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Archaia

The Down River People

Best described as a Southern Gothic tale, the story begins with a narrative about grief and loss before taking a sharp supernatural turn in the last half. 

Meyer is a young man whose single father recently committed suicide, leaving a speakeasy for him to run. His grief runs deep and there are poignant scenes as Meyer copes with anxiety, the new reality of running a bar and dealing with the local police. Suddenly his long-lost mother reappears with news that he has a younger half-sister from her second marriage to a pastor. After meeting his sister Meyer seems to bond with her, and you are rooting for him to heal. 

But then the story goes sideways and his affable step-father is revealed to be a cult leader. Not only do I want to avoid spoilers, but I also couldn’t explain what happens next even if I wanted to. The river plays a big part in the dream-like conclusion and I question what was real and what wasn’t. 

The artwork is evocative with a subdued color palette that moves almost exclusively to blue at the end. Panels are small with four to eight per page that established a solid riverfront setting. The southern community was realistically shown with varied townspeople. 

I’m on the fence with this story. Normally, I’m a fan of supernatural stories, but it didn’t mesh well with the beginning that was off to a strong atmospheric start before changing course. I wish the first theme of losing someone you love and how to cope afterward would have remained the focus. But still, it was an interesting read and I’m glad that I got to read an early online copy through NetGalley. 

-Nancy

A Thief Among the Trees

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.

– Kathleen

Tahir, Sabaa, Nicole Andelfinger, and Sonia Liao. A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes Graphic Novel. 2020.

Plate Tectonics: An Illustrated Memoir

Illustrator Margaux Motin chronicles her mid-thirties in this graphic novel memoir. It was a time of upheaval for her, as she got divorced and found herself raising her young daughter on her own. Through a series of loosely-connected vignettes, we see Margaux try to juggle these changes and get back on her feet while keeping her head up, staying connected with friends, and finding love again.

I’m all for little vignettes to tell a bigger story, but these seemed far too scattered to be effective. I felt at times as if I was reading a collection of Motin’s work rather than her memoir. The tone of the writing is inconsistent, and I think that was the biggest problem. On one page we are dealing with a deep personal issue, and on the next we’re presented with a funny moment with the daughter. I honestly didn’t even realize it was supposed to be a cohesive narrative until a love interest showed up, and we got a couple vignettes of him in a row. I can see the appeal of this style, and for the most part the whole book was light-hearted in tone, but these switches were too abrupt and jarring for me.

I have to admit that reading has been very hard for me lately due to the pandemic and related anxiety, so perhaps my own limited mental capacity crippled my ability to follow and enjoy the story to its full potential.

To make up for this, Motin’s art is wonderful. Her figures are in a tall, willowy style that recalls fashion illustrations, but are also a little cartoony and exaggerated, to play up the melodrama and visual gags. There are some pages with photographs of (usually) landscapes, where Motin has drawn in a figure on top of them. These were cool to look at! Their placement served, not necessarily as chapter breaks, but all the same a little break up of all the vignettes that make up the story.

There are a few adult themes, scenes, and instances of strong language, but they are few and far between and (for the most part) tasteful and I would give it to a teen. While I found the tone and writing inconsistent, the art was more than enough to salvage this read for me.

– Kathleen

Motin, Margaux. Plate Tectonics: An Illustrated Memoir. 2019.

The Man Who Came Down The Attic Stairs

This thin graphic novel packed quite a punch, that effectively tied postpartum depression with a creepy noir vibe.

Set in what looks like the French countryside, a young married couple purchase a charming old home, in preparation for the child they are expecting. During move-in day, the husband is carrying up supplies to the attic when his wife hears a huge crash. Panicked, she is about to start upstairs when her husband Thomas comes down the attic stairs stone-faced, insisting that he simply tripped and everything is fine. Her water breaks at this moment.

The next scene is set in the near future as they are home with their new daughter Roslin who seems to have a bad case of colic, and she cries incessantly. Emma’s husband seems strangely detached, never complaining of the baby’s never-ending crying, yet not the playful man we first met at the beginning of the story. Not surprisingly Emma is at her wit’s end and doesn’t feel connected to her child. The pressures of new motherhood, an eerily changed husband, and her worries about her child’s health weigh heavily on her. Afraid of being perceived as a bad mother, she lashes out at some neighborhood women when she feels judged by them.

While speaking to a psychiatrist about her postpartum depression and her suspicions about what happened to her husband in the attic, a shocking revelation is revealed. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, so you don’t know quite what to believe.

Rendered in black and white, the artwork is atmospheric and sinister. The drawings gave a real sense of time and place, plus Emma’s unending housework will give you a feeling of claustrophobia. I found the story reminiscent of Emily Carroll’s Through The Woods and Shirley’s Jackson’s short stories (as coincidence would have it, a month ago I read The Lottery and Other Short Stories by Jackson).  Comparing Celine Loup to these other two women authors is praise indeed, so I will seek out future work by her.

-Nancy

Persephone

Persephone is just a regular girl… and, well, that’s sort of the problem. Her mother, Demeter, is a powerful witch and Persephone has no powers whatsoever! People have expectations for Persephone that she feels she’s not able to meet. Persephone knows she’s adopted, but has a feeling that her mother is keeping more secrets from her; Demeter shuts down at Persephone’s questions about her birth, her lack of powers, about Demeter’s role in the war with The Underworld. Adding to her curiosity are the recurring nightmares she’s having. Armed with her mother’s diary for a school trip, Persephone decides to find out the truth for herself. Never did she imagine she’d be going to Hades herself to find her answers…

This one was praised in advanced reviews as a phenomenal coming-of-age story – but I found it rather flat. The pastel-colored art is messy and hard to get through. While it is a retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone, the setting is a mashup of magical, modern, and myth that doesn’t quite mesh. I could easily see Persephone’s inner struggle of this storyline working well enough on its own in the original Greek mythology setting, but the Studio Ghibli-like magical realism the author was going for didn’t quite fit right. If you go in not expecting it to be a carbon copy of the original myth, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did!

– Kathleen

Locatelli-Kournwsky, Loïc. Persephone. 2018.

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