March 09, 2017
(++++) PERILS GRAND AND GLORIOUS
Kid Beowulf #2: The Song of Roland. By Alexis E. Fajardo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Will Wilder #2: The Lost Staff of Wonders. By Raymond Arroyo. Crown. $16.99.
Alexis Fajardo’s second foray into the realm of the old-English epic poem, Beowulf, is no longer about the old-English epic poem, Beowulf, and it scarcely matters. Fajardo very loosely based his first graphic novel in this series, The Blood-Bound Oath, on the original poem, reinterpreting the whole central theme of Beowulf in significant ways so the book could be aimed directly at 21st-century preteens and young teenagers. The whole notion could easily have been both silly and depressing, but Fajardo handled it so well that it turned out to be merely silly – and in some respects not silly at all. Fajardo made Beowulf and Grendel into brothers, and yes, that was the silly part, but Fajardo twisted the legend enough to make this foundational premise barely plausible and, more importantly, to turn the first book in the series into a journey both of geography and of self-knowledge. In The Song of Roland, Fajardo turns his sights to – well, to The Song of Roland, a medieval epic as important to the French as Beowulf is to the British (it is probably worth pointing out that the French conquered England some years after Beowulf was written). The Song of Roland is a tale of heroism, battle, tragedy and hubris, lightened, rearranged and considerably altered (to the point of including roller coasters) in Fajardo’s retelling. Scholars of medieval literature will cringe, and are entitled to, but what Fajardo does so well here is to make these very old stories interesting and, believe it or not, relevant, by emphasizing characters’ relationships and interrelationships and by having them use modern slang and have adventures as likely to be comic as serious. The Song of Roland, Fajardo-style, is fun, something that can scarcely be said of the original. The tie-in to Beowulf and to the previous graphic novel comes because Beowulf and Grendel have been banished – that happened at the end of the first book – and have headed to Francia to find their uncle Ogier. Francia is a mess, and its greatest hero – that would be Roland – isn’t helping matters much until Beowulf and Grendel, taking a break from their personal squabbles, help get Roland better focused so he can lead the drive to defeat the Saracens and their leader, Marsilion. There are a couple of almost-meaningful female characters here – scarcely the case in the old sagas of heroism, but welcome in a 21st-century graphic novel – and also here are an elephant that turns into a weapon when a specific word is spoken, and a giant, and various other trappings of myth that make Fajardo’s The Song of Roland complex, intricate and fast-paced. No, it is not accurate, not at all, but Fajardo knows it is not, and that counts for a great deal. Like the previous book, this one contains some fascinating material after the story ends, including notes on Fajardo’s tributes to Peanuts, the Bone saga, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, plus an excellent list of sources that Fajardo used for his work and that young readers who become intrigued with Beowulf, Grendel, Roland and the other characters can look up on their own. Also as in the first book, the two colorists are significant contributors to the visual impact of the storytelling: Jose Mari Flores handles the main story, and does it in suitable tones that complement the narrative well – while the prologue, a simplified verse retelling of The Song of Roland, is colored by Brian Kolm with an entirely different palette, a striking one that brings those pages to life with exceptional skill. In fact, it is just possible that Fajardo’s skillful storytelling and adept rewriting of old tales and legends will succeed in getting modern, screen-focused, instant-gratification-obsessed preteens and teens interested in old stories that unfold at a fair more leisurely pace but that really do offer themes of war and peace, friends and enemies, good and evil, that are just as relevant today as they were – admittedly in very different form – well over a thousand years ago.
Raymond Arroyo dips back even further in time for his Will Wilder series – all the way to Biblical days. And he gives The Lost Staff of Wonders, which follows the series’ first book, The Relic of Perilous Falls, more spiritual resonance than is usually found in adventures for preteens. Beyond that, though, this is pretty much the usual fantasy mixture of evil elements, dire dangers, fantastic family secrets, scenes of fear and worry and (almost) doom, plus the standard mentors and companions and nemeses. Headstrong 12-year-old Will Wilder (“headstrong” also describes Fajardo’s Beowulf, Grendel and innumerable other 12-year-old protagonists) in the first book caused an accident that seriously injured his brother; in this second book, he manages, through carelessness, to allow the Staff of Moses to be stolen from his family’s museum of wondrous and mystical objects. Will falls under immediate suspicion as being the thief, which of course readers know he is not, but he has to locate and defeat the actual thief before all the plagues of Egypt, called down by the staff, descend on the town of Perilous Falls. Indeed, some arrive rather soon: a river running with blood, frogs with teeth, and a plague of gnats (rather than locusts). Those are more than enough for Will and the town, thank you. Will is not alone or without help in his difficulties: his sister is a healer and his brother can glow brightly enough to chase demons away – a useful ability in light of the fact that the family museum is also the headquarters of the demon-fighting Brethren. Also available to assist is Aunt Lucille, as attractively offbeat a character here as in the first book. But the hunt for the missing staff is only part of what Will must deal with: his friend, Max Meriwether, has been dreaming of a rising evil that will target Will. Could this be connected with the theft of the staff? Well, of course – the book may have some intricacies of plot and a large number of characters, but Will remains dead center (an apt way to look at him in this case), and all the occurrences eventually trace back to or revolve around him. Some of the supernatural elements here are unusual, and the mystery is well-handled despite elements of obviousness (a new faith healer in town – hmm, what could that mean?). The unsurprising elements of the book make it a (+++) novel: in particular, there is nothing at all unusual in a protagonist who is good and loyal and right-thinking despite being impatient, careless and undisciplined. Still, the pacing and writing here are good, and readers who enjoyed the first book in the series, much of which was clearly designed to set up later stories, will be glad to see the in medias res nature of The Lost Staff of Wonders and to be carried along on a fast-paced, unbelievable but frequently thrilling adventure.