May 16, 2019
(++++) WORLDS ENOUGH AND TIME
5 Worlds, Book 1: The Sand Warrior. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).
5 Worlds, Book 2: The Cobalt Prince. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).
5 Worlds, Book 3: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99 (hardcover).
Inventive despite its constant echoes of other adventure stories, artistically consistent despite its collaborative nature, and told at a pace that allows both for plenty of action and for plenty of explanatory background, the 5 Worlds series of graphic novels is one of the best uses of the form in recent years. The novels are a true sequence, not standalone books: it is very difficult to pick up the series anywhere but the beginning, since the second and third books are continuations of the first with very little attempt to look back and fill in prior events. But that is just fine, because readers who do start with The Sand Warrior will not want to stop until they have gone through all three releases to date – and anyone who happens to pick up The Cobalt Prince or The Red Maze will soon realize that there is a rich vein of fictional history without which the stories do not coalesce very well, and will likely seek out the earlier volumes to understand the foundations of the tale.
5 Worlds has echoes of innumerable fantasies set in the past and future, on Earth or on alternative worlds or somewhere in space. Star Wars is a dominant feature, one among many. But present-day, real-world ecological and economic elements also appear, lending a veneer of almost-realism to some of the characters’ concerns. The three main characters will be instantly recognizable to any fantasy fan as “unlikely hero” types: Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who does not remember her parents and whose older, apparently more-talented sister fled the school before the story’s start, for reasons unknown; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around the oppressive society, and who has a mysterious illness that means he will not live long; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, who has plenty of fame but no emotional connections worthy of the name – and who, it turns out, is not what he appears to be at all.
The world building here is also of a familiar type: there are indeed five worlds, one of which dominated the others until a long-ago war of independence that resulted in the colonies splitting from the once-dominant Mother World. The worlds were settled by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods; that race vanished long ago, and there are mysteries of all sorts attached to it. One of those involves five giant beacons, one per world, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. 5 Worlds is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.
This is not, in truth, an especially inventive story arc, but the five creators of 5 Worlds handle it with very considerable skill that involves characterization as much as action – often more so, in fact. The reason the beacons need to be re-lit is that the worlds are overheating and becoming uninhabitable – for now, by wild creatures, but soon for humans. Or so some people say: this is a political universe (where politics has not advanced much beyond 21st-century Earth norms), and the adults have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on. They also have a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating them, or some of them, further complicating pretty much everything: this is a creature that is heartless, in fact literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but that nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, is steadily growing in strength. The five worlds – Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E) – have characteristic colors associated with them and their beacons, and the re-lighting has to take that into account to produce a sequence of white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Why? Just because – although the reason may eventually be made clear. It is a characteristic of 5 Worlds that the story’s mysteries are pervasive but are not paraded for readers with portentousness: there is a genuine feeling here that Oona Lee, An Tzu and Jax Amboy are struggling to make sense of their quest even as readers are struggling along with them. That is a real strength of 5 Worlds.
Another strength of the story is the clarity with which it makes sociopolitical points, but without lecturing or hectoring. The blue-skinned Toki, for example, are a servant class and deemed inferior – but it is the Toki who start the events that lead to the quest of re-lighting, and it turns out that Oona Lee is not of the dominant white-skinned class after all, in one of many surprises and reversals in the story. As for Jax Amboy, he is dark-skinned, but in his case the color is quite literally only skin-deep – another way in which 5 Worlds makes its point about heroic actions being the province of pretty much anyone and, indeed, pretty much anything: an entire race of “vegetals,” for example, plays a significant role, and its members can and do interbreed with more-recognizable humans, producing “mixed-sap” people. The art and coloring in these books is finely honed and always attractive, the background scenery unusual enough to convey a sense of alienness throughout while allowing the familiar elements of this extended quest story to come through clearly. 5 Worlds is a very considerable achievement already, even though it is incomplete and has quite a few questions still to be answered. Surely some of the murkiness will be clearer after the appearance of the fourth book, which will be called The Amber Anthem. But equally surely, that will not be the end of the 5 Worlds saga; and even when this epic graphic-novel series does end, it will have left readers so immersed in its skillful storytelling and highly attractive art that many will surely be eager to return to the beginning and re-live the re-lighting all over again.