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Revisiting The Brothers’ War – a Magic: The Gathering novel

I pulled this off my shelf a few weeks ago after re-reading some of the earliest Armada Magic: The Gathering comics. (The Shadow Mage, Ice Age, Fallen Empires, and Antiquities War). Something about the Antiquities War mini-series reminded me of the acknowledgements in the novel to prior versions of the story of The Brothers’ War. And rediscovering that the comics left the “whole story” incomplete–Armada only got to publish 2/3 of their planned arc for the story–my interest was reignited.

A few years ago, I read Time Spiral, the first book in a trilogy of novels covering that block of Magic: The Gathering card sets; part of what really drew me in was that it revisited the world of Dominaria, which seemed to have been largely left behind after the Invasion block. And not really having read any of the books since Apocalypse, I was interested in seeing where Dominaria had wound up.

Anyway, The Brothers’ War.

This is easily one of my favorite books of all time–this is at least the third, maybe the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the novel cover to cover…something I do very rarely and with so few books.

This came out in 1998 or so, kicking off a huge line of MTG novels from Wizards of the Coast. There’d been another line of MTG novels (published through HarperPrism) several years earlier–but those were (for the most part) generic fantasy novels with the MTG “branding.” This line provided the actual story of the cards, the continuity of the game itself.

At least with the early MTG expansions, as WotC was world-building and beginning to pull everything together into one continuity (albeit across a multiverse), everything came back to the war between Urza and Mishra. Much of the detail was vague and loose–but what was clear was that a conflict between these brothers had caused much destruction and deeply impacted their world. An unnatural ice age actually descended on the world after the conflict, and the world itself was cut off from the multiverse for centuries.

But this novel went back to the beginning–Urza and Mishra as young boys, arriving at Tocasia’s school, where they began learning of artifacts and the Thran (an ancient civilization). They grew into the school–Mishra learning of the Fallaji, a desert-dwelling people while Urza focused on his inventions. Eventually, they visit an ancient cave, where they discover intact Thran artifacts, and are introduced to Phyrexia–a plane of living machines. They also each gain a half of an incredibly powerful Power Crystal. Mishra’s becomes known as the “Weakstone” as it can weaken artifacts while Urza’s becomes known as the “Mightstone” as it strengthens them and brings life to the machines.

From there, the brothers each covet the other’s half, leading to a rivalry that lasts the rest of their lives as the entire world eventually pays an astronomical cost for the brothers’ jealousy. Their rivalry results in the death of their teacher, sending the boys onto their own individual paths: Mishra into the desert where he becomes a part of the Fallaji, while Urza returns to “civilization” and marries into royalty. Eventually rising to top levels of government in each culture, the brothers have immense resources to throw at each other, draining the world’s resources in the process, until the only thing left is destruction.

The novel’s story is told in sections, each encapsulating a period of years in the brothers’ lives. All told, the novel spans over 60 years, following the brothers from being young boys into old age; a lifetime of conflict. Structurally, I find it interesting to see stories that do span characters’ entire lifetime (or the majority of it)…something to it seems more interesting and complete to me than just continuous stories all bunched into a small span of time.

This story also seeds the foundation of stories to come, as we are introduced to a number of prominent concepts that play out across much of the Magic: The Gathering continuity. We’re also introduced to some core concepts from the cards–getting backstory on prominent cards and locations, nicely “transforming” the source material into essentially adaptation material; that is, the book’s story draws from concepts set forth in the cards, but does so in such a way that the cards then can seem like they were adapted instead from the book.

This book is marked as the first volume of the Artifacts Cycle, but it truly stands alone as a self-contained story. There’s no “to be continued” or traditional-cliffhanger sort of ending. The end does leave an opening to transition into the larger MTG continuity, but you’d pretty much have to know where it goes to truly pick up on that; even knowing it myself, it’s a bit of a disconnect, like taking a standalone movie and then 15/20 years later making a sequel. The sequel can work and validly pick up the story, but the sequel is far from any sort of “essential” to the original.

For a 1998 book–now 14ish years old–this held up remarkably well. This could have been written in 2012 if I didn’t know any better. This has been reprinted in a “trade paperback”-sized edition combined with another early MTG book, The Thran. While I would definitely love to have a standard-sized hardback of just this novel, I’m not terribly interested in the “collected edition.”

What also proved surprising (and very disappointing) for me was that this book is NOT currently (late October 2012) available as an ebook. Perhaps I’m an extreme minority, but I would gladly have paid the $6-$8 for a nook-book edition, for the convenience of re-reading this on my phone’s nook app. Instead, I spent 4-5 weeks carrying my 1998 mass-market paperback edition around, which of late has been a less than ideal prospect.

I’m fairly tempted to re-read several of the other books from this series, though I lack (by far) the kind of time TO read that I had in late high school and early college. Honestly, the primary drawback is that these are not ebooks–if they were available that way, I’d be further tempted with the ability to buy/download them and have them on my phone, to jump into “whenever” spur of the moment.

If you’re into fantasy–even if you don’t care a lick about Magic: The Gathering the card game or anything from the past 10 years from MTG in general, this is well worth reading. For me, it’s been worth reading at least three times, and I enjoyed it as much now as I did in 1998 and 1999, with a number of scenes and “moments” having stuck with me that I’d forgotten came from this book.

MTG

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