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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum - Chapter 1

Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum by Robert B. Wintermute is the second of the Magic books classified as a Block Novel, following Alara Unbroken. It's also the first Magic novel by Robert B. Wintermute, the second happens to be Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn, the first book I reviewed on this site. It's important to note that the score that book received was a 0 out of 10 in my review. I'm going to be trying to read and review this book on its own merits, but there will no doubt be some Wintermute bias going into this.

Get ready. This chapter is a long one. It's nearly three times as long as any of the other chapters. Let's begin!

Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum - Chapter 1

"Nissa Revine heard a rustle and a snap..."

(It's Revane, Not Revine. Immediately we start off with a typo. And I know it's a typo and not a last minute name change for the as card because it is correctly spelled  at the end of the chapter. Typos aren't something I point out too often, but this one is especially amusing considering my expectations going into the book.)

Her friend Hiba appears and tells Nissa they have to return to the home tree. He's one of the Tajuru elves, which means he always has all manner of rope, tools, and climbing gear on him, as well as his climbing harness on. She on the other hand is one of the Joraga elves, quite at home in the jungles of Bela Ged and uses none of that. Instead she's rather proud of her ability at stealth and summoning and the only equipment she needs is her staff.

(My neumonic: Tajuru = Tool Elves, Joraga = Jungle Elves)

As part of a necessary passage into leadership among her people, she's required to live among outsiders, and this is the place she's chosen. While Nissa takes pride in her ability at stealth, she feels a bit weirded out at how silent everyone has to be at the home tree where she currently stays with the rest of the Joraga elves.

They make it to the outskirts of the home tree, and Hiba freezes. Nissa's been around Hiba long enough to know that his sense of hearing is superior to her own and trusts in his reactions. She eventually she picks up on the same scraping sound he must have heard. A sound of long claws being sharpened on tree bark that immediately brings to mind the deadly onduan baloth. They wait until the sound disappears and continue on.

She had to give credit to the Tajuru architects as the full view of the home tree settlement opened before her. She'd lived here only a month, and the sight still made the hairs on her arms stand up. Thousands of brightly colored wood-and-moss, hedron-shaped huts clung to huge belts of woven bark girded around the branches and trunk of a vast turntimber . Complex strut works of wood, rope suspension bridges, and planked walkways festooned the tree in arcing loops. The fact that the turntimber tree healed over any attempts to penetrate its bark only heightened her amazement - the clever tribe had been able to make the marvel without t even one nail.

Everyone is headed towards the longhouse, which is quite packed by the time they get there. On the platform are two people Nissa doesn't recognize, however everyone seems to think they are a big deal. Hiba tells her that she's Speaker Sutina, and with new eyes she notices that she's not wearing any kind of harness or gear like the rest of the Tajuru. That should have told her how important she was, except she didn't notice because just a month here, she's already adopting the Tajuru way of thinking by not attributing importance and stature to anyone.

(You read that right. Importance and stature aren't a thing the think about, but the the awe and hushed tones of the room sceam out importance as does her lack of wearing any kind of climbing harness.)

All that Nissa can recall about Speaker Sutina is that is said to live far away in the Tumbled Palace by the cliffs of Sunder Bay, and rumor has it that she "partnered" with the sea monster Lorthos once a month when it rises out of the sea. Speaker Sutina tells them that they've traveled a long way to spread news of a great rot in the forest. She gets straight to the point. Her lips begin to glow with a green phosphorescence and she channels various voices through her body. The first is a strange guttural, rasping sound filled with chirps that she says is the language of the metaphorical infection that's spreading, and none recognize it.

(Yes, guttural and chirps.)

[Note: Lorthos is actually described as the Moon Kraken in the novel, but this is a clear change to the card from R&D, or actually settling in between three creature types, after Wintermute was given some details about it. Not entirely his fault. Mark Rosewater's article Zendikar Talk talk's about Lorthos' card creation.]

