Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Nothing is entitled to anything.
"Only humans dream they are."
This is a story which will give you much pause for thought and, perhaps, hit you hard in your heart.
But it's also an inspiring tale, an elevating one, during which individuals learn and grow - change or are changed - and adapt. It's a book of perspectives, as we shall shortly see, partly about man's proprietorial nature, and humanity's ability to empathise, think it does, or fails to. It is especially astute and eloquent about how we regard and treat animals - even our environment. Colonists are no more than visitors, after all...
A bright and beautiful comic full of fresh colours, ornate and organic designs, to read this is like being given glimpses through an ornate window.
There's no hand-holding, no unwieldy exposition, just key conversations overheard about dominion, control, captivity, desire to be free, the need to be free and to be both recognised and understood as an individual. You may wish to rewind multiple times, as the narrative does itself, in order to discern precisely what's at stake. I found reading chapters in reverse order the second time round to be most illuminating and ever so satisfying. Then I went forward again.
The window aspect is emphasised by the arched panel frames on the very first page, then Emma Rios' illuminations of Hwei Lim's script for the first of the parallel back-up features called 'The Hand That Holds The Leash'. It is daubed in purple-blossom washes along with a landscape overlooking the cathedral-like Esagila compound at the heart of the young Irzah Colony. From a distance it looks as though it could have been fashioned from glass.
Come to think about it, Kazbek the scientist too is painted by Rios to resemble shards of glass, reflecting the sky's lilac colours as he sits calm and relaxed in the open-air gazebo or porch surrounded by the greenery of a substantial garden. Set around page four of the first chapter, Kazbek is being instructed by Elena, chancellor of the Irzah colony, to get rid of "the dog" once it's recaptured. It's a dispassionate match of verbal sabres:
"She is much more than a dog."
"Why do you say so?"
"She truly loves the boy."
"Heh... nothing knows true love better than a dog..."
"If you think so highly of dogs, why would you have me get rid of her?"
"If you think so highly of dogs, why do you try so hard to make them human?"
Elena concludes with a flourish:
"Yes, I'm being selfish. I'd rather be human and selfish than the noblest of dogs. The hand that holds the leash, not the neck wearing the collar. What about you?"
Our first encounter is a mere five years after the colony's formation. This prologue is called 'The Boy And His Dog'. And you would be forgiven for imagining that Sena was a dog to begin with, for young Ivan's at cheerful play with her. But we're already fast-forwarding through time between panels as the towering Kazbek interrupts school class, stick clasped behind his back.
"My apologies. I'm in need of Ivan's assistance again."
As Kazbek approaches outside, Sena's delighted bark turns to a growl.
"Come. It is time."
"Do we have to? She's not fully recovered yet... "
Notice the cages and lab coats on the very first tier.
The Irzah colony was built around the Esagila compound which itself is a spaceship long since vertically anchored, having flown not once since it landed. Why Elena and Kazbek came there, and it what state, I will not say, but I will tell you that Irzah's an asteroid, although that wasn't always the case.
They released some animals into the terraformed wild and something strange happened: they became sentient, self-aware, clairvoyant; they became Guardians - but of what? Now Kazbek seeks to replicate this evolution by creating animal-human hybrids, and he's had some success in Sena and Phinx, while former lab rat Zun is partly the result of Ivan's own prowess as a mage. The origins of Aldebaran, the imposing but gentle albino Minotaur, classically cloaked in red, are far more startling and something else altogether.
I'm reluctant to give you much more than that, except that as the story opens, Lesnik the bear, thought to be one of the original Guardians, lies dying in human captivity following yet another of Sena's attempts to stop the experimentation and liberate the hybrids. When you see the laboratories you will understand why. But, as I've intimated, everyone has a distance to travel over the course of this book, having come rather a long way already.
Lim's colours for the main event are less impressionistic than Rios' but equally lambent. Both artists employ a great many arches and curves in the exquisite architecture, and even rat-monkey Zun's descent to Ivan's room is choreographed like a helter-skelter ride. Lim's landscapes are magical, exotic, with some far-east influences in some of boughs, branches and blossoms, while her Frozen Forest where the Guardians reside is both of this world and other.
You can tell how much time has been spent and how much fun has been had by both artists coming up with designs for this society's fashions. Each one of their creatures is as alive with humanity and individuality, with superb, sinuous body language. The lettering is species-specific too, which is rather telling, don't you think?