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historical fiction

Of Dust and Blood: The Battle at Little Big Horn

The 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Battle of the Greasy Grass, is featured in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel.

The reader is witness to the days preceding the battle, and the battle itself through the eyes of a scout for the 7th Calvary named Greenhaw and a Lakota Sioux warrior named Slow Hawk. Author Jim Berry, hoped to give an equitable viewpoint of the battle in this piece of historical fiction, so he framed the narrative to be from two fictional men from either side, and who interact with the real historical figures of Sitting Bull, General Custer and Crazy Horse. Berry introduces the story with information about how he collected the historical research and how he reached out to the Native American community for translation assistance and fact checking. A map, art gallery and bibliography round out the book.

We first meet Greenhaw, who is penning a letter to his lady love Rose. Many of Custer’s scouts were Native American, or were of mixed ancestry and could translate for him, but that is never addressed in the story. While brave, he just wants to make it out of the battle alive, and be reunited with Rose.  Slow Hawk is a Lakota Sioux, who wishes to avenge the death of his brother and parents. In the panel below we see him replicate his brother’s war paint on himself, in order to honor him. When Crazy Horse gifts a new horse to Slow Hawk, he is ready for battle and will do what ever it takes to win. The chaos of battle is evocatively shown, and you are thrown in the middle of the battlefield, as leaders are making split second decisions that aren’t always the best. You will root for both Greenhaw and Slow Hawk to survive, but in war nothing is certain.

The art is a wonder in this story. Val Mayerik, who has illustrated for other graphic novels such as Conan and is the co-creator of Howard the Duck, completely elevates this story. He should branch out in his art career as the way he depicts war scenes and moving horses was just outstanding! While this story is certainly an abbreviated version of the battle, Mayerik’s art helped tell much of the tale. His strong coloring and care in which he drew the Native Americans and landscapes gave an authenticity to the entire narrative.

As a history fan, as soon as I saw this graphic novel listed on NetGalley I knew that I wanted it. The device of using fictional protagonists worked, as there are other novels about the leaders on either side of the battle, and this format allowed for balanced and sympathetic portrayals of both sides.  However, there were a few choices by the author that I questioned. In the introduction, a casual mention is made of a Native American descendant of Custer, as oral tradition says that Custer had a child with a Cheyenne woman – yet this fact is disputed, so giving a small explanation should have been included for those who are not aware of the story. I applaud that the Lakota language was used in the narrative, but a dying soldier speaking Italian with no translation was also shown, to jarring effect. I came away knowing that the author really did his research and wanted to give an accurate portrayal of this controversial battle. I recommend this book, both for the historic representation and the gorgeous art!

-Nancy

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Northlanders: Books Six & Seven

Brian Wood’s Northlanders saga has drawn to a close. Seven books have given us intimate portraits of Viking individuals and families through out the years, in three geographic areas- Iceland, Europe and the Anglo-Saxon regions. I am sad that this series has come to an end, and will miss these emo, petulant and violent warriors!

Thor’s Daughter and Other Stories: Book Six 

The Siege of Paris– The longest of the three stories is set Paris in AD 885 and is based on an actual historical battle that was documented by Monk Abbo Cernuus, a character in this story. Told from the perspective of Danish soldier of fortune Mads, he and the other Viking soldiers prepare for a long siege.  Despite only a small army defending Paris, they manage to put off the Viking fleet. Mads is able to cut off their supplies and a battle ensues, but a political settlement is reached and the soldiers end up fighting in vain. Illustrated by Simon Gane, the rough and cartoonish looking drawings were not to my liking.

The Hunt– A hunter, whose wife and children have left him to live in the city due to unusually cold winters in the wilderness, tracks a deer through wintry Sweden in AD 1000. Defiantly bitter about it, he obsessively hunts the deer wanting to prove to himself that he is still a provider. The artwork by Matthew Woodson is decent with some nice landscapes.

