Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The war is over, Rascal. The world is ours.
"You have the power to avoid all the bloodshed that is to come. Just give me the Oculus."
Everyone's after the Oculus. It's the magic equivalent of the 40-inch flatscreen on last year's Black Friday.
"Oh. My. God.
"Anyone else want to remind me I'm just a stupid little girl?"
At which point I'd remind you that Rascal is far from being a stupid little girl, and when you get to the last five pages, do remember I said that.
Rascal is a resourceful young thief who stumbled upon the Umbral - pitch-black, metamorphic nightmare creatures with slashed-out, razor-tooth grins - just as they slaughtered the royal family, stole the throne and acquired some serious real estate.
In return Rascal stole the Oculus just as they were about to use it, and now they want it back. Since they are shape-shifters impersonating those at the highest levels of power and therefore in charge of the entire kingdom, UMBRAL VOL 1: OUT OF THE SHADOWS was one long, frantic chase through Strakhelm's secret caverns and its less cooperative taverns, but this second volume has quite a different angle and pace.
Rascal is now riding towards Sunrise with the foul-mouthed bastard smuggler called Shayim, a one-eyed woman who effectively brought Rascal up; also green-skinned lard-bucket and daytime drunkard, Profoss Munty, former soldier turned academic; and Dalone, a grey-bearded man who claims to be a 500-year-old wizard who fought in the war by Strakan's side and maintained the Orbis, the shield over the Pit to prevent the Umbral escaping. There are a few problems with that. Firstly, he appears to be singularly useless at magic. Can't cast a spell. Not one. Although he is trying to teach Rascal. Secondly, there is no mention of Dalone or the Orbis in any history books.
"It's as if someone rewrote history."
Or he's lying. The Umbral say he is lying. Oh yes, our gang of four may have escaped Strakhelm but every time Rascal falls asleep she returns to their nightmare realm to be goaded about her parents and past. And most of what is said makes sense.
Thirdly - and this is a problem for our entire gang of four - the Umbral are shapeshifters, right? Who is to say that any of our gang is who they seem?
Johnston has smuggled all you need know into this book and hidden every piece in plain sight. But he has hidden it so well that on a first reading you don't have a clue what you're looking at. Either you don't trust it or it doesn't sink in. It's only on a second reading - after the Phoenix-like finale where the anger will out - that you start chuckling to yourself every half-dozen pages.
We're also welcomed to Tolgleam, a sylvan city sequestered in The Bulaswode forest, spiralling up the cliff-face behind it, we're introduced to The Kin Of The Whispered Blade (if one of them asks for a word in your ear, run like crazy, run like hell) and we're kept appraised of movements at the subterranean Mist Mountain where developments occur with a certain degree of detachment far from shared by the Umbral. Funny! I like funny, foul-mouthed villains.
All of which is rendered deliciously by Mssrs. Mitten, Boyd and Mauer predominantly in purples and greens. I go on at greater language about the magic language etc in UMBRAL VOL 1: OUT OF THE SHADOWS but here your first sight of Tolgleam rising from canopy to canopy and lit by a drizzling of mist will send you scrambling for superlatives while the second of three big reveals concerning our gang of four at the end of chapter eleven will have you turning the page back and forth, wondering if the words have been wrongly assigned. They have not! Hahahahahaha! Makes you think, eh?
Lastly, can I heap and extra dollop of praise on Team Umbral for the Umbral's calling cards: those slashed-out, razor-toothed snarls, lit from within as if by a furnace and which make just as much sense when they (wildly) exceed the sides of their faces as when they don't. No easy trick to pull off. If they didn't work half so well - if as recurring images they hadn't embedded themselves so emphatically in your brain - well, yeah...
UMBRAL VOL 1 was possibly our most popular Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month of all time. The feedback was deafening. See you back here for round three! It does seem that anything could happen.