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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn Non-Spoiler Review

[Note: This is a non-spoiler review, but I consider information revealed in the cards to be free game, and to a slightly lesser degree information revealed on the mothership. For instance, you should know that Karn is liberated.]

Playing with a reader's expectations can be a great way to present something in a unique and interesting way to keep readers entranced with a story. If those expectations include reading a novel that isn't at least competently written however, it's best to leave that alone.

Speaking of expectation, we are returning to Mirrodin for the first time in eight years, we are seeing the return of the Phyrexians for the first time in ten. I’m returning to Magic fiction and reading one of my first Magic novel in seven years, and I'm reading my first post-Mending Magic: The Gathering book ever. I had a lot of expectations going into this.

When it comes to the Magic storyline, the cards and official website reveal all kinds bits and pieces. In this instance that includes that Mirrodin is being invaded by the Phyrexians, that Venser, Elspeth, and Koth are our heroes, that Karn is to be liberated from the Phyrexian corruption, that there is a girl born free of metal who is being protected by the last troll , that a hero of old has turned traitor , that Tezzeret is now an agent of Nicol Bolas , and there are more villains than you can count conveniently all laid out before us in the excellent Planeswalker's Guide to New Phyrexia.

We have heroes and  villains, we have both major characters and all kinds of minor characters. We have their ideologies and motivations and a beautifully war torn setting for them to play in. We have all the building blocks for the grand return of Magic's original villains! The pieces just need to be picked up and put together. How could it go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

Score: 0/10

Let's just get this out of the way. The most constant and in your face offense this book makes is that it simply isn’t written well. The dialogue, the description, the action… it's all written blood-curldingly bad. There is a scattering of great moments, some good dialogue, and some wonderful one-liners, but the vast majority of the book is mediocre at best, with a large helping of horrible.

If I was forced to name a strength of the book, it would have to be the dialogue from the villains. There are points you can feel the tension when the talk and they give the impression of being a threat (more on this later). As for the heroes... for some reason Wintermute felt that it would be best if the heroes treated each other like internet trolls. You know, the type of internet trolls that pounce on each other because of typos or the kinds that use big words to try to sound smart even though it's obvious they don't know what they're talking about. The fate of the entire multiverse hangs in the balance and we're subjected to twenty-one chapters of our heroes snapping at each other. That does not make for good reading.

But there's plenty of action in the book you say? At least that breaks up the dialogue right? Yes it breaks it up, but that's not a good thing. Not only are we presented with scenes where our heroes have a difficult time facing off against four initial Phyrexians (to the point that they run out of breath), who then immediately proceed to take on dozens of those same type, not only are we presented with repetitive attacks used to by our heroes to claim victory one battle after another, but we are also presented with tactics that don't make physical sense, enemies that seem to constantly change size because Wintermute can't decide how big they or the rooms they're in are, and Wintermute himself writes in a Mr. Know-It-All style, giving us sentences like, "Venser pulled more power from the folds of his cranium." that makes it looks like he's using big words to sound smart rather than using words smartly.

An author doesn't have to be one of the very best wordsmiths to make a book enjoyable. An author does need to be competent. Wintermute needs to go back to high school and remember the classic adage, "Show, don't tell."

Score: 1/10

If you were expecting to see the last remaining Mirrans struggling to defend their hope from the relentless invaders full of last minute saves, heroic deaths, and all-in-all full of stories to tell the grandchildren... stop it. Stop it now. The title of the book tells you what this is. This is the quest of three planeswalkers to find Karn.

This is most forgivable offense in my eyes, but I can understand if some people want to pass on this book for that very reason. (But really, you should pass on this book for other reasons.) We have one book now that is supposed to depict the story of an entire block now, yet the word count hasn't increased. That's a tough job, and in that light it does make some sense for an author to zoom in on a more personal story rather than the large scale war. The war for Mirrodin is background and background only when it comes to this story. If you're looking to read more about what the native Mirrans are up to, you can sink your teeth into the Reports from the Field.

But I’m not done talking about the plot. So I’m okay with the general plot focusing on the quest. What I'm not okay with is how there is no ending. There is no climax to the book. We have protagonists and we have antagonists, and common sense is that there will be a final confrontation and good or ill, something will happen when it's over. You will not find that here.

I'm okay with focusing on the quest, I'm not okay with paying for half a book. And to top it all, after that punch in the face, Wintermute manages to also stab you in the back with the content of the ending.

Score: 4/10

Imagine playing a video game on the NES. Imagine your character traveling from square room to square room. In these rooms are one of four types of enemies to slay, and as you proceed through those levels, there may be some color swaps to indicate you're not facing a tougher enemy. That’s this book. Once our heroes make it underground, nearly every chapter begins with them entering a large room. It's walk and talk or walk, talk, and fight for chapter after chapter after chapter, with one notable break in the middle.

Yet somehow even with this repetitive style, it still felt like the story was progressing. It seemed like they at least physically moved closer to their goal each chapter, if not were able to come across a person or idea that would help them along the way. As I was reading the book and cringing every other moment, the last tuft of grass that I could hang on to was that at least the story is moving forward.

