Friday, January 24, 2014

The Gathering Dark: Ice Age Cycle Book I by Jeff Grub

Another victory form Half Priced Books, The Gathering Dark is a Magic the Gathering Novel that kicks off the Ice Age Cycle and is written by Jeff Grub. This falls firmly into what I call the 'popcorn' novels. Note I do not say this with disdain. I've read many of the Magic the Gathering novels and enjoyed quite a few of them. Another factor in this book's favor, is it's Jeff Grubb.

Jeff Grubb should be familiar to you if you've played 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons. Heck, he should be familiar to you if you've played second edition Dungeons and Dragons. I believe he had more than a hand in writing for DC Comics doing an official Dungeons and Dragons comic with a great cast and crew. One of his oldest books I remember reading, and I want to say it was in high school which puts it in the 'dark ages' is Azure Bonds, which is still available in kindle format but no in any dead tree edition.

I am surprised to note though, that many of the Magic the Gathering novels, are out of print, as are many of the Forgotten Realms novels. Good news though if you have 'new' copies of those books is that they are apparently selling for a small fortune, or at least the Magic the Gathering novels are. Sell 'em if you got 'em!

Anyway, The Gathering Dark was purchased for the princely sum of $1 from the spinner rack at Half Priced Books and I've owned it for several years. As time moves on though and I look at my various piles of books and miscellanea, I'm trying to work my way through it and knew that this was probably going to be a quick and enjoyable read as many of Jeff's books are.

And I was right.

This is more or less a coming of age story for Jodah, who at first appears to be little more than a hedge mage with a hedge mage master.  Like many such tales, it includes its share of loss, exploration, character growth, and an open ending that leads to the next book. Note that the material is fairly self contained and Jeff does a good job explaining how the colors of Magic work as well as how mana is pulled. It even reminds me a little of D&D spellcasting in terms of 'losing' memories until they can charge up again.

Among the cast of characters we have those who fall into potential mentors and betrayers, those who are friends and allies, and those who Jodah meets and moves past as his time in certain chapters of his life is blissfully short.

If you're looking for a quick read, The Gathering Dark is well told and while done in one, leads to other books in the series.

Below I'll be talking about some spoilers so if you'd rather have none of that, read no further.

1. Organizations: The Church of Tal is a religious organization that persecutes those who practice the arts of magic. This organization is large enough to have presence in many cities and villages and serves many functions including peace brokers and teachers. Its main use here though is to act as an antagonist to Jodah and the other mages around him. Organizations in your campaign setting should serve purpose. For example, the Conclave and the City of Shadows are both places where mages go and learn their craft, but each have far different methods about them. Jeff does a great job of noting that most 'mage schools' are 'cults of personalities' and are based and held together by one strong personality. In some ways it reminds me of martial arts in signature moves and things of that nature.

2. Character Drive: One of the things about Jodah is that he is not necessarily setting out to be a hero, but doesn't like not helping people, especially those in dire circumstances, when he has the ability to do something about it. In some role playing games, this knack or compulsion or drive might be something to resist and it's something the GM should use to help build the player's character and provide elements that are beyond the world of hack and slash so to speak.

3. Timing. This one is far more tricky. Jodah is sought after by his friend and mentor and also by the Church which wishes to kill him. As that is going on, he is in the middle of some very difficult issues of his own. Jeff Grubb manages to bring all these elements into play at one point in time and the impact of all the things hitting at once is greater than if they just happened one at a time. If you can arrange it so that things at least appear to flow organically the world will seem larger then just the portion that the players are directly involved in.

Magic the Gathering continues to have a ton of novels and resources dedicated to it and fans are fortunate in that some of them are good.