Page 45 Review by Stephen
I swear that you have never read anything quite like this in your life.
One of the most beautiful books that I have ever beheld, THE FIRELIGHT ISLE's production values are exquisite.
More pertinently, however, is its thoroughly innovative, highly intelligent, and visually thrilling composition. I have actually seen jaws drop upon showing customers this gorgeous graphic novel.
A series of vertical ribbons woven together quite often by colour from a sequence of tall, interlocking pages that flow freely when read on Paul Duffield's website - yet which are each, individually, so satisfying to absorb in their own right - the cascade is carefully controlled by the insertion of horizontal sound-effects, embedded panels and the occasional stone hearth, tapestry or carpet.
Crisp blue, clean white and rich, warm terracotta (when arranged with such spacious precision) is ever so striking. It is especially so when combined with the recurrent motif of circular frames: windows which focus your attention on that which is most important, of what is happening right now or that which once occurred according to ancient lore.
Ah yes, ancient lore! Duffield spent years studying anthropology for this project before embarking on a single panel, artistically satisfying himself instead on attendant, investigative preparatory sketches, and it has paid dividends! If you relish rich world-building - like Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten's UMBRAL or Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's LAZARUS - which doesn't attempt to overwhelm you all at once with all the work that's gone into it in order to prove how clever it is... then you are in for such a subtle treat here.
I say "subtle", because there's a couple of elements unique to this specific society of barterers which I spotted for myself but which Duffield refrains from announcing outright. How fortunate it is that Duffield's a master of midnight constellations and fire! Even the skin oil applied to render hands and forearms water-repellent when dyeing pre-treated white fabric in a sacred ceremony is only touched on after the fact. But it will prove pivotal.
Perhaps the single most important quality in homo sapiens which has defined our history, development and prosperity post-Cognitive Revolution - as Yuval Noah Harari emphasises over and over again - is that we are storytellers. That we can create shared fictions which we tacitly or fervently agree to believe in like religion, law and money has meant that we can cooperate in such vast numbers (or indeed go to war with each other on such an enormous scale when those fictions clash) that make elephant tribes, chimpanzee communities and extended meerkat families look miniscule. This is far from off-topic. From the back of this book:
"In the beginning the nameless dark smothered all. The people of the earth were empty vessels. Lifeless. And then, the stars were lit. Gathering, they kindled heavenly flame, and each star filled each waiting body with breath.
"Anlil and Sen both carry a star of their own. They are childhood friends, their heavenly journeys woven together as Sen takes his first step down the path of priesthood, and Anlil weaves a sacred offering that could save her household.
"But all paths branch, all threads unwind, and all flames die. For ever the nameless dark waits at the shores of The Firelight Isle."
I don't know about you, but a shiver just went up my spine.
The very first page, following a sumptuously designed diagrammatical map, opens on teenage Anlil and Sen overlooking their shared city below. And it is most splendid!
Circular suburbs surround and envelope the vertical emphasis of the religious hub's central towers. Ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, both exterior and interior, also always looked towards the heavens and, further back, stone circles erected to worship our sun were comprised of sky-seeking obelisks.
Then sounds the morning call to worship! It spirals out upon the page in booming, pulsing, rhythmical ripples and echoes which are hypnotic.
But as soon as the second page, our childhood friends have fallen out. They've fallen out over Sen's vocation to undertake a religious ritual which will remove him from wider society, but also her equally sincere and devoted friendship throughout all these years.
"What makes you think I'll fail?"
"You didn't even have the courage to tell me you wanted to try."
She is initially concerned for his safety, because the ritual has proven fatal to those who have failed; he is affronted by her lack of confidence in his direction, devotion and prowess; ultimately, however, Anlil feels betrayed by his failure to confide. And it's tearing these true friends apart.
This is such potent stuff, set up so early on with extraordinarily distilled concision and precision that it makes room for so many subsequent story strands that can be conveyed predominantly by images instead. As I keep carping on (please do forgive me!): comics is a visual medium and this, to me, is comics at its finest.
The patterns are phenomenal, the masked priesthood suitably intimidating, and the traditional costumes throughout consistent in colour and design. It's a living, breathing community with a history, both in terms of culture and family, and you'll be thrust back and forth between the present and the past which will explain and so inform that present. Childhood play can be ever so telling.
You will also be treated to two trials undergone and presented on the page in tense, sweaty parallel.
But you will never suspect where this is heading or foresee the thematically perfect climax coming.
Circles and cycles; tradition and truth; success and failure; loyalties and love.
At the end of any day, what is truly important, what weighs most in your heart?
I don't know which I admire most in this work: its exceptionally fierce ambition or its flawless execution.