Elias, Helene, and Tavi have embarked on a mission to the South Isle. The three are Fivers – students at Blackcliff Academy who have been recruited into the Martial Empire’s military – and this mission is an important one. They are to steal vials of a poison that is manufactured on the island. However, they are ambushed and separated when they reach the shore. In trying to regroup with the other two, Elias discovers that the group making the poison is also testing it – on captive children. When he meets back up with Helene and Tavi, they are joined again by their Fiver classmates, sent to compete with them on the same mission. Competition between the Fivers is fierce and can often turn deadly. Will they find a way to steal the poison as originally assigned, or will they do something about it?
This graphic novel is a prequel story to the popular YA series Ember in the Ashes, also by Sabaa Tahir. I think this book expects you to have read the main series first – I haven’t and I was totally lost. There was very little exposition to explain the significance of the poison, the Fivers and Scholars (and the differences between them in this case). I skimmed through again before this review to make sure it wasn’t just pandemic brain, and I think my point still stands. I also found on my skim-through that there was not a real sense of urgency to the story, though there should have been (though, again, this could be due to my lack of knowledge about the series). If I had to pick one, more exposition about the world these characters live in would have been most welcome.
Nevertheless, the dilemmas presented in the writing are well done. There are serious questions of the ethics of what the characters are doing, and each of the main characters has a different point of view. Multiple sides of the same issues are presented, making for a fascinating, multi-faceted read. This is where this book really excelled: the story simply would not be the same without these multiple viewpoints.
I found the art somewhat lacking. Though use of color and lighting was decent, I found it very hard to distinguish between the characters, as they all wore basically the same clothes. Of course, the main characters are part of a school, and thus are wearing a uniform, but even the “bad guys” wore the same dark shirts and pants, in the same colors and styles. If there is any special significance to it, it was obviously lost on me. I also found the anatomy and poses very stiff.
It’s obvious that prior fans of the series, who have read the books, will enjoy this more than I did. While the art is serviceable, the careful presentation of ethical questions, from all sides, presented in the story is what sets this graphic novel apart.
Tahir, Sabaa, Nicole Andelfinger, and Sonia Liao. A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes Graphic Novel. 2020.