I can’t read just for enjoyment anymore.
Imagine a shepherd — I’ll use James Rebanks, the Herdwick Shepherd, as an example — and show him
a picture of a sheep. Now imagine all the technical knowledge running through his head, breed standards and market values and so on. If he sees a sheep, he
won’t think “sheep” and then stop, as a town-bred person like me might. He’ll judge its sex, age, conformation, and all the rest, consciously or not.
One of my all-time favorite zeugmas: “When heroes fall / in love or war / they live forever.”
Taking everything one reads apart is a necessary habit for a writer and one of the few ways of getting better and staying sharp. On the other hand, I do
miss being able to “turn my brain off” sometimes. When I read The Remains of the Day at thirteen, I let myself get lost in the prose;
when I revisited it a year ago, I saw all the tricks. It’s still the same gorgeous novel, but this time I read it as a writer.
Age also might have something to do with it…
Magic storytelling gets the same treatment from me as literary fiction* and advertising copy. I don’t give a pass for “it’s genre, what do you expect?” or shared universe or anything else; I expect a Magic short story to be the best Magic short
story it can, with believable characters and a sound plot that hook me from the start and leave me satisfied at the end.
* In lieu of my usual rant, I’ll merely observe that great literary fiction gives me singular pleasure, and the bad stuff is more painful to me than
the most wretched of fan-fiction.
Now that the storytelling for Khans of Tarkir block has concluded — all contained in cards and short-story postings on Uncharted Realms, with no novel — it’s time to take a look
back. How successful was the effort, what could’ve been done differently, and which lessons will Wizards Creative apply to Battle for Zendikar?
It’s time to prop open ” The Story of Tarkir Block,” the Wizards
recap article, and get to work.
Observation I: Labeling stories “PLOTLINE” or not in the recap article did none of the stories any favors.
Wizards labeled certain stories “PLOTLINE” in all capitals, and so I shall carry on that convention.
The division in many cases seems arbitrary. In the Fate Reforged section, for instance, every story was labeled “PLOTLINE” with one exception: “The Truth of Names”(probably because, unlike in
all the other stories, the clan won its confrontation and thus it did not advance the “Dragons take over everything” sense of plot). Narset isn’t
considered plotline-relevant except when she’s directly interacting with Sarkhan, which only reinforces the impression that her Khans of Tarkir
version basically exists just to get stuffed in the proverbial refrigerator.
Here’s the thing: If the “PLOTLINE” stories had been titled “Chapter One” and so on at the time, I would’ve been fine with it. Ditto for “tagging” the
characters in each week’s entry for “The Story of Tarkir” to let people take a self-guided tour of Sarkhan’s travels. To declare “PLOTLINE” after the fact,
though, suggests that the 48,000 words, give or take, of Sarkhan and Sorin and Ugin are the core stories and that the others are less relevant.
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman didn’t throw in the “Somewhere in America”
sections at random. Each was placed with artistic care and purpose. Maybe they were “side stories,” but they mattered, and they mattered enough for Gaiman
to include them and arrange them so as to enrich the story as a whole.
I mentioned 48,000 words of “PLOTLINE” story. In sci-fi terms, especially serial sci-fi terms, that’s the word-count of a short novel. On the other hand…
Observation II: It’s probably for the best Wizards didn’t do a novel for Tarkir block, and not because “Magic novels are bad.”
Some stories have an inherently novelistic structure. Tarkir’s isn’t one of them.
Sure, novels jump around in time a lot.Slaughterhouse-Five. Kindred. The Time Machine. Each of those novels has its reason for jumping
around in time. Slaughterhouse-Five uses Billy Pilgrim’s plight “unstuck in time” to present a nonlinear, fatalistic story of war and what comes
after. Kindred sends Dana back in time repeatedly to confront her ancestors and the choices they made. The Time Machine uses the conceit
of traveling to a far-future dying Earth to comment on Victorian society closer to home.
The story of Tarkir block uses time travel to…resurrect one Planeswalker and give another the Tarkir he always dreamed of, a land oppressed by Dragons.
In all of the novel cases I cited, there’s a beginning, middle, and end to the story. It may take a great deal of untangling (Slaughterhouse-Five)
to find them, but they exist. Serial storytelling has its own quirks, but The Time Machine was written for serial publication without suffering unduly.
Tarkir block’s structure, on the other hand, is more “beginning, middle, beginning,” and that comes through in Uncharted Realms as well. Dragons of Tarkir is another introduction to the plane, now changed by Sarkhan’s actions, but there’s no sense of resolution for Tarkir itself.
Look at the Dragons of Tarkir stories:
“A Tarkir of Dragons”
– Sarkhan finds his dream Tarkir, ruled by Dragons.
“The Great Teacher’s Student”
– Narset’s a Planeswalker, yo.
– Anafenza’s fate is worse in the new Dragons timeline.