Thor’s Daughter– Set on an island in the Outer Hebrides, islands off the coast of Scotland, in AD 990 we meet Birna Thorsdottir, the daughter of the man who owns the island. A tough teen, she is still caught unaware when her father is ambushed and killed by some of his guards. Kicked out of her home she seeks other guards that still remain loyal to her family. She ultimately gets revenge, but there is a huge gap in the story to explain how she persevered and claimed her birthright. The artwork by Marion Churchland was lacking and the short story was not strong enough to deserve the title of Book Six.

The Icelandic Trilogy: Book Seven

This last book details a family’s rise and fall through several generations in Iceland beginning in AD 871 and ending in AD 1260. Three artists are utilized- Paul Azaceta, Declan Shalvey and Danijel Zezelj- as we move through the different eras.

We begin with Norwegian immigrant Val Hauker, whom with his wife and son Ulf, settle on the empty shores of Iceland. Within a year other immigrants begin to move there too, but Val wishes to establish dominance as he was there first. After a violent run-in with the Belgarsson clan, Val wishes to teach Ulf a lesson on how to be strong against future attacks, but he goes too far and turns Ulf into a sociopath. Time passes and Ulf grows up and he consolidates power so his family can reap the riches of the region. He frees an Irish slave and takes her as his wife, and their bloodthirsty ways grow. However, I do not understand how Ulf becomes so powerful- why would other settlers align with his small family in the beginning? While this establishes the beginning of the Hauksson dynasty, I did not buy it.

Skipping ahead to AD 999 we meet the fifth generation of the Hauksson’s, brother and sister Brida and Mar. There is a Game of Thrones vibe here,  including a sexually charged relationship between the siblings. When Mar leaves to loot among the southern coast, the Belgarsson clan aligns with the growing group of Christians in the area, putting the Haukssons at risk. Brida needs backup so she finds the illegitimate son of her father,  hoping her half brother Ott can help strengthen her position. When a converted Mar returns, the twins fight over how Christianity is changing traditional Icelandic ways, but Mar argues that they must join with them if they want to stay dominant. At the height of their family’s power, this is a turning point for them, and the siblings need to adjust accordingly.

The final jump is to tenth generation heir Godar and his impetuous son Oskar in AD 1260. Godar is a steady man who is documenting his family’s linage and has the riches of his family in stable holdings, now that the family no longer has to go to war to retain their power. However, Oskar wishes for glory and makes a power play so he and his allies can fight soldiers from Norway who are encroaching on Iceland. But things don’t go as planned, and after several failed military maneuvers, Oskar loses the confidence of those he leads. The Hauksson family is now in decline, 400 years after settlement, but the family name lives on…

I am a huge fan of much of Brian Wood’s work, especially Briggs Land and Rebels, and this sometimes uneven series further cemented him as one of my favorite authors. Some stories were obviously stronger than others, but the problem I had was the inconsistent artwork. Illustrators like Leandro Fernandez, Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly were excellent, others were horrible. Dave McCraig, the colorist throughout the series, did the best with what he was given and kept to an earth tone palette which brought some consistency to the varying art styles. I loved every single work of cover art by Massimo Carnevale and wish he had illustrated some if not all of the stories. Wood shines with his historical fiction series, and you can tell he does his research, although he often will put in modern sensibilities into his work. His interpretation of Viking history is one you don’t want to miss!

-Nancy

Read my reviews on: Book One, Books Two + Three, Books Four + Five

Rebels: A Well Regulated Militia

“A historical epic of America’s founding” is very accurate in describing this exceptionally good graphic novel with it’s window into the Revolutionary War era based in the NE corner of our new nation in the late 1700’s.

Divided into six chapters, author Brian Wood first gives us a lengthy portrait of the fictional character Seth Abbott and his journey from farm boy to one of the well respected leaders of the Green Mountain Boys. Then we are given shorter non-linear vignettes of other loyalists and patriots and their contributions to the war.

