August 20, 2009


Bone: Rose. By Jeff Smith. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Graphix/Scholastic. $21.99.

Ragtag. By Karl Wolf-Morgenländer. Clarion. $16.

     Jeff Smith’s wonderful Bone graphic-novel series has been reissued in nine volumes by the Graphix division of Scholastic; but like all great adventures, it will leave readers wondering both what happened afterwards and what happened before – that is, how things got to the point where they were when the three Bone cousins accidentally ended up in the Valley at the beginning of the first volume, Out from Boneville. Some “before” questions are answered by Smith in Rose, the story of the princess much later known as Gran’ma Ben. Here Smith explains the importance of balance in the Dreaming; the original betrayal of the world by the evil Locust; the different paths taken by Rose and her sister, Briar; and the terrible choice that Rose makes, which allows evil to gain a near-fatal foothold in the world. That is quite a lot to pack into a 138-page graphic novel, and Rose lacks some of the subtlety and all of the humor of the Bone series itself. It is an action-adventure book above all, with the excellent illustrations by Charles Vess helping carry the story along at a headlong pace quite different from the more relaxed speed shown in the basic Bone saga. Except for the Great Red Dragon, who looks much the same here as in Smith’s own illustrations, the characters Vess draws are more fine-boned and sinewy than in the main sequence, thinner and more strongly articulated in their movements. The result is a book that stylistically diverges quite a bit from the primary Bone saga while clearly inhabiting the same fantasy universe. The cross-currents of this story are many, including Rose’s close relationship with her two dogs, Euclid and Cleo, who call Briar (who cannot hear them as Rose can) the “Ice Queen”; Rose’s attraction to the young Lucius, and the way Briar steals his affection; the first attack of the Rat Creatures on humans in what will be a long war; and Rose’s unwitting and nearly fatal empowerment of the river dragon Balsaad, whose fate is inextricably intertwined with that of Rose and all the people of the Valley. Rose is a standalone book, but its resonance requires familiarity with the greater Bone series. It actually reveals little that careful readers of that saga will not already know, but it fills in some missing elements of the back story effectively and offers outstanding art that, although different from Smith’s own, is every bit as valid. The result is a prequel that, although not necessary for the understanding and enjoyment of Bone, is exciting from start to finish and a welcome return to the saga’s world.

     Ragtag, the first novel by Karl Wolf-Morgenländer, is an altogether more conventional adventure, but it is exciting and well-written enough for a (+++) rating. It is the classic tale of an underestimated youngster who becomes a hero, saving the very society that originally spurned him. In Ragtag, that is a society of birds – the title character is a swallow. The story is set in Boston and is precipitated by human errors upsetting the balance of avian power: “‘Before I came to this city,’ Hoogol [a great horned owl and city-bird leader] offered when the silence had grown uncomfortable, ‘I had heard stories of the Talon Empire. I had always assumed that they were just legends and myths. Now I realize they were true.” The Talon Empire consists of deadly raptors with a simple motivation: “They want to conquer us, to force us to do their bidding.” Why? “The humans and their machines have been cutting down the great woods to the west that were home to the empire. That is why they are now advancing.” This is, in truth, a very conventional setup for a fantasy-adventure (“Stupid humans!” one bird opines); but what is of real interest in Ragtag is the character of the hero and the way in which he becomes the key to the survival of the Boston birds’ group, known as the Feathered Alliance. There is some politics at work here: for one thing, the crows, outcasts among the city birds, have no problem joining the invaders. But what spurs Ragtag to eventual heroism is not politics but bravery that he had not known he possessed. The raptors are painted as vaguely Germanic invaders: their leader is called Bergelmir, and others of their number are Hugin, Gunlad, Surt and Mugin. Feathered Alliance members have altogether gentler names: Blue Feather, Bobtail, Tattler, Gini. There is never any doubt who the good guys are. Ragtag finds some bravery in himself early on, then discovers that “his anger gave him strength” as he accomplishes one great deed – after which he needs to leaven his power by listening to Hoogol’s wisdom: “I believe all of us can be redeemed.” Again, this is wholly conventional in heroic-fantasy stories, but Wolf-Morgenländer makes the tale seem more original than it is through effective characterization of some (if not all) of the birds and excellent scene-setting (the author certainly knows Boston well). Ragtag eventually has leadership of the city birds thrust upon him even though he protests, “I’m nothing more than a symbol.” The answer to that is swift in coming, from Ragtag’s mother, Blue Feather: “They want you, Ragtag, exactly because you’re a symbol.” Ragtag becomes more than that, of course, and the treacherous crows see the error of their ways and become helpful, and humans get involved in the whole mess without (of course) knowing just where they fit into things. Eagles play an important role in the book’s climax, as they do in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with both of which Wolf-Morgenländer is surely familiar (one eagle bears the distinctly Tolkienian name of the Norse god Baldur). But in the end, it is the small swallow rather than the grand eagles whose heroism is triumphant – a satisfying ending to a novel that transcends its own conventional elements.

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