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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum - 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 and the Primer.]

Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum. The Zendikar Block started off as an experiment to see if a "Land set" could succeed, and Creative took that concept and expanded it to mean "Adventure World." Coming into this book, it seemed like "Adventure World" was a concept that could easily translate into a great backdrop for a story. The true test is how the hidden threat of the Eldrazi factor into everything.

Score: 4/10

There are two major plots threads within this book. The first is to get the Teeth of Akoum and stop the ancient Eldrazi from emerging from their centuries long prison. The second is to discover the identify of the mysterious man known as Sorin , as seen from the perspective of our main protagonist, Nissa Revane . The first isn't satisfactorily resolved and the second is known before the first page is ever opened!

Concerning the Sorin plot thread, anyone that knows anything about Sorin Markov knows that he's a vampire, and if you didn't know that and have a copy of the physical book it's also explained on the back cover. From the very beginning we know the "secret," yet Wintermute decides to write the story as if that's some big unknown that we want to figure out and instead every time the subject is brought up, which is very frequent, it just feel like a waste of space.

Why does Wintermute spend so much time on this pointless plot thread? Because the main plot is touched upon and explored in only five out of twenty-three chapters. The main plot, the whole purpose for traveling to the Teeth of Akoum, is hardly touched upon at all. Instead we're presented with plot threads that we know do not matter, and several seemingly promising subplots that turn out to lead absolutely nowhere. Literally the characters can be running towards a building at the end of one chapter only to just keep moving past it by the end of the first paragraph of the next. These are not plot twists. It's just setup that leads nowhere and only creates unfulfilled promises to the reader. And this happens over and over again.

So there is a lot of filler, with the main plot only touched upon sporadically, but is the main plot interesting? The core concept of a an imprisoned, powerful race of creatures that will soon break free if nothing is done to stop them is intriguing, and what little is presented works decently well... and then the book closes with our heroes determining the fate of the plane by using the logic of a small child. It simply doesn't make any sense.

In the end, the story feels not only incomplete, but you leave the book realizing the whole thing had no master plan and is instead just a bunch of nonsense. At best this book feels like it really is the Zendikar Block Novel, but it's missing the Rise of the Eldrazi "Block" Novel.

Score: 3/10

The greatest atrocity when it comes to pacing is that nearly every chapter for nineteen chapters Nissa is trying to figure out that Sorin is a vampire. There are ways to write a mystery where the answer is known the audience but not to the point of view character. There are ways to write it so you are excited to see how Nissa will pick up on a clue and process that information, because you are excited to see how she's going to handle the discovery. Or at the very least there are ways to write the situation so it doesn't seem like the author is insulting you by thinking you haven't figured out the answer yourself after reading the first clue (not to mentioning knowing the secret before picking up the book). Wintermute does not do any of that. Instead we just get constant reminders about how inept our main character is and a constant feeling that we're wasting out time on words that don't matter.

On an equal but opposite note, the book actually has several great moments of build up... that quickly lead nowhere. While secret that is not a secret is a slap in the face, Wintermute manages to fill out the book with moments that seem like something wonderful is going to happen, moments that make it seem like it was worth your time to pick up and read this book. Then just like that he pulls the rug out from under you one more time and you are shown that the moment of build up leads nowhere. Not because it was intentionally set up as a red herring and there will be some bigger payoff later on in the book, not because it helps to illustrate a trait in our characters that makes them more three-dimensional, but simply because this is "Adventure World" and you are supposed to feel that there is danger around every corner even if you're just strolling through a grassy field that is one hundred percent safe. This occurs over and over again until the very end of the book, and it leads to a conclusion that really isn't a conclusion.

While the characters are physically moving from Point A to Point B throughout the entire book, it's written in a way that makes the whole thing seem directionless.

Score: 4/10

Our three cover characters are Nissa Revane , Sorin Markov , and Anowon, the Ruin Sage . (He's the tiny figure right above the Zendikar logo with his back to us.) So maybe the plot goes nowhere fast, but how enjoyable are these traveling companions of ours? Maybe they can elevate the book a bit? Sadly, they're mediocre at best, and most of the time they're not at their best.

As I've already mentioned, Nissa simply cannot figure out that Sorin is a vampire no matter how many clues are thrown at her. Since we know the secret from the beginning and because it's poorly handled, this just makes her come across as an idiot. What's worse is that this one particular plot thread isn't the only reason she comes across that way. Over and over again we're shown why she simply shouldn't be allowed to think for herself. That's not a very flattering trait for the main character of a book, especially because she never breaks free from this portrayal and steps into the role of a hero.