A Well-Regulated Militia

We first meet Seth in 1768 as a boy with a gruff father in the New Hampshire (later to become Vermont) wilderness, eking out a homestead.  English soldiers in the region are hated by the settlers, who are there under the New Hampshire grants.  Skipping ahead to 1775, seventeen year old Seth marries teen-aged Mercy after her father is forced off his land by the redcoats. The young couple establish their own household, but local Ethan Allen easily convinces him to join his militia regiment. At first fighting for their region’s independence, he then is willing to fight for the entire colonies’ independence. He ends up being away from his wife for seven years, and while certainly in danger during battles, Seth views his time with the militia as a grand adventure with his best friend Ezekiel, a fellow soldier. In 1783 Seth finally comes home to Mercy discovering a son, as he had been unaware his wife was pregnant when he left.

This narrative was a fascinating look into an average farmer’s life and the threats they faced from the British and the local Loyalists. The battles that Seth participated in and the living conditions of the soldiers were shown in detail, and you could feel the backbreaking labor and fear they lived with. It also showed a nuanced view of the women left behind, as Mercy suffered just as much while being forced to fend for herself in an unforgiving wilderness.

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Goodwife, Follower, Patriot, Republican

Ever hear of the iconic folklore story of Molly Pitcher who stepped into battle to keep the canon shooting when her husband was shot? This story focuses on fictional Sarah Hull who in 1777 was the Battle of Saratoga’s “Molly Pitcher”. In later years her dying husband makes a plea for the government to give her a soldier’s pension for the work she provided. How her effort is disregarded by the representatives ties in with how sometimes women of today are also treated with indifference for their invaluable contributions.

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Liberty’s Daughter

Silence Bright, a young woman of mixed race, is caught printing and distributing leaflets in Boston that criticize the British in 1768. Thrown into Newgate Prison she is unbowed and the awesome quotes that I shall take to heart- “beware the bookish woman” and “hold fast” are used as she defiantly refuses to submit.

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Occupation

In 1775 we are given a brief glimpse of Seth Abbott again in NYC as he holed up in an attic with free black Clayton Freeman. Seth can not understand why Clayton is a Loyalist, and fighting for a corrupt regime for he tries to convince Clayton that he should be fighting for the freedom of the colonies. What he doesn’t understand is that “freedom” will not come for all, and that many blacks made the hard choice of fighting for the Crown that promised them freedom and passage away from the colonies. This vignette made me think of our current president, especially with the quote “…how were the lies of King George (Trump) at all appealing? Was there something we were missing?”

Stone Hoof

A young Shawnee brave, Stone Hoof, helps soldiers build Fort Stalwart in the Ohio River Valley in 1750 and befriends Will Henderson. As his tribe are migrants, he is in and out of the region over the years until 1757 when his tribe attacks the fort, as they have aligned with the French who are fighting the British for this territory.  As both he and Henderson survive the battle, they meet for one last time, and each try to understand why the other believes what they do.

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Bloody Backs

In 1769 a young man in a London is given a choice- go to prison or head to the colonies as a British soldier. He clings to his idealism and loyalty to the Crown as he miserably slogs  through battle after battle. He meets an ignoble end by a Green Mountain Boy at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, never having achieved a rank higher than a lowly private, and for what- glory?

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The artwork throughout all the stories is superb. Several artists contributed to the six stories, and all convey an authentic feel to this era and region. The grittiness of wilderness living and the gore of war are shown in a realistic manner, with coloring that is evocative and helps convey the story even more effectively. I want to give a special shout out to artist Tula Lotay, who created each chapter’s cover art. Each page she creates is a beautiful homage to the coming story. In addition the extras at the end give some insight to the making of the book with some great essays by the author and some of the artists.

With this book, plus his outstanding Briggs Land,  Wood has vaulted onto the list of my top ten favorite authors of graphic novels! I will absolutely be checking out Wood’s Viking saga Northlanders and will pick up all future work in this series.

-Nancy

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