Magic: The Gathering is the most successful and enduring trading card game of all time. It started life in 1993 when brilliant designer Richard Garfield and a plucky young company called Wizards of the Coast decided to expand on the growing market for fantasy games, and, well, since then it’s only become more and more popular. From 2008 to 2016, 20 billion (billion!) Magic cards were produced and sold. Most recently, Wizards of the Coast launched Magic: The Gathering Arena, a digital client that will provide new avenues for growth and introduce many more players to the game. While Magic is a card game, and many of its most intense stories are those that play out between opponents in tournament halls, around kitchen tables, or online, it’s also home to one of the longest running and deepest fantasy universes ever designed.
While the game’s core story is told through the cards themselves, ripe with flavour text and huge spectacles that play out flavourfully on the battlefield between players, Wizards of the Coast also supplements the story with short stories, novellas, and novels. Recently they’ve made a shift toward hiring high-end authors to help them pen the stories, and their biggest coup yet was snagging Brandon Sanderson, one of fantasy’s most popular and prolific authors, to write a new standalone novella called Children of the Nameless.
By this point, if you’re familiar with Magic or Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, it’s probably safe to say that you enjoy certain elements of fantasy: lots of magic, big set pieces, huge casts of characters, and epic stories. Children of the Nameless is a great coming together of all the things that make Magic, epic fantasy, and Brandon Sanderson’s fiction so great—all in a concise, energetic, and fun package that will appeal to all sorts of readers.
Let’s get this out of the way: Children of the Nameless is a terrific gothic fantasy story regardless of your familiarity with Magic. In fact, for the first third of the book, you wouldn’t even know it was set in a universe that Sanderson didn’t create himself, and even by the end the connections to the game’s ongoing storyline are light and more portentous than anything. Anybody can read and enjoy Children of the Nameless.
Young Tacenda and her twin sister Willia live in Verlasen, a small village on the plane of Innistrad—far from civilization. Like two sides of a coin, Tacenda and Willia suffer from an affliction: Tacenda can only see at night, and Willia can only see during the day. They’re also gifted with magic—in Willia, it manifests as increased physical prowess, and Tacenda can summon her power by singing. Tacenda’s greatest attribute is her magic’s ability to keep the dreaded “whisperers” away from their village. Unlike many on Innistrad, the people of Verlasen turned their back on the angels that once provided them protection, and instead worship an ancient, unknowable power known simply as The Bog, who they believe will protect them from danger.
There were two kinds of darkness, and Tacenda feared the second far more than the first.
The first darkness was a common darkness. The darkness of shadows, where light strained to reach. The darkness of a closet door, cracked open, or of the old shed near the forest. This first darkness was the darkness of dusk, which seeped into your homes at night like an unwelcome visitor you had no choice but to let in.
The first darkness had its dangers, particularly in this land where shadows breathed and dark things howled at night But it was the second darkness—the one that came upon Tacenda each morning—that she truly feared.
Ruling over Verlasen is the Lord of the Manor, a mysterious, powerful figure who villagers claim controls the whisperers. When Tacenda’s magic fails, her village is overrun by the whisperers, and she alone survives the attack, she sets out on a quest for revenge against the only person who could have ordered the attack: Davriel Cane, the Lord of the Manor and Planeswalker.
Thing is, Davriel didn’t order the attack, and just wants to be left alone.
Children of the Namless is darker in many ways than Sanderson’s standard fare, but it seems a good fit, and allows him to explore new character archetypes. One line in particular stood out to me:
“There’s no such thing as good people,” Davriel said. “Just incentives and responses.”
This is the type of conflicted character building I’ve come to expect from Sanderson, and Children of the Nameless proves to be an engaging (and fun) exploration of how people respond in desperate situations. Davriel is painted at first as a classic scoundrel, but, just like everyone’s favourite, favourite smuggler from a galaxy far, far away, his bark’s much bigger than his bite. Tacenda, on the other hand, outgrows her simple beginnings, and becomes a complex protagonist with many difficult decisions ahead of her. Sanderson loves to examine heroics and the costs—physical, mental, and emotional—of being involved in world-changing conflicts, and Children of the Nameless is no different in that regard. The scope is smaller than what he’s used to playing with in his novels, but his thematic explorations are no less satisfying.
