Core 19’s story is way better than it has any right to be. It might be a bit early to make that call right now, only six stories into an eight-part arc. But I’ve been impressed by the way Kate Elliot is handling this narrative, chiefly because she attempted what on paper should have been an arbitrarily difficult concept and (so far, at least) has pulled it off flawlessly.

The narrative is built as a frame story. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, a frame story is a narrative device designed to give perspective to a fantastical story or bind several disparate elements together.  It accomplishes this by creating a story with two (or more) distinct narratives. The first, referred to as the frame, serves as a baseline to ground and give context to the secondary narrative, which is told as a story within the world of the first story. Sounds a bit confusing, but frame stories are everywhere. Some of humanities oldest mythological epics use this tool. If you want more commonly know examples look at One Thousand and One Nights, Frankenstein, or well, any Assassin’s Creed game.

The reason that I bring this up is that, generally speaking, I really don’t like frame stories. They can be done well, but the vast majority of the time one or more of the narratives feel entirely superfluous to what’s going on. Telling one story is hard enough. Telling two or more simultaneously without dropping the ball somewhere is way harder than it is worth unless the intertwining narratives are absolutely crucial to what an author is doing. And I’m not just talking about continuity or typos or any of the normal problems writers face. By their very nature frame stories are competing with themselves to steal the spotlight. Get that balance wrong, and half your work fades into the background.

With that said, let’s take a look at The Chronicle of Bolas. On paper, it should not work. The primary narrative of the frame story takes place a few decades after the events of Fate Reforged, while the various stories that are told within that narrative take place way back in Magic’s prehistory. Best estimate, every single event we see within the secondary narratives up until the end of episode six takes place between the years of -20000 and -15000 AR. For context, Legends and Ice Age take place at roughly -5000 AR and 64 AR, respectively. These stories predate Magic’s earliest expansions by multiple millennia.

That part is to be expected. In fact, it’s a big part of the draw for Core 19’s story. This is the first chance readers have had to turn back the clock and see what happened to make its oldest characters the way they are. What wasn’t expected, and what shouldn’t work, is that the frame part of the frame story is completely disconnected from any of Magic’s established narratives. Fate Reforged is the farthest Magic has strayed from its main narrative since before Time Spiral, and the twins Baishya and Naiva have only the thinnest connection to even that isolated set. Regardless of what happens during the next two stories, as soon as we return to Ravnica and the Gatewatch, both twins will be nothing but corpses in the ground, almost a thousand years cold and rotten.

This should rob the frame story of any weight it could have had, but it doesn’t. Despite fully understanding that Baishya and her sister are disposable characters, I still care about them. Part of this is down to some truly excellent character writing for the twins, but a far bigger factor is that Kate Elliot found a way to make the two halves of her story complement each other, rather than compete against each other.

First and most important, Baishya and her twin are the first characters we’re introduced to.
We’re given time to get to know them before Bolas and Ugin have a chance to steal the show; and while their struggles are minor compared to those of the elder dragons, they’re no less dire. Tarkir is depicted as a brutal and unforgiving world, where starvation and hypothermia are just as real and deadly as the dragons that stalk the skies. Early in episode one Baishya wonders if she’ll have to feed her twin sister to Atarka in order to remain with the clan, and it doesn’t come off as forced or contrived. I (and presumably other readers as well) really believe that this is a realistic dilemma in her world.

Second, The Tarkir-based frame story is where the actual plot progression happens. Learning about Bolas’s past might be the hook that gets the reader into the story; but it’s quickly made explicit that something very important is happening on Tarkir, and is connected to those past events that are being revealed through the windfolk and Tai Jin. Bolas appearing at the end of episode six was shocking enough, but I’m willing to bet that the finale to this entire arc isn’t learning how Bolas’s spark ignited or seeing his first Planeswalker duel with Ugin. Whatever the climax of this arc is, it will happen on Tarkir as Bolas tries to destroy whatever is left of the spirit dragon for good.

Finally, the story goes to great lengths to set up parallels between Baishya & Naiva and Bolas & Ugin. Both pairs of twins are born hand in hand, and see each other as part of a greater whole until forces create a rift between them (Chromium’s words in calling Nicol “least-born,” Yasova’s consistent preference for the whisperer Naiva over the hunter Baishya). Naiva and Ugin both lean towards spirituality and are concerned with long-term morality, while Baishya and Bolas ignore morality in favor of practicality. In their own eyes they are both hard pragmatists, doing what must be done. Bolas was willing to mind control his own twin in order to exact revenge for their fallen sister, while Baishya proves very early on that she’s willing to abandon her twin if it means saving her own place in the clan. Both felt utterly abandoned by the one person that always should have been there for them.

And ultimately, this is the greatest accomplishment of the story. Kate Elliot is telling the story of Bolas and Ugin not once, but twice. The difference is that each time we see the opposite perspective. It’s easy to look at this story and conclude that Ugin was in the right, but scale the stakes back and it’s all but impossible not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Baishya. Bolas as a character is so grand in scale that it’s impossible to relate to him. But even while he’s being his usual act as the Ultimate Evil™, the narrative of Core 19 is doing a lot of work in the background to make his thinking a bit more relatable.

Well, as long as you’re ok with an analogy where you’re just an ant.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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