War of the Spark: Ravnica is a book that has to carry a lot of weight on its shoulders. First, it’s a novelization of the finale of a storyline that’s been going on for the past few years as the narrative accompaniment to the notoriously crunchy and complicated card game Magic: The Gathering. Second, it’s the first real Magic novel since 2011. Third, it’s a fantasy novel that, at least theoretically, needs to stand alone as a work of fiction and not just be some kind of weird vestigial organ stuck to the mass media property that is Magic. After reading the book and sitting with it for a few days, I’m not sure if it’s able to carry that entire burden.
But it is a lot of fun, and most of that comes down to the core situation that author Greg Weisman is stepping into with this novel. The evil planeswalker (a kind of interplanar wizard) Nicol Bolas has been planning to ascend to godhood for years. In nonfictional, Magic-the-card-game time, we’ve been seeing glimmers of this plot all the way back to 2008’s Shards of Alara set, which is when Nicol Bolas did some trickery to unite five disparate worlds into one so that he could consume the magical energy that would explode forth from that combination. Yes, the Magic story is cool.
Since then, we’ve seen the creation of the Gatewatch, a super team of good planeswalkers, who have united to stop threats to the Multiverse like Nicol Bolas. During the past couple years, the Magic story has concentrated on the Gatewatch’s exploits on worlds like Kaladesh and Amonkhet where they have encountered Nicol Bolas and his attempts to craft world-dominating armies and technologies.
War of the Spark: Ravnica is where all of that comes to a boil. Ravnica, a world made of a continuous and unending city, is one of the classic locations in Magic, and the novel begins with Nicol Bolas teleporting himself, his allies, and a zombie army onto the world. He isn’t merely there to dominate. He’s there to trap all of the planeswalkers in the Multiverse and harvest the thing that produces their magical powers, their Spark, so that he can ascend to godhood once more.
That’s a lot of general information to get someone up to speed, but that’s also the extremely bare minimum amount of info you would need to read this novel. This is the culmination of a decade of slight narrative and full-on storytelling that has happened across comic books, novels, online short stories, cards themselves, and probably even weirder stuff like promotional posters and pack inserts. Magic is a big game with a large reach, and this is a novel that functions a little like the eye of a storm: a lot of different stuff is orbiting it.
If you’ve not been keeping up with the game of Magic over the past few years, I don’t know what your entry for this novel would be. It is largely told through a rotating point of view that makes its way across many of the bigger characters in the game. Liliana Vess is a necromancer planeswalker who is bound in service to Nicol Bolas against her will, and she’s conflicted about the power over the dead she’s conferring to his war. Gideon Jura is an invincible, knightly hero who just wants to defeat the big bad and save the meek and the weak. Kaya is an assassin and a guild leader and a planeswalker who just wants to solidify her power and push off Bolas’s threat. Dack Fayden is the greatest thief in the Multiverse, but he thinks he might be able to be a little bit more. And on and on and on, the merry-go-round of motivations and plot hooks and desires keeps going, sometimes at a dizzying pace. If you don’t already know who these characters are, I don’t know how interesting you’d find their journeys, and it’s unclear to me how helpful the Dickensian cast of ten characters at the start of the book is for someone who is just starting off.
Anyone who has seen the trailer for the War of the Spark set has an idea of where all of this goes, but I’ll avoid spoilers here for those who are casually interested. I can say that the story is generally engaging, and getting to see characters like Dack Fayden and Ob Nixilis interacting with one another in their weird, almost caricature, way is more entertaining than I thought it would be. If the Gatewatch is the Magic equivalent to The Avengers, then this book is a combined Infinity War and Endgame: everything comes down to this, and we get through it with some losses. Some fan favorites get lost along the way, and some others come back in extravagant and fun ways.
This is the first full Magic novel in a few years, and while Weisman does a good job with the material he has to work with, I don’t know why this warranted a return to the published form. If these chapters had appeared once a day on the official Magic site, it seems like that would have been both appropriate for the fragmented content and the deeply connected nature of the story. If you haven’t been keeping up with that stuff already, I don’t know what your point of entry is with this book. The transmedia approach that’s been serving Magic so well for the past 10 years doesn’t allow this book to be a standalone thing. And, like the eye of a storm, it just can’t exist without all that other stuff swirling around it.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Magic story, then this is a light read that pays off some character relationships and provides some interesting moments of action. If not, then it will likely be an impenetrable list of names and moments that you have no context for. The first full-length Magic novel in a few years is not a jumping-on point, but an exit point of this story, and people who are on the fence would do well to know that.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.