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Friday, March 9, 2012

Test of Metal Non-Spoiler Review

[Note: This is a non-spoiler review, but this is a direct sequel to Agents of Artifice. I consider information revealed in that book, and anything else referenced in the Primer to be free game.]

Test of Metal. The third Planeswalker novel, and direct sequel to Agents of Artifice. And when I say direct, I really mean it. Almost every character and plot point that you would want addressed shows up in this book. Whether you'll like how it's all addressed is another matter. This is a story of riddles and twists, but above all, this is the story of Tezzeret the Seeker.

Score: 5/10

The overall plot of this book is commendable. This book is meant to show us the path that Tezzeret takes from his unfortunate end at the end of Agents of Artifice to becoming the person he is at the beginning of the Scars of Mirrodin Block. We're meant to be show who Tezzeret was, is, and who he may become.

That's all well and good, but it's the details of the plot that ruin the experience. There are six major components to this novel, three of them are plot related: Riddles, a new power called clockworking, and the twist. All three fail to one extent or another.

The riddles of this novel are sufficiently compelling, the problem is that when you learn the answers, they don't make much sense. So much so that I actually wonder if it was intentional that the major riddle that drives the whole plot was intentionally never repeated after the first chapter to allow for as much time to pass for the reader to forget what it even was, so when the the answer is revealed near the end of the book the readers won't realize the answer doesn't really fit.

Clockworking is a form of temporal magic. And when it comes to temporal magic or temporal plot devices in any story, it is always dangerous territory to tread. It becomes too easy for an author to write a story that doesn't make sense and/or the obstacles becomes too easy or too difficult to overcome without any sort of unfulfilling miracle save if the story is to maintain any kind of consistency. This book fails on all accounts. Clockworking is so convoluted and insurmountable that there is no satisfying conclusion.

As for the twist, when a book begins at the end of the story, and fills in the details through flashbacks, that is a signal that a twist is on the way. The fun is to play along with what's being revealed to and to try to piece together the clues and attempt to figure out what's going on before it's revealed. The problem here is that while the twist will allow for a better second read through of the book, Stover intentionally makes it frustrating for readers who are familiar with the characters to read through the book the first time.

Score: 6/10

As mentioned above, this story begins at the end and then is proceeds to alternate from present and past, by way of flashback, as the overall structure to convey the story. This part of the book is wonderfully laid out. Each chapter has a clear goal and purpose. It all fits, it all works, and I wouldn't change any of it. I have issues with the plot, the chapter layout does its best with what it has to work with.

Where the score for pacing drops off isn't about the pacing chapter to chapter, but rather the pacing within each chapter. It feels like nearly every chapter could have been improved by cutting out significant chunks of each. I often found my mind wandering, or trying to puzzle out the point of paragraph after paragraph of pointless banter that led nowhere, only to find that maybe the last two or three pages of a fifteen page chapter to be compelling enough for me to actively want to see what happened next. Stover's method of trying to make Tezzeret and Nicol Bolas sound smart by using the longest words possible literally creates pages of content that could have been more effectively conveyed in a few paragraphs. We get more content but no substance.

Score: 5/10

I mentioned that there are six major components to this book. Three are plot related, the other three are character related. The three most prominent characters in the book are Tezzeret, Nicol Bolas, a new character referred to as Doc.

Let's work backwards.

Doc. The newcomer. He is meant to be the comic relief of the book. Unfortunately the humor of this book isn't my type of humor, so pretty much every time he opens his mouth he slowly wears away at my enjoyment of the book. And he talks a lot. To top it off, one of the reasons to have a comic relief character is to allow for low brow humor that the protagonist would never say. Unfortunately even with this humor outlet in the character of Doc, that doesn't keep Tezzeret from saying some of the stupidest things.

Nicol Bolas. The all powerful Forever Serpent. If you've read any of the other novels with Nicol Bolas in them, this portrayal of the dragon will not be like the one you know. There are some reasons for it explained within the book, but they aren't good enough to redeem what's been done to the character, and what the reader has to put with until he learns those reasons. There are also some details about dragons that I absolutely wish were not added to the dragon lore of Magic: The Gathering.

