Agents of Artifice by Ari Marmell (Book Review)

A new year means a new reading challenge of the “25 Series I Want To Read” variety. You can find a list of authors and series (the original post for the challenge that is) over here. In the past two years that I’ve been doing this, I kinda-sorta completed the challenge in 2013, and I definitely completed it last year. It is a really fun challenge to do, and allows me to pick and choose from a wide variety of genre greats and genre debuts (relatively speaking), which is one of the many reasons that I do it all. Plus, as a consequence, it also exposes me to a wider variety of fiction out there and gets me to connect with it all on a very different level, even series that I’ve read before becoming a blogger.

One of the first books I’ve read this year is the first Planeswalker novel for the Magic the Gathering setting from Wizards of the Coast, Agents of Artifice. This is pretty much an intro novel to the setting, and it definitely has a lot of typical Ari Marmell flavour, which I’ve experienced before in his Widdershins novels from Pyr Books, as well as his Darksiders novel from Del Rey. Following the Planeswalkers Jace Beleren and Liliana Vess, this novel explores the wonderful plane of Ravnica and is a fairly good read, though not without its flaws.

Apologies for not using the actual cover, a good-size version is impossible to find.

Apologies for not using the actual cover, a good-size version is impossible to find.

I’ve only recently taken the dip into Magic the Gathering CCG, starting last year in October with the current expansion Khans of Tarkir. The game is really fun to play, and is also just as addicting as I’d thought that it would be. But then that’s me. I love addicting games like that and playing Magic the Gathering something else to do other than just spend my days in the endless grind of reading comics and books, doing all my blogging stuff and all that. A welcome… distraction if you will. I’ve even been to some of the events, casual and competitive both, and they are even more fun, though I get my ass kicked in the games some 95% of the time, owing to inexperience and lack of powerful cards.

Which brings me to this novel. One of the big reasons I put the Planeswalker series on my list for the challenge is that I want to explore the history of the Planeswalkers. Jace Beleren and Liliana Vess do have their own cards in the current game-format, and that’s why I picked this novel, since I find both of them to be really enigmatic characters from all I’ve heard about them, especially Liliana. And Ari Marmell does a great job of exploring their past and the present (relatively speaking since the novels are from some six years ago or so), set in a world that is alien and yet so familiar.

In Magic the Gathering, we have the familiar Multiverse concept of fantasy novels (primarily in tie-in fiction though it does pop in now and then in original books) and Agents of Artifice is set on one of these worlds of the Multiverse, specifically called a Plane, and thus giving rise to the term Planeswalkers, those powerful mages and sorcerers and the like who are able to traverse the different planes at will. So we have here a story about Jace and Liliana and their former employer Tezzeret, the leader of the planes-spanning criminal organization that the two of them used to work for.

Ari Marmell gives us a lot of lowdown on who each of the characters are, and he entwines their stories very closely. Agents of Artifice is, as the name suggests, a novel about manipulation, betrayal and falsehoods. That’s the foundation of the story here and once the story gets going about seventy pages in or so, it really starts running and you are totally pulled in as we get two separate narratives, one set in the present with Jace and Liliana having abandoned all connections to Tezzeret and the other in the past where we see how they came into his employment in the first place.

The novel starts off a bit slow and the going is pretty weird for the first few chapters since, for me, the introduction to the characters and their particular conundrum was somewhat confusing. I had to struggle through those first few chapters, and I kind of came close to putting the book down in favour of something else since I thought then that I’d come back to it at a later time. But, things suddenly take a turn for the better once you hit the twenty percent mark and after that, it is one big and fast ride that doesn’t seem to stop. Ari Marmell throws things at you one after the other as the heroes and the villains go through several stages of character development and the narrative progresses.

The mysteries and secrets that are revealed, not to mention the manipulations and deceptions, it all keeps you on edge, wanting to find out more because you are totally invested in things by then. And I personally loved the characters of Liliana and Tezzeret. Jace didn’t make so much of an impression on me, but he was a good protagonist, tortured and self-deprecating at first but growing into much more towards the end. In the gaming group I frequent, Liliana is a pretty boss character, easily a favourite for most of the people I talk too, and reading through Agents of Artifice, it is easy to see why that is so.

If you are looking for an epic fantasy that is quite different from the norm, especially the big tent-pole tie-in stuff, then Agents of Artifice and the rest of the Magic the Gathering setting is definitely worth looking into. I’ve been reading some of the short fiction that goes up on the Wizards of the Coast website every week for a few weeks now, and it is highly impressive, the way that the lore development ties in with the cards and vice verse, creating a really spectacular experience. And that’s what you can expect to find in Agents of Artifice as well.

There’s also the whole thing with how the in-game mechanics of mana requirements and such are reflected in the novel. For example, in the card game, Jace is a “blue mage”, i.e., he draws his powers from water sources such as islands. On the other hand, Liliana is a necromancer utilizing dark magic, so she draws her powers from swamps and corpses and such. Ari Marmell weaves this kind of stuff into the larger narrative with ease and makes it quite matter-of-fact, the way such things are handled in Wizards’ other major property, Forgotten Realms. I definitely liked the synergy between the game mechanics and the story.

Some of the more unusual of Ari’s writing choices don’t find a place here, such as his overuse of “(” and “)” in the Widdershins novels, and that’s all well and good. A little of such is fine, but those novels definitely overdo it, to the tune that it makes for a rough reading experience. And just generally even, Ari totally hits the mark with this novel. After the rough start, things get going, and the pace picks up, as does the tension, and things become clearer the more you go on with it. The novel also stars some of the other biggest characters of the Magic the Gathering setting, and it is fun to see how it all comes together to drive forward the story of Jace and Liliana and their… estrangement from Tezzeret, who is one badass villain, though perhaps given some short shrift here. He could easily have been developed a bit more I feel, and that’s really one of the regrets that I have with this novel.

Rating: 8.5/10

More Ari Marmell: Darksiders: The Abomination Vault; (Widdershins) Thief’s Covenant, False Covenant.

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Posted on February 23, 2015, in 2015 Reading Challenge, Book Reviews, Challenges, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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