Sutina's eyes fluttered and went to their whites again as she channeled something else. "What is that?" a concerned male Tajuru's voice echoed out of her throat. "What are those holes? Stina, Rawli, give that thing a volley."

"But the wind," this time a female voice. "The wind."

A silence lasting nearly thirty heartbeats followed.

Nissa looks around and sees that all the Tajuru have taken the same pose, with their heads bowed down, and all their lips have turned green. It makes Nissa a bit uncomfortable. Joraga elves would never share consciousness like this. As for what was just spoken, some elves recognize the voice that just spoke and the name that was mentioned. Leaf Talker Gloui patrols out west. Hiba whispers that the Binding Circle is out west, and as one all the other elves repeat the words. What Nissa stands out to Nissa is neither the name nor the voice, but the talk about the wind. The trees are too thick for wind to travel through the woods. A breeze, sure, but nothing strong enough to be considered wind.

Considering that Nissa is the only Joraga elf, it should come to no surprise that she's been noticed by the Speaker. Sutina commands Nissa to lead a force of Tajuru to find and eliminate this unknown threat. That the order was for her to lead isn't surprising either. She is often given dangerous assignments. Some of the Tajuru are impressed with her abilities while a good deal also despise her and feel she is the beginning of a Joraga invasion.

(Invasion how? Like she's gathering intel about their weakness? Or like... "They took our jobs!" cultural type of invasion? Neither way really seems to make sense.)

As everyone funnels out of the building after the assembly, Hiba suddenly grabs her shoulder, halting her. She's known Hiba long enough, and gone out into the wilds with him often enough, that she could could usually predict whatever creature it was that he was hearing by the look on his face. As she turns around to face him, she sees a new look.

Hiba darts forward and drags Nissa with him, throws one of his hooks at a nearby branch and they swing away towards another tree. After a moment of silence something comes out of nowhere and knocks them off the branch and they go tumbling down to the forest floor.

Nissa immediately summons four Joraga warriors to battle whatever's coming. And what comes isn't something she's ever seen before. The creatures have four hands but only two arms thanks to a split at their elbows and walk upon tentacles. The creatures look down on them with lidless blue eyes and knock away the arrows shot by her warriors without any expression at all.

Arrows, sword, staff, and a little bit of magic, are used to fight these strange new threats and eventually all five are taken care of. While Nissa would have liked to have examined the bodies a bit closer, Hiba runs straight back for the home tree and she and her warriors follow.

There are plenty more of those dead creatures on the way, with every Tajuru alert ready to help or defend as needed. Nissa and company make it back to the longhouse and find Speaker Sutina's body being carried away. No one else seems to notice a small pearl drop out of her hand, so Nissa scoops it up. It's the size of a human's eye (his words not mine) with a strange blue script on it.

With the battle over, Nissa gets her chance to take a look at one of the creatures and notices they have no mouths and wonders how they eat. Why would they attack if they they aren't here to eat?

It was like nothing she had ever seen on Zendikar. It had tentacles, yet no webbing between its digits, and no gills. Its lidless eyes and ridged skin spoke of a subterranean life, but how could something without a mouth live underground? There were no weapons and no clothing. And the creature smelled somehow clean and tangy, like she imagined a snake would. She curled her lip in disgust.

Hiba takes a look and comments that they remind him of monsters from children's story, and Nissa realizes he's right, and they compare differences between the monsters in each others' stories, but at the core he's right.

An elf from the nearby MossCrack settlement arrived of reports from an attack on their settlement as well. Nissa tells Hiba to gather as many elves as he can and meet up at the zip line, they're going to MossCrack. Moments later, Nissa, Hiba, the four Joraga warriors, and twenty Tajuru are speeding through the forest in a gondola attached to the zip line leading towards the settlement.

Nissa stops the gondola before they get to MossCrack and tells them they go the rest of the way on foot along the branches. As they get close to the MossCrack home tree Hiba signals that something's off to the left. They get their weapons ready, and he's the first to gasp as he spots over a hundred of the tentacled creatures of various shapes and sizes accompanied by a scattering of vampire slaves.

