Monsterful: Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths – Sundered Bond by Django Wexler

A couple of years ago, Wizards of the Coast made a gamble by bringing on popular fantasy authors like Brandon Sanderson, Kate Elliott, and Martha Wells to pen tie-in fiction for their mega-popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. For years before that, Magic’s fiction was handled by in-house writers and the results were dubious at best. While there has been some disappointment among fans for the major novel releases from Gargoyles-creator Greg Weisman, by and large these efforts have produced some of the best tie-in fiction the franchise has ever seen.

Among those brought on board was Django Wexler, whose military fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns earned critical acclaim for its masterful battles, political intrigue, and its genre-defying prominence of nuanced and well-written women. The Shadow Campaigns is “a masterclass on how writing a sexist culture – and sexist men, even – doesn’t have to restrict the significance and range of your female characters,” said reviewer Foz Meadows. For all its faults and hiccups from a storytelling perspective, Magic has made a valiant effort to increase its number of female characters over the years, and in addition to bringing on women like Elliott, Wells, and Cassandra Khaw to handle the story, Wexler is another excellent fit to help Magic transition into a better and more inclusive storytelling style.

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths – Sundered Bond is the latest Magic novel from Wexler, who previously wrote The Gathering Storm, which was distributed through Wizards of the Coast’s newsletter devoted to Magic fiction. First with The Gathering Storm and now with Sundered Bond, Wexler is quickly establishing himself as one of Magic’s best and most popular writers. He has an approachable prose style, a knack for pacing that proves unputdownable, and an enviable ability to juggle large character casts without getting lost.

Sundered Bond opens in the city of Drannith, an enormous fortress city besieged by monsters from beyond its towering walls. Set on the new plane of Ikoria, never before seen in Magic, Sundered Bond explores what society becomes when faced by the constant threat of violence. At its core is a Coppercoat Captain named Lukka, who leads the Specials, a group of highly-trained and experienced soldiers dedicated to hunting down and eradicating the kaiju-like monsters that threaten humanity on Ikoria. But everything changes when Lukka forms a magical-bond with one of the very creatures he has vowed to destroy.

Like the best gaming tie-in novels, Wexler avoids the temptation to make the overarching plot and moment-to-moment beats feel like a game of Magic being played out in book form. Instead, Sundered Bond is a heavily character-driven story that earns its action beats and terrific battle scenes. Cast out from the Coppercoats and exiled from Drannith, Lukka must balance his lifelong feeling of obligation and duty toward the city’s people with the temptation of an overwhelming magical power that would give him the ability to save those he loves at the cost of the greater good. It’s a classic theme that Wexler handles expertly, leaving the reader never quite knowing what’s coming for Lukka, or whether he’s going to wind up being the good guy, the bad guy, or somewhere in between.

The rest of the book is chock full of other characters that manage to leave an impression despite relatively little screen time. The airship captain Falk, the bonder Brin, and Mzed’s mercenary band of hunters are particular standouts, as is Drannith’s General Kudro. Vivien Reid, a Planeswalker familiar to anyone who’s played Magic over the past few years, does a great job filling in for the of the Big Good, but it’s Jirina, another Coppercoat Captain, daughter of General Kudro, and Lukka’s lover, that really steals the show.

While the men fall into their typical roles of glowering leader (Kudro) and impulse-driven wannabe hero (Lukka), Jirina drives things forward from the most precarious position as she chases down her rogue boyfriend and his bonded monster, making many difficult decisions along her journey and walking a precariously narrow tightrope between her duty to her city and father and Lukka (who’s making increasingly worse decisions). Jirina is first introduced and defined by her relationship to her the men, but quickly defines herself as the book’s most engaging and proactive hero as she acts against some startling revelations and plot twists. Wexler is a savvy writer, and knows exactly how to break down the stereotypes he’s playing with.

Above and beyond his characters, Wexler’s experience with military fantasy also really shines in Sundered Bond. Drannith is a military city, and Wexler breathes life into the setting by focusing his story on the relationships between its various characters, and allows the complexity that exists as they’re navigating both military rank and personal connections to take the forefront. Sundered Bond is a short book, but Wexler’s experience enables him to establish a complex web of interrelationships, taking what might otherwise be a typical kaiju story to another level. By the end, I was genuinely invested in Jirina and Lukka’s relationship, and curious the whole way through about how it could possibly survive the book’s bombastic events.

Like Brandon Sanderson’s Children of the Nameless and Kate Elliott’s The Wildered Quest, Wexler’s Sundered Bond can be enjoyed by any fantasy fan regardless of their experience with Magic: The Gathering. It’s a page-turner of an adventure with a healthy balance of frenetic action, surprisingly deep themes, and well-developed characters. With so many great writers working in the universe, there’s never been a better time to check out Magic: The Gathering’s books, novellas, and short stories than now.

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths – Sundered Bond by Django Wexler is available now from Wizards of the Coast.