Thursday, January 08, 2015

Sovereign, Vol. 1 by Roberson & Maybury

Comics haven't done a lot of epic fantasy in the past. Swords and sorcery, sure. Contemporary or urban fantasy, definitely. But those both fit easily into the usual monthly-comics paradigm: episodic stories about characters who don't change much and have the same sort of adventures over and over again. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, is about a journey: it starts one place, goes through others, and comes out at a definite ending.

(I've often written here about how the comic-shop world hates and fears endings, and so generally the creators that aim at that market avoid them at all costs. Epic fantasy requires a big, definitive ending -- though it can be delayed almost indefinitely -- so it hasn't been a good fit for that comics model so far.)

But an honest-to-as-many-gods-as-are-in-your-pantheon epic fantasy in comics form started last year, and the first collection hit stores only a few weeks ago. Sovereign, Vol. 1 includes the first five issues of the Image comics series, written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Paul Maybury. And it's clearly part of a longer, single story that will play out over however many issues it takes and then have the inevitable epic fantasy Big Ending -- which is a wonderful thing to see a major comics company embrace.

Roberson has written a lot of things over the past decade or so -- comics, novels, short stories -- but they've tended to be on the science-fictional side of the genre, with spaceships rather than dragons, and he's delighted in playing with histories, either alternate or secret. Sovereign, though, is a new creation of fantasy, an entire secondary world -- with the usual echoes of societies from our own world, of course. And he pulls the reader into that world through his characters, showing it to us as they experience it, leaving the explanatory text features for the end of the book. (Sovereign doesn't seem to have a map, which is the only thing I missed.)

This is modern multi-viewpoint fantasy -- the publisher compares it to George R.R. Martin, though Roberson isn't that brutal to his characters yet -- with an initial focus on three people: Wren, one of the now-reclusive religious order of the Luminari, traveling down from their mountain stronghold as the youngest member of a small team; Janramir, one of the three sons and potential heirs of the dying Tamurid emperor Sanran Rhan, heading home to the capital after spending most of his time hunting and riding for the past few years; and Pol Ravenstone, a scholar from the foreign Queen Zarabet, attached to the retinue of the new envoy to the emperor's court. (A fourth viewpoint character appears late in this book as well, who I expect will become more important later on.)

This is epic fantasy, so there must be an epic problem: this world is at the end of an age, coming into a Convergence with the four otherworldly spheres that each power one kind of magic. The age just ending was one of minimal magic, so many of the old rules and abilities -- like the proper care of the dead, so that daemons from between worlds don't take their bodies and rise in attack -- are completely forgotten or derided as superstition. The Luminari envoys are in the capital city to tell the Tamurids about the Convergence, and it is progressing more quickly than even they expected.

So: magic is returning, the dead are rising, three brothers are fighting for an empty throne, and four varieties of magic will also battle for supremacy before the Convergence is over. That won't all be resolved for a while -- I'd expect that things will get worse, and more complicated, for at least twenty issues before there's even a potential solution -- but these are interesting characters and we've barely been introduced to them. I'm particularly impressed by Roberson's pacing: he's writing this like a novel, introducing characters and traits and elements of his world bit by bit and trusting his readers to pick them all up and put them together. I expect we'll learn a lot more, and focus on more of the secondary characters, as Sovereign goes along.

Maybury's art is strong as well, with a Paul Pope-ish darkness and grit particularly in the action scenes and at night. He draws great, distinctive faces as well -- this book is full of big noses and grizzled chins, which works well for this world.

Sovereign is still in its early stages here, still laying out its ground rules and setting up its dilemmas. But it's compelling and full of interesting, distinctive story hooks, and I hope to see it run to a real ending sometime in fifty or a hundred issues.

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