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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Gathering Dark Non-Spoiler Review

[Note: This is a non-spoiler review, but I consider information revealed in the cards to be free game.]

The Gathering Dark. The chronological sequel to The Brothers' War and the beginning of the Ice Age trilogy. Generations have passed since the conclusion of the war between Urza and Mishra, and the world has become a darker and colder place. The one comforting fact is that magic exists, and there are those who seek to understand this mysterious power. It's existence creates the possibility that it can be used to make the world a better place. Not all are so selfless and there are also those who seek to end the possibility of yet even more corruption and oppression in this already harsh world. The first Magic: The Gathering book set the stage and centered around war. Now it's time to delve into the secrets of magic.

Score: 7/10

Our view of the world centers around our protagonist, Jodah, and his journey for survival and his desire to understand his potential at controlling the forces of magic. Those are his two goals, learn what magic is and how to control it and survive a world that falling apart, and he just happens to get caught up in events that place him at pivotal moments in history. He simply lives, observes, and reacts through most of the book.

However our plot centers around another man. Another mage who is introduced early on so we know that larger events are happening out in the words despite our ignorant hero. The venerable Lord Ith has been supplanted and imprisoned by a usurper and is in desperate need of rescue... and his savior doesn't even know he exists and time is running out.

Keeping the protagonist a stone's throw away from knowing exactly what is going on with the plot is certainly a path that storytellers don't often take, and for that reason alone it was quite interesting to see how the whole book was going to play out. But in some ways it also feels like a complete story wasn't told, with perhaps a little bit too much emphasis on certain events that seeming have no bearing on this book and likely will be resolved later on in the trilogy.

Score: 7/10

The pacing of this book is quite unique in that it is deliberately slow. Because our protagonist is witness to events of the plot but doesn't necessarily drive the plot or even know what's going on for a large portion of the book, instead the book is written to deliberately showcase why this age in Dominaria's history is known as The Dark. The world has been devastated since the events of the Brothers' War and society is continuing to fall into further disrepair rather than rebuilding, and the world itself is becoming a colder and darker place. Fear permeates the air. Jodah simply exists and is nearly oblivious to larger events that occur around him, and with that approach in mind, taking the time to soak in the scenery and atmosphere is quite appropriate.

At the same time, the plot beings to speed up halfway through the book and I found my blood start pumping in anticipation for what was to come. Is that a good sign that Grubb properly laid out the groundwork for me to feel that anticipation? Or is that a bad sign that I didn't feel that rush until so far into the book? Even now that I'm done with the book, I'm still not quite sure. My feeling is that it boils down to a matter of taste, and some will love this unique approach to storytelling while others will have preferred that it stick to a more traditional narrative. Personally, due to the uncertainty I still feel about it all, I have to say that I was mostly satisfied, but left wondering if it could have been better. It's good, but not exceptional.

Score: 7/10

As already mentioned this story has two main characters.

Jodah is our protagonist, our main point of view character. He is a creation outside of the game and the cards and he is our eyes and ears that allows us to see the tattered state of the world. He is very much an every man character that just wants to survive. He is not the traditional hero that wants to go out and explore to the world ready to fulfill his destiny, rather he just wants to survive and the world keeps putting obstacles in his way that threatens that basic desire. I understand why Grubb approached the character the way he did, but at the same time I never felt myself really rooting for him.

On the other hand, Lord Ith is our plot character. He is our damsel in distress in need of rescue... a damsel that happens to be a powerful, yet imprisoned, male mage with a presence that steals the show whenever he's on the page. Even though Jodah isn't in the position to actively push the plot forward because he doesn't even know that Ith exists for a large portion of the book, there are a variety of secondary characters whose lives intersect with his own that fulfill this role.

As for everyone else. Most fulfill their roles satisfactorily, others are forgettable, and a select one or two will leave a lasting impact.