The plot is full of twists and turns, the pace reckless, the action as satisfying as anything else Sanderson’s written (if not nearly as epic as something like the final battles in the Stormlight Archive books), and his love-it-or-hate-it trademark humour is good fit for Magic (which knows when to take itself seriously and when to crack a joke). If you’ve ever enjoyed a Sanderson book, you’re going to love Children of the Nameless.
So, we’ve established that Children of the Nameless is a great standalone fantasy novella, but what does it mean for fans already entrenched in Magic’s lore? A lot. All you Vorthos (a name given to fans committed to exploring and understanding the game’s lore and story) can rest assured that though Sanderson was given free rein to tell his own type of story, there’s a lot in there that is sure to please even the most ardent plants—from some major implications to fun easter eggs.
As a lifelong fan himself, Sanderson knows what makes Magic’s story so great, and you can tell he’s having fun playing in a playground that has provided him with so much entertainment over the years—but at the same time, it never feels like he’s pandering, or you’re reading a sourcebook. Sure, most of the stuff in the book was created by Sanderson, but by the time you finish, there are some revelations that will certainly cause some massive ripples in the game’s ongoing narrative.
Over the course of the book, Davriel Cane, a new planeswalker created by Sanderson for the novella, has ongoing conversations with the Entity, a disembodied voice living within Davriel offering him immense power if he would just seize it. There’s an agedness and arrogance to the Entity that speaks of something long waiting in hiding, waiting for the right time to come forth. As things move along, it becomes clear that the Entity is not a passenger, but has been leading Davriel along on a string, ostensibly, we find out, to gather the power from more Entities around the Multiverse. Coincidentally, Innistrad, where Children of the Nameless takes place, is home to another entity, but it is snatched up by young Tacenda after Davriel refuses it. The shocking thing here is that the entity on Innistrad, known in the story as The Bog, appears to give Tacenda not only massive magical powers, but also the ability to planeswalk herself. Either that, or the entities are seeking out planeswalkers (or those with the potential to spark) as vessels for an upcoming conflict, which itself is a frightening thought.
And then there’s the bit where the Entity hints of a coming conflict, something that Davriel must prepare for, which is just loaded with implications for the game’s upcoming major storyline. We know the battle between Nicol Bolas and the Gatewatch is coming this fall—what’s next? Could the entities and the storyline launched by Sanderson in this novella be a waiting to fill Bolas’ enormous void?
Okay, Spoilers Off.
It’s not easy to write a tie-in story that appeals to both newcomers and longtime, invested fans, but Sanderson’s certainly done so. Whether you’re a Sanderson fan who reads all his material, a reader on the prowl for gothic fantasy adventures, or a badge-wearing Vorthos, Children of the Nameless will be sure to entertain and surprise. The likelihood of Sanderson continuing to work in the Magic world is slim due to the other demands of his career—like, oh, completing the Stormlight Archive and adding to Mistborn—which is a shame since he’s such a good fit and obviously brings a lot of love and passion to the project.
So, it’s a good thing that these days the Magic story is loaded with great talent. From Kate Elliott to Cassandra Khaw, Sanderson is in great company, and anyone who’s read Children of the Nameless and is interested in Magic and its ongoing story has a lot of great fiction to choose from. To learn more about Magic and the terrific authors writing its lore and story, check out my recent interview with the creative team, Spellbound: The Familiar Faces Creating the Story for Magic: The Gathering.
Children of the Nameless is available as a free ebook download from Wizards of the Coast.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “Youngblood,” “The Dinosaur Graveyard,” and “The Penelope Qingdom,” and a regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and kids, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink and Patreon.