But it wasn't their numbers that shocked her. It was the sun. There was sun on the forest floor. With turntimber trees around there was never full son on the forest floor. But the creatures had managed to do what Nissa had not thought could be done. They'd felled small turntimber. They'd dug large holes and were in the process of stripping the leaves off the fallen tree, hauling them to the holes, and stuffing them in.

(Because they couldn't notice all the sunlight lighting up the entire forest without seeing the eldrazi spawn first? That makes no sense.)

She orders them all to attack the largest one, but they hear a branch snap behind them and their chance at a preemptive strike is gone. Nissa animates the nearby branches to form a wall while the warriors continue to shoot between the gaps. In the chaos of the battle she gets separated from the others and knocked down to the forest floor. She twists her staff and pulls out her hidden stem sword which can switch back and forth between its rigid state and that of of a loose, bladed whip on command and she continues to fight on.

Nissa runs into the creature putting all his weight into pushing down another tree. She whips her stem sword around it's arm and slices it off, and finds that it simply puts his weight into its other other shoulder without expressing any other reaction of any kind. No scream, anger, or even a sneer to acknowledge its attacker or its injury.

Nissa takes it out and returns to the tree hoping to find some of her warriors still alive. What she finds instead are over two hundred of the creatures staring her down, and not a one is angry with her. The all lumber forward on their tentacles , until they all simultaneously stop.

Where had she seen that behavior before?

(I know what you're thinking... the Tajuru elves in the assembly hall when they were sharing consciousness' right?)

It was like some insect. Like... Ants!


Alone against two hundred. Those aren't good odds. Nissa knows she can planeswalk away, but if she did, she would be running away for the rest of her life.


She prepares herself for death while taking out as many as she can before that happens when something catches their attention. A human steps out from between the trees, a human by his height, with white hair, dressed in black, and armed with a sword.

"Have you all slipped your chains already?" the strange man asked as he walked. "I am lost and looking for the Eye of Ugin ."

Nissa thinks to herself that the creatures have a dilemma, because they'll soon be flanked if they don't attack soon. And they must have thought the same because that's exactly what the creatures do. The stranger's hands glow black and he utters a spell in a language she's never heard before. Then nearly every single one of the creatures fall to the ground as rotting mounds of flesh. A repeat of the spell finishes the last of them off.

(A mob of two hundred would be afraid of being flanked by an elf and a "human"? Or could they sense that he had that kind of power and knew something that hasn't yet been told to me in the book?)

With the danger passed, Nissa runs back once more to search for any survivors, she manages to find a wounded Hiba still alive. However with a glance the stranger knows he won't be alive for long. He introduces himself as Sorin, and then he tells her he's found one of the vampires still alive among he bodies of what he calls the "brood lineage." When she asks what they're a lineage of, the vampire speaks up and says a lineage of creatures that have been asleep in the stones of Akoum. Sorin commands him to explain what he knows of the lineage, and after he checks his waist for the metal cylinders that are tied to him, he says he was present for their release in the Teeth of Akoum which is at the Eye of Ugin.

A brace of baloths howl in the distance and Nissa says they need to get out of here, but Sorin ignores her. He wants to know the vampire's identity and the vampire tells them that he's Anowon , formerly of the Family Ghet. Sorin's next question is to ask him where they are right now.

The vampire's eyes fell on Nissa as she hoisted Hiba. "Somewhere in the Turntimber," he said. When Sorin said nothing, Anowon continued. "On Ondu." Still Sorin said nothing. "Zendikar?" Anowon ventured.

"And I don't suppose you know the way to the Eye of Ugin?" Sorin asked.

"It's on Akoum," Anowon said.

Sorin chuckled. "That's not what I asked. And if you want to bandy cut words, I will tear your heart out of your chest and have the elf eat it."