On the other hand, Sorin has next to no personality. And when he does express one, it's so poorly written that he comes across in the exact opposite matter that I assume Wintermute intended. He has a bad habit of yawning and attempting to say something clever to demonstrate of how cool and in command he is of every situation, yet it only makes him come across as an annoying jerk that's just trying too hard.

As for Anowon, he's our resident scholar, and he's actually pretty decent to read. It sounds like he knows what he's talking about, and that he knows more than he's saying. But by the end of the book it's all a lie. It's time to abandon any notion that he's figured anything out, and in fact is about as smart as Nissa herself.

Score: 6/10

The book is mostly a tour of Zendikar with very little actual story. Every chapter is a new location, with its own little quirks, and it feels like we get a glimpse of nearly the entire place, and what we don't actually see at least gets a brief mention. If would been great if it was written better, but this is definitely the Zendikar from the cards. Mostly.

Our three main characters also all have their own cards. But I can't say that the main characters are just faceless characters. These are definitely characters from Zendikar. Mostly.

And why am I saying mostly? We're presented with people and locations that look like they're from the Zendikar set. If you look at one from far away and then look at another, they look the same. The problem is that they don't feel right. There are passages written into this book that make it absolutely clear that Wintermute only has a base level of understand of the color wheel and what that entails. The way he writes about the characters and the source of their magic that is an extreme parody of Magic and not a translation from card to novel.

Less offensive, but still surprising is the lack of prominent characters. If you read the related webcomics before coming in to this book, you might expect that Jace Beleren and Chandra Nalaar to show up and be involved with this story. They're not. And if you know a bit about Gideon Jura, you know he's involved with this whole situation as well, yet he too makes no appearance.

Like I've said before, at best this book feels like it is the Zendikar Block Novel, but it's missing the Rise of the Eldrazi "Block" Novel.

Score: 3/10

When Sorin tries to say something witty and instead comes across as some kind of fool, it's not a character flaw. It's an example of the low level of writing throughout the whole book. Smart sounding words are used for the sake of using smart sounding words rather than using them because they were the best way to tell the story. And to make matters worse there are clear instances where words are used inappropriately and things just don't make sense. There is a frustrating use of the singular "baloth" put in place every time Wintermute a singular baloth or multiple baloths so it's clear it's not a typo which I could forgive. There is no great dialogue of any note, and plenty of it just verges on terrible such as the sentence, "How no pockets?"

The action may be the best part of the book. The tactics our heroes use can be quite suspect at times, Sorin's magical attacks are so powerful that the later battles become far too easy, and the conclusion to every battle can start to feel repetitive as well. Despite all that, there is at least a sense of movement and immediacy in a good majority of the fight scenes that can be enjoyable. There are also a few moments of fear that are written quite well. They might not lead anywhere but before you realize that they can certainly be moments to suck you into the story. There is even one sequence of desperation towards the end that is my favorite piece of the whole novel that actually is quite relevant to the story and deserves to be in there.

All in all, there is one good chapter out of twenty-three in this book, a couple decent chapters, and plenty of chapters where I just wished were over before I got halfway through.

Score: 3/10 (This is not an average.)

This is a book of disappointment. The lack of movement in the plot will leave you just watching the scenery pass by. There are so many set up moments that lead nowhere that by the end of the book you'll become numb and just accept that's the way things are. Do no go into this book expecting to witness the journey of great heroes striving to stop an unspeakable evil that leads to a final showdown. Expect this to be the story of three people on a mission, and expect the focus to be about their relationships to each other, and then finally expect even that to fail to come to a conclusion that makes any sense. I'll say it one more time. At best this feels like a poorly written Zendikar Block Novel which is missing the conclusion in the non-existent Rise of the Eldrazi "Block" Novel. If you want to know about "Adventure World," then read the fantastic Planeswalker's Guide to Zendikar. That's all you need. I do not recommend this book to anyone.


  1. Huh, surprising. That seems like a very generous rating.

    I'm dead serious here. Scars of Mirrodin is your zero, right? So I'm shocked that this gets higher than 1. Maybe 2, but even that seems like pushing it. If this is a 3, what does a 2 look like? I'm willing to say with some confidence that Zendikar and Scars are by far and away the two worst Magic novels ever written. Nothing else is really in the running. So if this isn't a 1, you must be hedging on the possibility of future Wintermute books, which terrifies me. O_O

  2. You bring up a good question, and what I thought was going to a short and simple answer is turning out to be quite the opposite. I'll have a separate post detailing my comparison of In the Teeth of Akoum vs The Quest for Karn shortly.