Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Don't you understand? I have no choice."
I understand perfectly; you always have a choice.
Whenever I've heard "I have no choice" it's meant, "I don't fancy the other options I've so far considered, so I'm completely abnegating responsibility for what I'm about to do." Please file with "I'm just following orders".
Admittedly on the surface the fifty souls sent on a mission here appear to have had their options substantially limited but not curtailed, for where there's a will, there's a way.
Before we begin, this is brilliant. Its beauty we'll come to anon, but I want you to know from the start that this is enthralling and truly startling in places, with curses far more cunning in their detail and execution than you might initially suspect. Underneath the spot-varnish cover we are forewarned thus:
"Geis, pronounced gesh, is a Gaelic word for a taboo or curse. When a geis is placed upon you, it is like a spell that cannot be broken and certain rules must be obeyed. You might be prohibited from calling upon the aid of wolves, for example, or from breaking into someone's kitchen. If you ignore or break a geis, the consequences are dire.
"But a geis is always broken.
"As soon as it is spoken or written, your fate is set."
The matriarch Matarka is dead.
She lies in state in her ceremonial robes on a bed in the centre of a cloister's courtyard. Around her sit fifty citizens, most of whom seem downright grumpy that they've been woken from their beds. The great chief Matarka named no heir but instead proclaimed that there would be contest to select her successor.
"The rich, the strong, the wise, the powerful, many gave their names in the hope of being chosen.
"But when the night came fifty souls were summoned."
An agreement is being sent round to be signed and a brief squabble breaks out over power, but it's silenced by the gurgling of Matarka before an ectoplasmic apparition issues from her mouth to settle in a vessel, a body of an old woman sat slouched at the foot of the bed.
"I am Niope, the sorceress. Prepare yourselves for I have come to test you.
"A good chief should know the land. All the land. Like seed on the wind I scatter you.
"Find your way back to me before the light of the next dawn touches the castle door... or no chief will you be!"
That's it: that's all they are told before being conjured into the air and summarily dispatched. It's possible that she may have omitted one or two salient items of interest, as at least a couple of the contestants will later find out. The others will remain oblivious to the consequences but I've chosen what I've written and quoted here carefully, for it's not just God who's in the details.
As we focus on a dozen or so individuals attempting to master their environment to make their way back after being dumped in a cave, between columns of rocks, in a wood and by quicksand or being thrust through a kitchen window, some prove more resourceful than others while others have certain skills which may afford them some desperately needed insight. We also discover that the Kite Lord's daughter never entered her name into the contest, but when she attempts to withdraw, she discovers she can't. None of them are going to be able to walk away and return to the lives they once knew, and it becomes increasingly clear that these challenges will be tests not just of capability, but of character too.
That's the tip of the proverbial iceberg - with carefully concealed depths - for this is the first in a trilogy in which you will begin to glean the differences between Life Magic and Death Magic and their tightly knit relationship, just as it is with Life and Death itself.
There are some spectacular skies on offer at all times of the morning, noon and night. Not least of these is the early shepherd's warning behind the monumental composite of a castle whose cloisters we first looked down upon. An unfeasibly large, fantastical and positively Tolkien-esque fortress surrounded by minarets sits atop the base of an already gigantic, heavens-headed gothic cathedral, its architectural details bathed in brown shadow as the dawn behind it ignites in flaming reds, oranges, yellows and purples while the cold, spectral-blue shades of the challengers are whisked round and around then away.
A little later we'll catch another glimpse of this citadel from further afield, surrounded by substantial Tudor terraced houses and mansions whose warped walls will loom over a protagonist or two as improvisations are attempted. There the softer, sandy colours are dry-brushed against bright white clouds which themselves drift idly across the vastness of a pale green sky.
Then there are midnight flourishes during an unusually direct confrontation between two of the protagonists lest one learn the secrets of the other then disseminate that knowledge. A freezing, miasmatic mist rises like a monochromatic (but little less spectacular) version of the Aurora Borealis partially occluding a star-strewn, nocturnal heaven.
Atmosphere is all, and you won't find it any less thrilling in a lamp-lit library as ancient Osha attempts to furnish the Kite Lord's daughter with knowledge only to find that time has taken its toll and knowledge must be carefully kept alive and preserved... lest it be eaten away.
School library folks, this is equally fine for your teens or early teens section. It's going to be another of those graphic novels snapped up by all ages for its wide-eyes wonder and harsh revelations.