Magic Story Review: “The Writing on the Wall”
This week’s story is “The Writing on the Wall” by Alison Luhrs. With a title so literally and metaphorically apt, there’s not a whole lot of wordplay left for me in this intro, so here we go.
It’s morning and Nissa is communing with the land. It tells her of the Curse of Wandering, that those dead but not decomposed rise again: a “gift.” Speaking with the plane leads her to want to find the woman whom they had seen being arrested the previous day. She wakes Chandra and invites her along for the search.
So, after a run in with an Anointed delivering their breakfast, Chandra and Nissa leave Jace to face the trial of facing the day without coffee.
Jace was up and prodding the food the mummy had left on the table. He scowled at the dark beer. “Gimme a moment to wake up.”
Chandra wandered over as she laced up her plate mail. “Not exactly coffee, is it?”
“It is the opposite of coffee,” Jace replied.
As the two begin their search, the city is still completely focused on training for the Trials. Nissa contemplates the Anointed and how death seems to mean different things on different planes, remembering what she had told Yahenni, their own death different from anything else Nissa had seen, “If I try to understand something, then I will not be afraid of it.” Author Alison Luhrs, in fact, reached out to Egyptologist Sonja Greer for insight into how ancient Egypt viewed death, admirably ensuring that she grasps the concepts before passing that understanding on to the character.
Whatever the nature of death on Amonkhet, the plane is taking its toll on Nissa, Chandra notices and suggests they sit down and rest. While resting, Nissa mentions her feelings about her new friendship with the Gatewatch, how it still feels new and uncomfortable and how she still much prefers being alone. The conversation cuts very close to Chandra and Nissa talking about the possibility of a different relationship (though a post-publication edit makes this more oblique).
They attract the attention of Hapatra, a vizier, and are able to learn a little more about the Anointed, the Trials, and the Hours. A lot of it is stuff that has generally been inferred: the Anointed remain preserved not only to serve the living but to ensure that their souls remain intact in the afterlife and that the hours are the events foretold to occur when the God-Pharaoh returns. As for the Trials, Hapatra suggests they ask the gods themselves.
Oh, and the God-Pharoh is set to return in about two days, when the second sun aligns between the temple’s horns.
Continuing the search for the woman they had seen the previous day, Nissa comes upon some carvings that, paired with the age of the buildings, reveal the major, if not entirely unexpected, secret that Bolas did not create Amonkhet, he manipulated and corrupted it. The carvings seem to have been edited to fit his godhood into a pre-existing religion.
Further on, they encounter Gideon, Oketra, and some sarcophagi. Oketra forbids them from approaching the sarcophagi, and Gideon reveals he is completing the Trials. Nore importantly, Oketra mentally communicates with Nissa, appearing to show concern for the land, and telling her that she has no memory of before. Before what, she doesn’t know, but we can guess it’s the event that Bolas used to gain control of this plane and its culture.
Nissa’s hands shook in fury. Nicol Bolas didn’t create this world, she realized, he corrupted it. Memory of the Eldrazi spilled through her mind. Cancerous, alien tendrils poisoning a world that wasn’t theirs.
With Gideon and Oketra departing for another trial, Nissa shares her earlier revelation about Bolas. There were eight gods, now there are five, the horn temples are all so much newer than the other monuments, and they haven’t seen anyone over about 30 since they arrived. Whatever Bolas did to make himself god-pharaoh, it left a major scar. The next step to unraveling the mystery, they decide, is to speak with Kefnet, god of wisdom. But for now, they return to the safe house, Nissa lost in thought about her revelation.
Despite the dire disclosures, Alison’s comedic talents shine through, from the breakfast bearing mummy barging into the Gatewatch’s room to Hapatra’s deliberately awful poison humor. This humor never overshadows or overcrowds the emotion core of the story.
Here, the revelation about Bolas is not the core, dealing with that will come later. Rather the core of this story is the relationship between Chandra and Nissa. However you feel about a potential romance, they had bonded significantly on Kaladesh and their interactions here reflect that deep bond.
The world building continues to be incredible, and the research put into honor its Egyptian inspiration continues to impress. Without drawing our attention away from the characters, that expertly built world is shared vividly. With each set only getting eight episodes these days, this kind of balancing act can be tricky to pull off.
The Gatewatch may only have two days to prepare, but I’m afraid we have an entire week until the next story, see you then.