“The Poisoned Heart”
– Sidisi’s fate is worse in the new Dragons timeline.
– Surrak’s fate is…you get the idea.
“Unbroken and Unbowed”
– Sarkhan meets Ugin for some exposition, meets New Narset for some more exposition in which New Narset
has virtually no verbal or nonverbal communication difficulties
with Sarkhan, and decides he’s happy as a Dragon-Clam on this Tarkir.
That sequence might have offered a (rushed) version of closure for Sarkhan and Narset with Sorin and Ugin spurred on to other planes, but for Tarkir, it
wasn’t closure at all. Which leads to…
Observation III: Tarkir ended up just a prop for the Planeswalkers’ stories.
Who are the most memorable characters of Tarkir block? I would answer, roughly in order: Alesha, Shu Yun, Daghatar, Anafenza, Narset.
It took me to fifth place to name a Planeswalker, and that Planeswalker happens to be the one least emphasized in the “PLOTLINE” stories of
Tarkir. Notably not on my list: Sarkhan, Sorin, and Ugin. Yet they were the ones whose stories were supposed to matter.
Let’s take a look at the structure of Fate Reforged. Why would that section have so many memorable characters? The clans received a proper setup
in Khans of Tarkir, for one. The audience was primed to see khans from 1280 years ago, and that’s exactly what it got.
The Fate Reforged khans also were well-drawn, by-and-large. Their conflicts and challenges were upfront yet layered. While a couple of the khans
were drippy (Tasigur) or overwhelmed by the characteristic “pawn of big bad” (Yasova), Alesha, Shu Yun, and Daghatar had inner lives, grave challenges to
face, and their own emotionally resonant ways of coping with their situations.
When the ancient khans came together for the meeting that doomed them and their clans, the novelette ” Khanfall” told that story in the longest Uncharted
Realms tale of the year, a complex and satisfying emotional payoff…with not a Planeswalker in sight.
Now compare what happened to Sarkhan, Sorin, and Ugin:
driven by the voices in his head, returns to Tarkir, goes to Ugin’s tomb, goes back in time, saves Ugin with a 1280-year stone nap, breaks the future where
he’s born, and has a great time in the new Dragon-fied Tarkir hanging out with the new version of his Manic Pixie Dream Girl Narset.
driven by a need to destroy the plane-destroying Eldrazi abominations, looks up his colorless-magic-wielding draconic blood-tea buddy. The first time he
finds a dead Ugin and falls into despair. The second time he finds a healing Ugin, busts him out, and promptly gets chewed out over whatever went down with
driven by…that’s a good question, actually…picks a fight with Nicol Bolas and gets splatted and left to die. Sarkhan’s timeline meddling stops Ugin
from dying and packs him in the healing hedrons for 1280 years with unintended (?) consequences for Tarkir. Ugin later wakes up, acts confused, and demands
exposition from every Planeswalker he comes across.
The Planeswalkers as characters aren’t particularly rich or developed past what an attentive Vorthos already knew. Sarkhan’s sanity has taken a huge hit
from exposure to Bolas, and he can become a Dragon; bailing out Ugin healed his immediate problems, more or less, so he actually changed as a character.
Sorin’s role is purely mechanical, to spring Ugin and then get yelled at. Ugin’s role is to get saved and then yell at Sorin.
And yet these characters are the ones that are supposed to matter, because we’ll be seeing (at least two of) them next block in Battle for Zendikar, and the rest of the setting is going into mothballs for several years. I wish I cared more.
Observation IV: There’s actually an awesome story through two sets of Tarkir block.
What if Tarkir were, instead of the last three-set block, actually the first of the two-setters? The story shifts its meaning entirely when “Khanfall” is
the end. There’s actually a satisfying layoff point for both Tarkir’s story and the Planeswalkers’: Tarkir will not be the same with the fall of the khans,
while Sarkhan accomplished his mission by saving Ugin. In both cases there are hooks for future storytelling: what becomes of the clans, and what happens
when someone wakes up the sleeping Ugin? That’s closure with a hook. That’s satisfying.
Dragons of Tarkir
, though, represents a new beginning without a satisfying end. It’s another introduction with a hasty wrap-up for Sarkhan and Narset to put them on a bus. It’s like watching all of Star Wars Episode IV and
the first half of The Empire Strikes Back and getting told that’s the end.
The Vorthos Coroner’s Report
This block/year of Uncharted Realms was an experiment with successes and failures. The Wizards Creative team showed they could tell the stories of a
setting effectively, and whether they meant to or not, they pointed the way to success in storytelling for the two-set block structure.
What’s more, two of the big problems with this initial run of Uncharted Realms shouldering the official fiction load — time travel and the three-block
structure — are mooted. More unity of Planeswalker action and story setting? That’s something to improve. But it can be improved, and I have faith Wizards
What do you hope Wizards changes in Uncharted Realms when it’s Battle for Zendikar time?