The bad news is that once you get to the end, you realize that there were plenty of scenes that seemed like they were leading somewhere, were in fact utterly pointless and a waste of time. There were no great character arcs, no huge revelations that changed how the heroes had to approach their end goal (despite Wintermute's minimal effort do fit it in there). We have our heroes, and they move from A to B. That's it.

Imagine that you're sitting with your friend and you ask how their day went. And then they say they have quite a story to tell, so now you're all ears wanting to find out what happened. And then your friend says, "I walked to the store." Okay. That's a beginning. What happens next? you might think. Did they get someone's number, or did they almost got mugged, or even simpler you're ready to hear that they found a good deal on something they needed and you're ready to congratulate them. But that's not what happens. In fact, that was the entire story. They walked to the store.

Even though the story felt like it was progressing while I was reading it, when I was finished with the book, I felt like Wintermute just told me he walked to the store.

Score: 2/10

So the writing is terrible and the story goes nowhere fast. What about the characters? You just want to know what happens to the characters. Writing duties will be passed on to other eventually, but these characters will remain with us.

Well, sorry to tell you, but if you like these characters, and you imagine noble, gallant, and courageous warriors out on a valiant quest, do not read this book. As I said when it came to the dialogue, Wintermute turns Venser and Koth into the most pathetic of heroes. He gives both of them almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and instead forces us to read how they constantly bicker with each in ways that are neither amusing nor compelling. In fact it makes both Venser and Koth pretty much unlikable.

[Note: From what I've read from comments, the portrayal of Venser in this book is a vastly different interpretation as compared to his appearance in the Time Spiral block.]

As for Elspeth, she actually has a very tragic and heartfelt backstory that was touching... the first time it was told. You'll have to sit through it a a few retellings that add nothing to either her character nor does it propel the story forward, and you'll just listen politely so you can move on. Yet she's the most true of the three and sadly she takes backstage to the others when it comes to screen time.

What's worse is that after we're told about Elspeth's childhood, Vener's is later revealed to us and it's a walk in the park and yet we're supposed to feel worse for him. It's as if a girl's parents were tortured in front of her and she had to kill them to end their suffering, then some boy says he understands because one time his mom cooked him a strawberry cake for his birthday when he wanted chocolate. Naturally, Wintermute's attempt at tugging on heartstrings fell flat.

On the villains side, they are pretty fantastic. When they talk, you can feel the wheels turning in their heads, you can feel them in control of the situation, and you can feel the threat in their words.  I'm including Karn in this group, even though we know his ultimate fate. It's a shame that they only have guest appearances, and were robbed of even final confrontations with the heroes. The book would have been improved immensely otherwise.

And there is one character that I will not forget to write about, even though Wintermute did. Melira. She’s in the story, but not always in the book. How is that possible you ask? After she’s discovered, you’ll find that she’s treated so much  like an object or tool rather than a person, to the point that our heroes almost never engage her in any sort of conversation and Wintermute doesn’t even write a single word about her presence for three chapters in a row despite her physically being with the group. I have never in my life read something so bizarre as that.

Score: 4/10

There are planeswalkers and other characters that appear that have been given card form. You can be sure to expect that at least. And while there is no climax to the story, the end is certainly significant to the Magic storyline, and I'm not talking just about Karn's liberation. (In fact the ending is probably the only thing you really need to know.) Neither of those things are enough to overcome the utter lack of quality of the book.

As for the depictions of the characters in regards to Magic flavor, things aren't all peachy keen here as well. The ideology and motivation of Glissa as depicted in this book is in direct contradiction to what was presented in the Planeswalker's Guide to New Phyrexia. She was written decently enough, but that begs the question as to which version is canon.

There is also a Mirran leader that was written way too Black for my tastes as well. Ezuri, Renegade Leader. It's as if Wintermute saw the word renegade and decided to make him lust for power and pursue that power in the most underhanded of ways, without thinking of how to incorporate a more green philosophy to the situation.

In the exact opposite situation, I have to bring up again how he wrote Venser by adding as many anatomical terms as he could fit in a sentence just because he learned that Blue aligned characters were more focused on knowledge and the mind. Ezuri rang false (if you knew about his card), yet Venser felt like he was a parody of what it meant to be Blue.

Lastly, there are a couple notable characters that I was fully expecting who could have easily been added to the story, yet were noticeably absent.

Score: 0/10 (This is not an average.)

You will be filled with confusion, anger, hope, laugher, tears, and resignation all because of how the words are technically strung together, and not because of what is happening in the story. To top if off the ending will then take your tired and battered spirit and drag it through the mud one last time. You know, for old time's sake. This is without a doubt the worst book I have ever read. Wizards should be ashamed and embarrassed that this book was released, and should without hesitation refund everyone's money.

I don't know the circumstances in which this book was written. I don't know how much time was given to the author, how much guidance he was given, how much time was left for editing, and what the approval process was like. All I know is that the book felt like a first draft of a poorly written fan fiction, while using spell-check in replace of an editor. The best thing I can say about the Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn is that there was only one likely typo in the book.

DO NOT BUY. You have been warned. The only reason you should buy this book is if you can't stand having an incomplete collection or want many clear examples of how not to write a book.

Alternatives: There is plenty of great material that has been presented to us from the official site. If you want to read about the war, and the ideology and leadership structure of the Phyrexians, there is all that and more linked to from the Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn primer.

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