"Agents of Artifice," Ari Marmell

Pros: Complex and fascinating world and plot
Cons: Character(s) needed to be a little more sympathetic; story really didn’t need to be told out of order
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of Wizards of the Coast and Nelson Consulting & Communications.
Expected publication date: January 27, 2009.


Ahh, gaming fiction. There are those who shudder at the thought, and not without reason—it’s a young genre, and like most types of writing, its birth throes haven’t always been pretty ones. However, also like any other genre, it’s ultimately the skill and talent of the writer that matter, not the artificial constraints of market-defined genre. Game-based fiction can be every bit as good or bad as any other kind of fiction.

Ari Marmell’s Agents of Artifice is a planeswalker novel based on the Magic: the Gathering card game, and it does an admirable job of feeling like a novel, not a game translated to paper. Since I haven’t played MtG since it first came out years ago I can’t judge how well the book adheres to the game-defined reality, but I can at least give my opinion on it as a work of fiction.

Jace Beleren, Kallist Rhoka, and Lilliana Vess have a complicated relationship. Jace and Kallist worked together for a group called the Infinite Consortium. Now Jace and Kallist are no longer friends, and Kallist and Lilliana are hunted by the Consortium’s goons. Khallist’s swordplay and minor magics, together with Lilliana’s necromancy, are enough to hold them for the moment, but they need to find Jace and warn him of an upcoming attack on his life—which means walking toward the battle, not running away from it.

The story and plot are complex, wheels within wheels, fun to tease apart. Unfortunately they’re told out of order. I couldn’t see any way in which this added to the tension or storytelling, but it definitely added to the confusion. I have no problem with time-twisting storytelling techniques when they’re done for a very good reason, and I think that in this case they did more harm than good. Not a deal-breaker, but not the best choice either. I realize Marmell did it in order to hide a plot development from the reader, but as author Tobias Buckell has shown to great effect, sometimes the better choice is simply to reveal the secret and rely on your plot to stand on its feet without that—which I think this one was strong enough to do.

The out-of-order story doesn’t help the fact that the main character, Jace, is difficult to sympathize with. It’s hard enough to find enough to like in him without being misled for the first part of the book into thinking Kallist is the main character. Since I found Kallist at least a little more likable, the realization that he wasn’t even the main character of the book made it even harder to become invested in Jace.

That said, if you’re along for the plot and don’t care all that much about getting invested in your main character, there’s plenty here to sink your teeth into! The fights are highly cinematic and read like movie scenes. The villains are suitably evil, and Lilliana’s necromantic abilities are suitably horrifying. The layers of backstabbing and betrayal keep things jumping, and the variety of worlds and locales depicted will give you plenty of inspiration.

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