Monday, June 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #155: Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 2: The Barbarian Princess by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim

Dungeon Fortnight #4

I could claim here that The Barbarian Princess shows that everything gets more complicated in the world of Dungeon when women get involved -- if I wanted to be pointed, I might even use the anachronistic word "dames" to be cheeky -- but it's not really true.

Things get differently complicated once romance gets involved, and the world of Dungeon is pretty hetero-only. (Assuming that relationships between different sentient species can be mapped cleanly to a homo-hetero axis -- I think it can, actually, but it's a point to stick a signpost in.)  The Barbarian Princess of the title at first just causes the usual sorts of complications: chased by her father's men for various schemes, searching the Dungeon herself for loot or secrets, pursued by her fiendish brother who wants to kill her and become the undisputed heir. But she is a Princess, and Princesses have to get married -- that's what stories about Princesses are about -- and the question of who she wants to marry and who wants to marry her and who should marry her quickly gets thorny.

The question of what she wants remains resolutely opaque throughout: no one seems to actually ask her, and she doesn't speak up. Women in general are strange and mysterious creatures in Dungeon; Princess Isis here sets in motion huge and transformative events because she never tells one guy that she doesn't actually want to marry him. (And, in the end, we assume that's what she wants, because it's said repeatedly in front of her and she doesn't contradict it: but she never actually says anything affirmatively.) I wonder how deliberate any of that is: the world of Dungeon is cynical and nasty and dangerous, and women are often just another piece of cynical nasty dangerousness.

But all other people are dangerous and potentially life-threatening in Terra Amata. Men are generally only threats because they might suddenly kill you, or use power or a corrupt law to ruin your life. Women can do all of that, too, but you also might find yourself doing ridiculous things for them -- not because they ask you to, just because they exist. The word "love" isn't really used here; there's an overpowering, mostly sexual attraction that men have towards particular women, which they can't control and can only barely channel.

This is dangerously close to a "look what you made me do" mindset, and it makes me uneasy. We will see the world from the point of view of women later in Dungeon, but never as much, and never on the same level.

On the other hand, everything turns out for the worst on Terra Amata. Cities fall, businesses are smashed by corrupt competitors, people are murdered randomly, the world itself falls apart. It's not surprising that pair-bonding doesn't work any better, even if we're more used to fantasy stories that carves out an exception for love and friendship in a larger world of pain and misery. Terra Amata has no such exception: the right person doesn't bring happiness, just like personal wealth or power doesn't.

So: as usual, it starts with something flippant that Herbert says. As a way to get more adventurers for the Dungeon, he suggests pretending a Princess has been captured there, and gives this fictional princess what he thinks is a random princessy name. But he remembered a real name -- and, since on Terra Amata, anything that can go wrong in a humorous way will do so -- she is actually missing, her father notices the Dungeon's advertisements, and she turns out to be in the Dungeon right that moment.

There are various adventures as Herbert and Marvin search for her, but Princess Isis is found and saved. Along the way, she saved a baby from being a troll's lunch, which leads to the usual misunderstandings -- so her father insists she must get married swiftly. And if Herbert managed not to wisecrack for five seconds once in his life, he would have married her and at least there would have been different, probably smaller, problems. Instead, he sets in motion a planned marriage between the Keeper and Isis that will bankrupt the Dungeon and that Herbert will spend the next three albums scheming to foil.

This is the core moment of the Zenith series, and it hinges on Herbert being a goofball rather than a hero. All of the important moments of Dungeon are like that: whenever a character has a chance to be noble, or smart, or far-seeing, he fumbles it by going with his first instinct instead. This is why Terra Amata is so horrible, and why things keep getting worse...and why it's funny, too. When Herbert has an instant to choose between being serious and cracking a joke, the joke will win every time.

The humor in Dungeon can be cynical and dark, and the world itself is full of woe -- but, for the moment of its Zenith, things mostly work out well for the main characters, in the usual adventure-story way. In Barbarian Princess, a reader could think he has the beginning of the story of how Herbert and Isis got together despite everything. He'd be wrong, but it would be an understandable expectation.

So this is madcap fun, joking epic fantasy full of incident and ideas, drawn by Trondheim in a cartoony style and with mostly bright colors (uncredited here, so perhaps by Trondheim himself or by Walter, who colored a lot of these books). If you stick with Zenith, it mostly stays on that level: setbacks but nothing shattering, danger that the heroes always make it out of again, enemies that can be tricked or defeated.

But the definition of a Zenith is that it's fleeting.

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