Tezzeret. The central character of the book. There are some wonderful moments we see with him. In fact, you'll see his life displayed before us from his childhood to how he earned his etheirum arm and beyond. His backstory is done very well. My problem isn't so much who he is and where he came from, but rather how comes off and what he says. Throughout the whole book Tezzeret speaks with unnecessarily long words for the sake of sounding smart, and comes off as having a very arrogant "I'm smarter than you are" attitude all the while saying things that don't make any sense which only further demeans his character. If he sounded arrogant yet backed it up, that would be one thing. But sadly, he likes to talk about how smart he is, yet his actions say otherwise.

Score: 8/10

The one highlight of the book is that it cannot be said that this book does not cover nearly everything you'd want the book to cover as both a sequel to Agents of Artifice and as a Planeswalker Novel about Tezzeret the Seeker. You will get to see Tezzeret's full backstory, will get to learn about Tezzeret's motivations, and will get glimpses of where the character may be taken. In fact, almost all of Tezzeret's backstory is told in the second chapter of the book. As a stand alone chapter it is quite good and can be read independently of the rest of the book if that's all you want to get out of this novel. As for being a sequel to Jace Beleren's Planeswalker Novel, this book resolves the major contradiction between the ending of that book and Jace Beleren's bio on the mothership .

Unfortunately, how those questions are handled and presented aren't done quite as effectively and just like its predecessor, this book also ends with one major contradiction about the protagonist that is never resolved.

Score: 3/10

The most constant annoyance throughout this whole book is the dialogue. The action is adequate, the description is fine and sometimes even quite good. And there is one moment in particular within the book that I actually felt was quite beautiful.... but the dialogue... oh man... the dialogue.

For about 95% of the book, the dialogue has two settings:

1) Crude low brow humor that's supposed to funny.
2) Overwritten dialogue that's supposed to sound intelligent.

Notice the "supposed" in each sentences.

To make matters worse, either of those settings can be filled with real world sayings that clearly do not fit within the Magic universe that will constantly break the fourth wall and pull you out of the story. Very literally the novel has Tezzeret tell Nicol Bolas that there is this acronym "KISS", which stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid."

That's just one of many examples.

One other problem with the prose, is that many of the early flashbacks are presented to us as a telepathic intrusion into another character's memories, yet the first person perspective is written like it is that character telling us a story and adding lots of outside backstory and information to explain and elaborate on the memories we are witnessing. The framing device doesn't quite make sense with how the story is being told. With that being said, if that had been the only problem with the book, it wouldn't be that big of a problem. It's just a big enough to be worth mentioning.

Score: 5/10 (This is not an average.)

As a whole, I can see what this was meant to be. This book was supposed to be the book that tells you everything you want to know about Tezzeret, and is meant to be the sequel to the excellent Agents of Artifice. Unfortunately there are some major flaws throughout the whole book stemming from key plot points, dialogue, tone, breaking of the fourth wall, inconsistencies, and contradictions galore that it's hard to recommend.

Stepping far away from the book, looking at just the bigger picture of what this book is meant to be and what's it is meant to convey, the book has some wonderful goals. We begin near the end of the events of the story, are presented with a riddle, and are led through a series of flashbacks to provide the reader opportunity to figure it out on their own all the while being educated on who Tezzeret is, how he's perceived, and what drives him. But the details on how all of that is executed falls apart, and unfortunately, that matters quite a bit. 

While the book is structured to let the reader know to expect a twist, and while the reveal will make a second read through a better experience (but will also reveal more contradictions that you missed the first time through), there isn't one really solid facet of the book that's worthy of a strong recommendation. The overall concept that the book tried to execute on is good enough that I can recommend reading summaries, and if you really want to know about Tezzeret's backstory, reading the second chapter of the book will absolutely be worth your while, but as a whole the book will constantly prod you to put the book down. It's either too slow, stupid, or frustrating with just enough good in there to get you to push on.

The opening dedication reads as:

This author respectfully dedicates this story to everyone who is as smart as they think they are.

It is too bad that this book itself comes off as thinking it is a lot smarter than it actually is. It will often attempt to sound smart, and will fail upon a second glance if not the first, and as a result will help to lower your opinion of some of the supposedly most powerful and brilliant characters in Magic fiction.

If you really do love Tezzeret, I will not say this is an absolute do not read... but beware.

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