Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 305 (12/5) -- Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot

In the pure form of alternate history, there can be one and only one change to real-world history, and every bit of background and plot is supposed to flow out from that. It's a demanding form, like a sonnet, and requires nearly as much work and knowledge on the part of the reader as from the writer -- but it definitely has its appeal, and its wonders. Those who demand that all alternate histories follow that pattern, though...well, they're about as flexible and open to new experiences as any purists ever are, and about as much fun to talk to.

Bryan Talbot is nowhere near purism in his "Grandville" graphic novels -- there are at least two major changes to the world, which have nothing to do with each other (and should be mutually contradictory, if we were being purists about it), and I'm not at all sure if all of the minor changes can or should be directly attributed to those causes. I say this not to complain -- the Grandville stories aren't Westerns, or villanelles, or grand operas, either, and that's just taxonomy, not criticism -- but to place them more specifically: these are romps, through a eclectic collection of genre tropes and Talbot's own idiosyncratic storytelling style.

Talbot describes them as "A Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific-Romance Thriller," which is pretty good -- even better if you realize that LeBrock is an anthropomorphic badger in a world populated by what seem to be dozens of such species [1]. It's the modern day, more or less, but, in this world, England only emerged from the French yoke a generation ago, after nearly two centuries of domination following the Napoleonic War. (Note the singular.) The technology and social mores are essentially 19th century, with the usual steampunk overlay customary in alternate worlds. (There are, as there must be, zeppelins, butt Talbot doesn't do much with them this time.)

In the first volume, Grandville (which I reviewed as Book-A-Day # 23), Archie LeBrock and his intrepid assistant Detective Ratzi traced the death of one British spy to the highest levels of the French capital, and foiled a fiendish plot to overthrow the government of a great nation. And, though the details are very different, much of that sentence could be used to describe the climax of Grandville Mon Amour, which is slightly unfortunate.

(There's one point where Talbot wants to slightly misdirect the reader, so a revelation hits with greater force -- but readers of the first book are likely to leap immediately to the final conclusion, as I did, and that just makes LeBrock look a bit duller and less imaginative in our eyes. And, even more so, the second book in a series is far too soon to repeat oneself too closely.)

A few weeks have passed since the end of Grandville when Grandville Mon Amour opens, and LeBrock has spend them in a drunken haze, holed up in his London flat, trying to forget everything he possibly could forget. Edward "Mad Dog" Mastock -- serial murderer, horribly violent hero of the resistance to the French occupation, and "the most dangerous lunatic in the country" -- has escaped from the Tower of London the morning he was to be guillotined, and Ratzi knows that only LeBrock, who captured him the first time, can bring him back.

But LeBrock's commander has already assigned the case to a stolid, dull detective, and LeBrock quits the force rather than stand down, as hot-headed detective protagonists will do. He and Ratzi rush to Paris [2] to hunt down Mastock, who has already killed two prostitutes. The fact that LeBrock has resigned from the force strangely turns out to be an unnecessary detail, but there's plenty of action and thrills in Grandville Mon Amour (and a new badger woman for LeBrock to fall for, and to make him remember his lost love Sarah from the first book) for the reader to skim over any minor points like that and focus on the energetic plot.

That plot does lead to the highest levels, as Grandville did, which unfortunately does -- as I mentioned above -- feel like a retread. (If Grandville #3 sees LeBrock travel to Germany, look for a Kaiser to be revealed as a perfidious scoundrel.) The Grandville books are not Talbot's most adventurous or original work, and I hope that he does continue to do books like Alice in Sunderland or The Tale of One Bad Rat, but they are superb entertainments, and their only ideological baggage is firmly on the side of wanting leaders to be honest, true, and regularly accountable to their people, which is vastly better than I could say for some steampunk stories.

[1] All of which seem to date -- though not necessarily to rut, as we see in one scene here -- within their own species, which raises interesting questions about interfertility and the likelihood of finding a suitable mate of the appropriate species.

[2] Also known as Grandville, for insufficient in-story reasons, but actually because the visual sense of the series is deeply inspired by the 19th century French artist J.J. Grandville, whose many illustrations showed humanoid animals in the clothing of the day.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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