Page 45 Review by Stephen
Key words: energetic, refreshing; thrilling and funny.
We are certainly not at home here to Comrade Cliché who has been sent packing back to his identical twins, Praetor Predictable and Father Formulaic. Instead entire households have the capacity to surprise with their absence of snobbery, racism and chauvinism even if certain less oppressive formalities must be maintained for the sake of one's reputation.
Ah, reputation, very much at the heart of this tale and on the front cover, dichotomous Delilah having more than one to uphold.
Set in Portugal and Britain during 1809, this quick-witted action-adventure is my fav all-ages read of the year so far. And I do mean all-ages, just like AMULET whose Kazu Kibuishi is an enormous fan. It's easy to see why: just as AMULET is bursting with fantastical Hayao Miyazaki flourishes, Tony Cliff delivers landscape after landscape with perfect perspectives and period detail:
Lisbon harbour with its exotic, early 16th Century Belém Tower; galleons setting sail; and at least three English, aristocratic mansions from the homely and rustic Nichols estate, late on a moonlit night with a solitary room's windows shining ever so bright, to the more grandiose and Palladian on the evening of a ball.
We are indeed talking Jane Austen's era of etiquette-ribbing match-making and I can assure you this is equally iconoclastic, only with a great many more swords and some balletic, fight-scene choreography worthy of Frank Miller circa DAREDEVIL.
We first meet wall-climbing, roof-hopping, sword-flashing Delilah Dirk during a rescue mission / child-abduction in Portugal. It depends on your sense of perspective - something Delilah's long-suffering side-kick Mister Selim has far more command of than she does. Selim offers a constant, cautionary and pragmatic counsel to his more hot-headed counterpart. Where Delilah sees revenge, Selim would rather seek justice; where Delilah would rather protect her legendary reputation as fearsome and formidable even with an arm wound so debilitating than she could not possibly succeed, Selim suggests strategy. Lovers of nail-biting tension will be delighted to learn that, obstinate to the end, she never listens, even to an obvious admonition to avoid Spanish soil overrun with warring French and English redcoats.
"We should leave. I don't like all this red. It reminds me of blood; specifically mine, and specifically not where it should be."
It's there that they first come afoul of ambitious aristo-git Major Jason Merrick who has the most god almighty chip on his shoulder on account of feeling unappreciated by his father, Colonel Phillip Merrick. Not knowing whom he has in his clutches, Major Merrick drags Dirk in as a French spy. This goes somewhat unappreciated by his father who knows Dirk by reputation and where her loyalties lie, so he dismisses both the charges as unsubstantiated and his son as ignorant. This is not appreciated by his son who swiftly plants evidence and so now Delilah Dirk has a reputation - for treason! This is not appreciated by Delilah.
Over and over again, this single-minded mule's deceit will make your blood boil, but that's as nothing when you find out his true ambitions.
As I say, reputation is central, whether it's London's reputation as glorified throughout the wider world, Delilah's now that she needs to clear her name and ensure no further opportunists believe that they can win a fight against her... and then there is the Nichols family reputation back in England. Who? Oh, for someone who seems to be so concerned about the truth, Delilah has been far from forthcoming herself, especially when it comes to poor Mister Selim.
What makes this for me is the actual wit - the dry humour - evidenced by Mister Selim. On the very first page there's some positively parched humour when he attempts to start a small, distracting fire while observing that the grass is far from green; later he's asked when he would expect out of a British reception. "Nothing extravagant," he shrugs, eyeing his double-page, imperialistic, triumphalist fantasy which is too funny to behold. I also love the running gag about British tea, the last one I clocked being visual.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and, for the facial expressions and general relationships you might feel towards the characters, make a comparison to Kate Brown (TAMSIN AND THE DEEP, FISH + CHOCOLATE, THE WICKED + THE DIVINE VOL 3).
I'm also delighted to have found my final illustration online, for I marvelled at this early page on which Tony Cliff thought to add this extra detail of one of the sheets (drawn down to protect the Portuguese patio from the searing midday sun) either having been taken by a breeze and got itself hooked on the railings or never having quite made it to the floor in the first place!
Now that is classy.