Score: 10/10

Grubb does a fantastic job of incorporating nearly half of the cards into the story. Some have just passing cameos, some are merely mentioned for almost no reason at all, but there are quite a few that have major parts within the story. There are also clusters of cards with the set The Dark that are tied together through flavor text, and the essence of that flavor is translated well, and since this book focuses heavily on the very basics of magic, cards from earlier sets also make appearances. One last thing to mention is that there are a few cards whose card titles were very clearly used only as inspiration to chapters or specific scenes that are in no way direct translations to the cards themselves, but most of these are very wonderfully told that it's hard to complain about that. While this book doesn't compare to the card use within The Brothers' War which was nearly 100%, it's not realistic to expect that level of correlation between set and book, and so this will also get a perfect 10.

Score: 7/10

It is hard to evaluate a book that intentionally does its best to depict a world that is falling apart and quite clearly lets you know that things will get worse before it gets better. This is a world full of fear, confusion, and doubt. It is a world where good things don't always happen to good people, rather life just happens and you have to work with what you have and hope that it's enough. With that in mind, the book does a good job keeping the reader feeling down and trapped and does a good job at conveying the hopelessness that permeates the world during this dark age of Magic's history. Yet at the same time, those feelings are so constant and persistent throughout the book that it's hard to see that as purely a good thing in terms of enjoyment.

This book also tackles the unique challenge of needing to balance the fact that it is other characters other than the POV character to move the plot forward for a large portion of the book against the fact that the protagonist needs to feel like an essential and important part of the story. This is done by not only by giving page time to characters that know what is going on, but also by way of inserting a historical view on current events by beginning each chapter with the written observations of this era by a scholar from a city that does not currently exist. This historical perspective successfully gives weight to current events and works to connect what might otherwise feel like random events.

The real issues arise because Grubb allows for so much time to soak in the scenery and spends so much detailing memory after memory after memory so Jodah or another mage can draw their mana to cast a spell that I would find myself getting bored and skimming past. It doesn't help that Jodah never really caught on too strongly with me. He's almost so normal and so unaware of what's going on around him that he's not interesting, and he's studying a subject that isn't new territory thanks to understanding how the game works and having a lot of exposure to the concepts of flavor and the color wheel thanks to magicthegathering.com. With that said, I can see how a reader who read this book before the official site even existed might have found those lessons more interesting.

Typos aren't something I would usually mention, and don't exactly fall under the Prose category, but it would be even more inappropriate in the other sections and it needs to be mentioned because there are a lot of them. There is at least one very noticeable typo per chapter. The typos aren't misspellings and instead seem to be instances were spell check was used and it inserted the wrong tense or changed the intended word to one that is spelled similarly but has a completely different meaning. While I know this blog isn't typo free, when I do have time to go back to look for mistakes, you can be sure I try to fix every one. Yet the copy that I read from was a fourth edition, and it's clear that no effort was put to fix any of these issues, and instead each re-release is likely an exact copy of a first edition. Not a huge deal in the overall scheme of things, but this issue is a consistent and noticeable.

[Note: I do not know what edition the re-release that was packed in the Coldsnap Fat Pack is, and if this issue happened to be addressed... although my guess is "No."]

Score: 7/10 (This is not an average.)

The title of this book tells you exactly what it is. This book is dark. Not dark in the sense of being gruesome and over the top when it comes to violence, and not dark by level of moral corruption, this isn't a story that highlights adventure, glory, and honor. Those components of a good story are in here but they tend to take a back seat to the basic need to survive. The question that drives our protagonist Jodah is What do I do with my life? rather than How do I fulfill my destiny? It stresses feelings of distress, confusion, and fear to the point that the protagonist isn't aware of the larger events that are swirling around him for a large portion of the story.

But there is another thing that this book stresses. Magic. Our hero is an apprentice wizard and he is being introduced to magic just as the world around him is being introduced to magic. This book does a thorough job of laying the groundwork on hows and whys of this mystical force within Magic: The Gathering multiverse, and it does a good job with weaving these core concepts naturally within the plot which helps to validate the time spent on the basic nature of magic to those who are veterans of magic fiction.

If you want to read a book that takes it's time making it clear that the world if falling apart and that things are going to get worse before it gets better, and if you want to see the birth of magic as it takes place after the Brothers' War and how various people and groups viewed the idea of harnessing such a mystical force, then this is the book for you.

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