Saturday, March 14, 2009

Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness

I don't usually deal with non-superhero stuff on this blog, but I'm making an exception. See, this comic book is written by Barbara Hambly, and I'm a huge fan of Barbara Hambly. So I wouldn't call this post a review, specifically; it's about half review and half plug.

First, the details. It’s called Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness, Act 1: An Honorary Man. It's published by Penny-Farthing Press. You can order a copy right from them; that's how I got mine. Not sure about its availability in comic-book shops, although I imagine it'll get there eventually if it isn't there now.

What Happened That You Have to Know About: Anne Steelyard is a young, aspiring archeologist in the Middle East in 1908. She wants to find the lost city of Miyah and so win her fortune, but is being held back by politics and by the sexism of the times.

Also something weird happened with an earlier expedition: they were seeking the Garden of Eden and thought they found it, but suffered some kind of mysterious fate and never made it back. It seems that this candidate for Eden is probably the same place as Miyah, although Anne is unaware of this angle.

There is swashbuckling adventure.

Review: So it was kind of strange reading a comic book written by Barbara Hambly. All I had read by her up to now was prose, and I've become quite used to her prose style. Here are Hambly's virtues as an author, as I see them:
- she has a strong knowledge of, and sense of, history
- she has a facility for extensive and rich descriptions that aren't boring
- she has a sneaky, understated sense of humour
- she keeps the magical/fantastic elements of the story strictly under control
- she can write believable female and male characters (I don't say that this is a rare gift for an author, but it's certainly not a universal one)
- when it comes to the solutions to the plot-problems in her stories, she absolutely refuses to pull any rabbits out of any hats; the key to the plot is always an inevitable product of the setup, and always a surprise anyway

Now, this is only the first volume, so the last one of those isn't in play yet. Certainly the first one is there. The fourth one seems to be in effect. But in a comic book, she needs the help of the artist to get all the rest across, and her descriptive ability is out the window entirely. It's quite an odd experience. It's sort of like the skeleton of a Hambly novel with some new weird kind of flesh on it. Anyway, the question is, is the artist's work a satisfying substitute for Hambly's ability as a writer, and the answer is, I guess so.

The art is handled by Alex Kosakowski and Ron Randall, and basically they're pretty good. Quite a lot of the pages look really pretty and you always know where you are and who's who and all that. But it's not very kinetic. The panels look like a series of still lifes. It makes the book feel like a slower read, like you have to put more effort in to keep yourself moving through it. Same kind of thing people say about Barry Kitson, now that I think about it. Oh well. I like Kitson, and I like this, but I can imagine liking it better.

Anne is a reasonably typical Hambly heroine: bookish and more sensible than everyone around her, although Hambly doesn't usually give her protagonists this much all-around competence, physical prowess and taste for derring-do. The name "Steelyard" is interesting: it means "scale" and I believe it's supposed to connote the measuring of truth (as implied by its use in Neal Stephenson’s recent novel Anathem).

Hambly always does right by her female characters, but AS:TGoE:A1:AHM strikes me as a particularly feminist work, perhaps profoundly so. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to see how it’s superficially feminist; Anne’s basic struggle to live her life on her own terms is actually pretty standard. Makes a good read and all, but we’ve seen it before.

What’s not quite so standard is how this is echoed in the rest of the plot. Look how Anne is trying to achieve her goals, after all: she’s searching for this place which we’re pretty sure is the Garden of Eden. When she finds it she will gain some important knowledge that she can parlay into a research fellowship from some university, and then she’ll have enough money that she’ll be free to live and marry as she wishes, and not have to live in her father’s house.

Compare Anne to Eve. Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, and when she ate the fruit she gained important knowledge that eventually led to her freedom not to live in her father’s garden anymore. Which is kind of interesting, isn’t it? Because this casts Eden not as a paradise but as a prison, knowledge as the key to the door, and a woman as the ringleader of the escape committee.

(I’m trying to become a more perceptive reader. I didn’t pick up on this aspect of the story until after my third reading of it. You know what the trick was that lit it up for me? I thought about the title, The Garden of Emptiness. Titles help a lot. You ever want to know what a book or something is about, consider the title. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overlook.)

Eve has taken a lot of grief over the centuries, blamed as she was for the “downfall” of humanity, but I prefer the take on her in this book. Which view of humanity do you prefer: the one where we know things, can learn more of them, and are free to live in the world the best way we can manage, or the one where we’re happy innocents in a garden, free to do anything except eat from that tree, go outside, or think? Eve didn’t cause the downfall of humanity; she caused its birth.

It’s also worth noting the role that knowledge plays. Eve (okay, and Adam) can’t stay in the Garden once they’ve learned about good and evil. Anne is considered unfeminine because of all the things she knows, because she has a mind. (The character design sketches in the back of the book contrast Anne with Lady Hester’s servant Prawle, whose only line in the story seems to be, “Yes, Lady Hester,” repeated mechanically again and again.) Knowledge is the prime motivation for just about everyone in the book, knowledge and learning and information. Even such classic and powerful motivators as love and money are forced into secondary roles in the face of people’s need to know more. Seriously, when you read this comic, look for examples: they’re on almost every page.

I’m curious to see just what role Lady Hester (sister of the guy leading the ill-fated Eden expedition, now starting an expedition herself to go look for him) is going to play in this story. At first I thought she was just there for background, or something, but then I noticed that she was the one female character in the story who does have freedom. She’s as socially respectable as Anne is not (and also something of a Tartar, as they used to say), but there she is, traveling through Constantinople and Damascus however she likes without a word of criticism attaching to her. This is, I say, significant.

It goes without saying that I’m going to hunt up the second and third volumes of this series when they’re ready. I think I prefer prose-Hambly to comics-Hambly, but not by all that much. And there’s stuff going on in Anne Steelyard that I want to see how it gets resolved. Recommended.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Jim Davis said...

Matthew,

This sounds interesting. I can't seem to find a page count or ISBN, only a price ($14.95).

Can you provide a few more details?

Thanks!

5:18 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I will later; I don't have it with me at the moment.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Page count: 82, not counting front and back matter.

ISBN: 978-0-9719012-9-2.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Jim Davis said...

Thanks, Matthew. It looks like the only outlet for this online is the Penny-Farthing website. 82 pages for $14.95 looks like an acceptable bargain.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Just watch those shipping charges. It was going to cost me another twenty bucks to get it sent to Canada, so I had a local relative pick it up for me. Turns out they were going to send it to Canada in a *box*. There's gotta be a way around that.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Jim Davis said...

"Just watch those shipping charges."

I was charged $14.95 total; no separate shipping charge, but I live in the US.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Typical.

5:04 PM  

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