follow.

Let’s wrap this up because I’m running out of words and I want to get to more on how bad this book is. So Kallist gets killed, Jace gets all his memories back (okay) and Liliana convinces Jace to kill Tezzeret but Jace learns that Liliana is working for Nicol Bolas and has been manipulating him the whole time so in the end Jace wipes Tezzeret’s mind but never goes back to Liliana to give her what she wanted and everyone loses except Jace who is now way more powerful than he used to be, but also has to live with being a murderer.

The end.

Overall Rating: 2.0 — So, that was a story, I suppose. I’m not sure who we’re supposed to feel sympathetic towards in this story. In order for a story to have any kind of connection with the reader, there needs to be some kind of connection between the reader and any character on an emotional level. I don’t think Agents of Artifice delivers on that idea.

It’s certainly not Jace Beleren, the whiny mind-reader with the mysterious past who decides to live his life on Ravnica in opulence funded by blackmailing the city’s aristocracy with his power and upon being offered a job as a mental assassin-for-hire does so willingly in exchange for the promise of increasing his power. No, I didn’t really feel bad for Jace, he got what he had coming to him.

It’s also not Liliana Vess, the double/triple/quadruple? back-stabbing necromancer who is very entertaining and snarky but also only interested in manipulating the people in her life to get what she wants. By the end of the story we know she’s working for Nicol Bolas and her plan is to manipulate Jace into killing Tezzeret. Liliana is, perhaps, the mcguffin of this story because she’s essentially the only thing driving the otherwise non-existent plot.

Maybe the hero is Tezzeret but it’s hard to connect with the shadowy leader of an inter-planar organized-crime syndicate who spends most of his time abusing his lackeys and committing acts of violence. Tezzeret is meant to be the villain of the story but it’s not a very compelling tale. Tezzeret is a bad person, sure, but why is he the villain? He offers Jace power. Jace accepts the offer. Jace decides he no longer likes the offer but is manipulated (by Liliana) into conflict with Tezzeret even though Tezzeret was perfectly fine leaving Jace alone.

I guess its possible to connect with some of the story’s minor characters though. Emmara, the elf healer who thinks she knows her friend ‘Berrim’ but soon unravels the mystery that he’s Jace Beleren and has to deal with the conflict of both wanting to help her friend but feeling betrayed by his lies. That’s a character I can sympathize with.

What about Baltrice, the pyromancer-planeswalker who has dutifully served for years as Tezzeret’s right-hand-woman only to suddenly have to compete with this ungrateful upstart mind-reader who happened to be born with an incredibly rare power but hasn’t put in an honest day’s work in his life and wants everything handed to him on a silver platter? That’s a character I can sympathize with, a little bit, I guess?

I can even find some minor shred of sympathetic connection with Nicol Bolas, the ancient elder dragon legend planeswalker who lost the Infinite Consortium to Tezzeret and is trying to find any opportunity, be it Liliana or Jace, to try to recover what was once his property. Sure, he’s just another crime-lord like Tezzeret but Bolas is certainly a character we can feel some emotions for, especially after learning more about him in Future Sight and Alara Unbroken.

But none of the main characters are really deserving of an emotional connection except perhaps for Kallist, Jace’s best friend who he gets killed. If Kallist was truly the main character of the story it might have been a bigger success. Kallist is an assassin-slash-mercenary-for-hire who may be a murderer but he has a sharp wit and a strong work ethic (and there’s nothing wrong with a murderer being your main character, so long as we’re still clear on the ethical point that murder is bad). The reader can immediately bond to Kallist. He meets and befriends Jace Beleren. He falls in love with Liliana. For his trouble he ends up having his entire life destroyed.

Had the first act been about Kallist meeting Jace/Liliana, the second act been about the conflict with the Consortium, and the third act been about Jace avenging Kallist’s death, this might have been a much more successful book. All of that can exist with Liliana pulling at Jace’s puppet-strings, Nicol Bolas pulling at Liliana’s strings, and the Tezzeret/Baltrice relationship as well. But we would have had 100% less whining Jace Beleren.

At least they don’t write Jace this poorly anymore (or any other character for that matter). If it wasn’t for the great vorthos content involving four major characters in the larger story of the multiverse, this book likely would have gotten a rating of 1 out of 5 or even zero.

Next Week’s Book—Test of Metal by Matthew Stover

Next week we’ll continue the ever-so-entertaining tales of Tezzeret and his arch-nemesis Jace Beleren as we spend more time on the world of Esper in the pursuit of answers to a Sphinx’s riddle. Nicol Bolas also makes a return appearance.

With the return of Tezzeret in Aether Revolt you’ll want to get all the details on his mysterious past and his relationship with Jace before the current Magic story picks up again!

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. Please note that if you click the link then anything you purchase from Amazon in the next 24 hours (even if it isn’t this book) will provide us with a small percentage, so if you want to help support Hipsters of the Coast and need to buy a new vacuum cleaner then click away!

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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