Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Have you never feared the dark? Or loneliness, sorrow, pain, rejection... or death?
"The great truth that myths have to teach us is not that dragons exist, but that they can be conquered.
"Show me a man who has triumphed over his fears...
"And I will show you a dragon-slayer."
Top of the range, album-sized, all-ages excellence which had me enraptured: thrilled by its visual majesty, gripped by its power-play, charmed by its adroitly delivered, wholly unexpected comedic notes, then caught anchor, line and balloon-ballast in its steam-punk spell.
I strongly suspect that you'll weep with wonderment at the Aethership blueprints which herald chapter three. I'll have those for you shortly.
Meanwhile, let me show you the lovely lilt in the language as young Seraphin Dulac awakens in a guest room of King Ludwig II's vast Bavarian "Swan's Rock" castle high above a dense forest of alpine trees and milky lakes:
"The first note fills the sky from the shores of the lake to the still-starry zenith.
"The next one makes me open my eyes, and yet the dream continues...
"Except it's not a dream..."
There Alex Alice perfectly captures the dawning realisation when waking up in a strange bed that isn't your own and throwing open the windows to an unexpected spectacle.
Said spectacle is, of course, the multi-turreted white-stoned "Wow!" that is Neuschwanstein Castle, constructed on such a sheer mountainous outcrop that I've always thought not just "Wow!" but "How?!?"
Alice makes the most of the vertigo-inducing terrain over and over again with iron gantries spanning the slopes, cable lifts suspended high up in the sky and the sort of magical, arched glasshouse laboratory that you'd find in computer games like Riven and Myst, buttressed out from the escarpment and over a waterfall!
There is precise method in all this mechanical madness, I promise you, for there is something under construction.
We begin a year earlier in France with Seraphin's mother, Claire Dulac, all set to ascend in a hot air balloon much to her engineer husband's vocal consternation, for he sees a storm coming. Also, Archibald firmly believes that her particular quest is a fool's errand.
"It's been more than 2,000 years since the Greeks proposed the idea of aether, and no one has ever proven its existence!"
"Socrates never ascended to 11,000 metres!"
"That's true - he found another way to kill himself! And he didn't have a husband and a son!"
Already the tension is tangible, but as Claire rises perilously higher and higher in order to conduct her experiment, through intense cold and ever-thinning oxygen to 11,000 metres, it really racks up. And her mission fails: her instruments detect no aether at all. Rising further to 12,000 metres and the second and third trials still register nothing whatsoever and worse still - as Dulac notes in her logbook - her three-hour supply of oxygen has reached the point of no return!
Desperate to descend, that is exactly when the valves freeze shut. Seraphin's mother struggles to release the hydrogen manually, but instead the balloon rises further to 12,900 metres... and BOOM! - there it is! - aether at last!
And everything around her explodes.
The following full-page spread is such a clever construction. Above we see the thin trail of a small object plummeting through star-lit, blue space towards the hazy surface of the Earth. Within three inset panels, which widen as they close in, the metal cylinder ignites as it enters Earth's atmosphere. This expansion draws the eyes from the initial tiny white tail of light above to the final, full-page destination below which has been subtly fused with the global view, where the casket lies, cracked-open and fizzing with electrical energy, to reveal Claire Dulac's logbook sitting precariously on a craggy cliff-edge above that self-same Bavarian Castle.
Now, who do you think recovered it, and what will they do with what lies within? Did Claire Dulac find time to scribble anything else?
Ah yes, the search is on as a potential source of energy for that elusive aether, the fifth Greek element which was once supposed to permeate the void of space so enabling the travel of light through a vacuum until Einstein finally suggested otherwise. But the Victorians still believed in it, just as they believed that Venus was a jungle-planet populated by dinosaurs and vast, pre-historic dragonflies because it was nearer the sun so hotter and younger than planet Earth. No really, they did! This wasn't just Jules Verne speculative fiction.
This has all been so meticulously researched both geographically and historically (please note the date), and if you suspect Dulac's light-bulb aether indicator to be a bit simplistic, you will be in for some far more serious science later on, about the expansion of hydrogen under different atmospheric pressures and the volume that would be required to lift certain weights. Or, I guess, different "masses" under these circumstances.
It is the supposed attributes of the planet Venus which Claire's son Seraphin delights in expounding upon one year later at school when tasked with a presentation.
"Of course, despite the logical basis for these conclusions, there's only one way to be absolutely sure... To go there! As soon as an aether-engine has been developed, we must send an expedition!"
Do you think he's still obsessed much...? Well, he is. He wasn't supposed to be research the planet Venus but the Roman goddess of love. Quite clearly: his class in question was Latin!
Even his father wants Seraphin to come to terms with his mother's death by putting away models of her hot air balloon, but then they receive through the post a cryptic summons about her missing logbook, and an assignation to meet in Bavaria at Swan's Rock.
But when Archibald and Seraphin try to board the train they are assaulted by other Germanic parties seeking to switch them to Berlin. Crucially, only Seraphin spies the sword-stick-wielding assassin at Lille Station, and that will have enormous implications for their future endeavours.
I'll leave you to encounter the exquisite comedy moments, so well timed, one of which involves an out-of-control airship crashing Seraphin through the castle window only to get an eyeful of what he shouldn't before being tugged blushing but face-savingly away. You'll also like the royal architect who's more of a set designer, determined to accommodate all manner of extravagances into Archibald's Aethership, like a sitting room, royal suite, chapel and full orchestra pit!
But yes, this is quite, quite brilliant and beautiful with such attention to detail. Contrast the bright-skied Bavarian rustic tranquillity surrounding the mountain-top castle with its Prussian counterpart, the very real and monumentalist Berliner Stadtschloss, over whose dome drifts an oppressive and foreboding smoke while more industrial smog belches from tall chimneys behind the angry Black Eagle of the Prussian flag which is about to be resurrected for 1870's Franco-Prussian War.
There the Prussian Prime Minister dwarfs his advisor Busch and casts his hand proprietarily over the globe:
"I don't like war, Busch...
"I will wage it without pity or remorse, but I don't like it.
"Do you know what aether would enable us to do? In a few short hours, we could travel to any city on the globe, and without ever having been detected by the enemy...
"Bury it under a deluge of bombs."
I'm afraid his ambitions stretch even further than that.