(Bandying words? That's not how I read that.)

Nissa wants this guy out of her forest and tells him she knows the way to Akoum. But first she wants to know why she should even lead them there. He explains that what she witnessed here was just the vanguard of the true army. He can beat back the Eldrazi into their eternal sleep but he needs to do it soon. Nissa says she'll do it on two conditions. The first is that they need to help her bury her now dead friend, Hiba. The second is that the vampire's hands have to be bound. He protests, but she insists that he must travel bound or they won't be going at all.

As if in answer, another baloth howl drifted slowly through the trees, and Nissa started to talk.

* * *

There's a Lot to Cover

This was the longest chapter in the book, twelve percent in fact compared to the more typical five percent chapter length. It certainly could have been broken down into two chapters, but I can see the appeal of wanting to end with Nissa and Sorin meeting up and agreeing to travel to the Teeth of Akoum.

Planeswalker's Guide

At least skimming the Planeswalker's Guide to Zenkikar is a must before reading this book. Learning about the land, the elven cultures, the hedron stones which were referenced multiple times without any form of explanation of what they are... it's best to consult the Guide or you'll be hopelessly lost.


- When Nissa think about other planes she's been to, the thing that stick out about one of them is that people stood on each other's heads. Was that necessary to tell us? Was that supposed to be funny?
- Referring to the pearl as the size of a human's eye.
- Describing one of the warriors as being "pulled to meat" to mean he was pulled apart.
- Nissa describes that the Joraga and Tajuru both hate intellectual pursuits, but she is impressed at the ingenuity of the Tajuru's use of tools, architecture, zip-line, etc. It's a shallow and misplaced understanding of the color wheel.
- Nissa knows what a vampire looks like but can't put two and two together when it comes to Sorin's pale skin while having another vampire right there to compare him to.

Stand Out Sentence

Here's the most poorly constructed sentence of the chapter, in reference to when Nissa was stopped by Hiba at the home tree, when he first heard the initial attack.

Her lieutenant's long ear was cocked to the sky, and his large jaw was slack, listening.

While it's technically correct, there is an insane amount of variations on this sentence that would have improved it, such as the barest change would would keep the core of the sentence from being unnecessarily split by the clause about his slack jaw:

Her lieutenant's large jaw was slack, with his long ear cocked to sky listening for what was out there.

Painful Repetition

The repeated telling of how the Eldrazi spawn "were not angry." I'm not even quite sure what's he's trying to get across. Probably that they're unrelenting killing machines, but they would have been much better served as being described as being expressionless rather than "not angry."

There is also a "holes" for what I take to mean as tunnel entrances in the ground. When I hear the word "hole" referring to a "hole in the ground" I usually imagine a pit of some kind with a finite bottom, and not an entrance to a series of tunnels which is what I imagine he's trying to convey here.


Okay... so Wintermute set up that the Tajuru elves sometimes act as one and can share consciousness' with each other. Then when Nissa sees the Eldrazi spawn act as one it reminds her of ants? That's not only extremely poor chapter construction... but ants don't even act that way!!

Have you ever watched a line of ants? It's organized chaos, they're not moving in lockstep, acting as one. And if danger appears you can be sure they all start panicking and scatter all over the place and don't freeze. That kind of behavior if more like something you'd see with something like antelope or other animals that stay in a herd or a flock. I'm sure describing them as a reacting like prey animals and not predators isn't what he wanted, but he sure didn't describe insect behavior.


I actually thought this chapter was kind of decent. In overall scope there was a lot of movement within the chapter. Action flowed very nicely from place to place, and the actually fighting was varied not just in types of attacks, but in changing locations from within the tree branches down to the forest floor and back up again.

1 comment:

  1. You're a fucking idiot. just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's stupid. She couldn't see light on the forest floor because the canopy blocked out the light. she could see it then because the eldrazi ripped the trees out of the ground. you don't get to comment on this writing until you get published. I'd like to see you ATTEMPT to get something published.