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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Alara Unbroken" by Doug Beyer (Reviewed by David Craddock)

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Alara Unbroken
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Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker - By Doug Beyer

Consider a box of leftovers tossed into the fridge after a college frat party. The anchovy pizza, peppermint ice cream, onion rings, greasy sub sandwiches and jelly donuts with sprinkles were fine and dandy during the festivities because they existed on their own separate platters. But opening the box of food the morning after the bash reveals that sacred boundaries have been crossed: the anchovies are fornicating with the ice cream, your donuts are now just as coated with salami grease and pickle juice as they are with icing, and the onion rings look like deep-fried life preservers bobbing on a spreading sea of donut jelly.

Much like the amalgamation of sweets, calories and saturated fat described above, the merging of Alara's five worlds in Doug Beyer's Alara Unbroken is messy and initially unnatural. In truth, the plane of Alara, set in the Magic: The Gathering universe, was once a single plane comprised of the five worlds until they severed centuries before Alara Unbroken's opening pages. Each world gradually became its own separate entity that housed a unique variety of inhabitants and cultures. Beyer's story deals with the reconnecting of Alara's worlds thanks to the machinations of the dragon Nicol Bolas, a planeswalker--one who can travel between worlds--and a powerful presence in many Magic: The Gathering adventures.

On the surface, Alara Unbroken is a story about five worlds merging back into one, and the ramifications that ensue. However, it's rather difficult to muster emotion for large chunks of earth, water, vegetation and volcanoes. Fortunately, Doug Beyer employs a compelling cast and sharp, snappy prose with which to relate his tale. Most chapters focus on one world, one event, and one or two protagonists. Each chapter is approximately two to four pages in
length, and many read like self-contained short stories: beginning, middle and end, all in four pages or less.

Beyer's storytelling approach is the book's greatest strength. While some chapters are longer than others, very few exceed six pages, which makes the book perfect for those who only have time to read before bed: crawl under the covers, open the book, read a chapter or two, set down the book, click off the light, and board the express to Snoozeville -- all in 10 minutes or less. Of course, Beyer works to ensure that you'll want to read for more than 10 minutes at a time. Many chapters end a perilous note, leaving you eager to know the fate of one character even as you turn the page and become engrossed in another character and his or her world.

Keeping the chapters short in duration yet thorough enough to be interesting requires a razor-sharp prose, something Beyer has in generous amounts. Alara Unbroken accomplishes more in two-page chapters than most fantasy epics finish in five books or more. Beyer has the gift of assigning every word to a meaningful task: every sentence is used to flesh out characters, and by learning about them, one learns about the world they inhabit and why we should care about the ramifications of it uniting with its peers.

Occasionally, the book's succinctness becomes its only weakness. Some of the more intriguing characters are minor players introduced far into the book, yet their stories are inexplicably dropped--or worse, unceremoniously wrapped up and discarded--in favor of the characters that have been dominating the spotlight. Approximately three-quarters into the story, the zippy writing sometimes becomes a stumbling block that renders time and distance difficult to gauge. Alara has become one large plane, yet many characters (many of whom are not planeswalkers) are zipping from one world to the next in a matter of… days? Minutes? Hours? Weeks? It becomes difficult to tell as characters and events are propelled forward in jarring hyperspace-sized leaps and bounds. The ending especially feels rushed, which certainly detracts from a build-up that was smooth and paced until the last 100 pages.

Alara Unbroken's flaws are disappointing, but only because the majority of the tale is so well-written. It still stands as an enjoyable example of efficiently and compellingly combining world- and character-building, especially since most authors choose to tackle one or the other with debatable success. Beyer capably provides fantastic insight into characters that learn to put their own wants and needs aside in favor of dealing with the survival of Alara as a whole.


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