Sunday, November 09, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #311: Grandville Noel by Bryan Talbot

To answer the question no one actually asked: of course a series of steampunk detective thrillers in graphic novel form, set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, would eventually have a Christmas episode. Doesn't every series of stories get one, if it runs long enough? (Note: rule only applies in Christian societies. But a similar rule likely generates Ramadan or Diwali stories in other lands, if I know human nature.)

The series in question is Bryan Talbot's "Grandville" -- where Napoleon conquered everything he wanted to (notably England) two centuries ago, and the British Isles only got their socialist freedom a generation ago; and where the inhabitants of the world are made up of a bewildering array of animal-headed humanoids -- and the book in question is Grandville Noel, the fourth entry, coming later this month. (Previously on Grandville: Grandville, Grandville Mon Amour, and Grandville Bete Noir.) But Grandville Noel only slightly follows the expected path of a Christmas episode -- there is a joyful reunion in a snug home with lots of children running around, near the end, admittedly -- and the spirit of the season is never important to the story, nor is there a dramatic change of heart on the part of any character.

But Grandville Noel is more deeply Christmassy in its own ways, being concerned with both religion and teleology -- with faith and and the places it is placed or misplaced and with both the origins of its world and with the rules of its people. For example: the society of Grandville has always been seen to look down on inter-species relationships as wrong, or at least scandalous, and this time out we learn both that such relationships are inevitably barren and that there are very rare breeds (unicorns, gryphons, among others) who only turn up every few generations. Those two facts seem to be in conflict with each other -- how can unicorns pop up out of other breeds if inter-breeding is never successful? -- but Talbot may have a deeper lurking explanation, which comes out in some very Lysenkoist dialogue in this book.Some may suspect that he's just throwing in complications to make his world more interesting and to open up story possibilities -- so he can have one unicorn with amazing abilities without having to postulate a whole subculture of them lurking somewhere -- but it does all work together, more or less, even if the understood scientific laws of this world are not the same as in our own.

That unicorn is an important character in Grandville Noel, as you might guess from his central place on the cover. He's Apollo, the head of the Church of Evolutionary Theology, an American cult recently exported to Paris. Cults in fiction are never good things, and this one -- called The Silver Path colloquially -- is no exception: they brainwash the young and gullible and have been amassing vast wealth secretly as part of the inevitable plan to buy their way into French political power and take over the world! (Every Grandville book to date has had a threat to conquer the world, or at least the part of it ruled by France, and this one is no exception.) Unicorns exert a unique aura, or can do so: they can make people around them believe their every word without question, which is a great asset for a political or cult leader.

The series hero, Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, becomes involved when the niece of his landlady disappears soon before Christmas. The trail leads to the Silver Path and through them to Paris, and LeBrock once again finds himself gathering unlikely allies (this time, the most prominent is a human "doughface" Pinkerton detective from the USA, one of the despised non-animal minority race [1]) as he stumbles across this scheme and finds himself drawn into thwarting it.

He does, of course. Did you think he wouldn't? And the larger story of Grandville moves a bit forward along the way as well. Talbot is trying to bring some deeper material in, with the subplot about the True Gospels revealing Jesus's species, but this is really still a thriller at heart: entertainment mixed with quirky worldbuilding, the Da Vinci Code of a very odd alternate world. LeBrock is a fine hero and the best kind of copper, as always, though one may start to wish that, despite the series title, he might start to roam slightly more widely than Paris.

[1] It doesn't entirely make sense that a society made up of such a bewildering variety of non-interfertile races -- mammals and birds and reptiles and amphibians -- with such varying looks would all hate and fear one specific species. It also points up Talbot's anti-Mausian worldbuilding, since there's no sign that any species came from any specific place or has any affinities whatsoever (for occupations or nations or skills or personality types). But this is one of the bedrock premises of the series: no species hates any other, except that they all hate doughfaces. So we just have to accept it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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