Graphic novels and literature for young adults has become increasingly popular among grown-ups, looking perhaps for a different perspective and reading experience. One only needs to see the popularity of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to know that these stories can reach a far wider audience that their intended age group. To this, I would like to add UK author S.F. Said’s new graphic novel, Phoenix. Said has previously written two books for younger children, Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, about a homeless cat on the streets of London. Though written with ages 9 -12 in mind, it has been one of my best reading experiences this year. A science fiction story with amazing and real characters, dramatic action, a fascinating mythology and incredible artwork by Dave McKean, I can’t recommend this enough to any readers either with children of said age in their life, or for themselves.
Set in the distant future, when humans have colonized in space and met up with another race, the Axxa, Lucky and his mother live on a world that is seemingly far from the war now raging between the humans and the Axxa. One night, Lucky has a dream that he is flying among the stars with incredible power; when he wakes, his bedclothes and sheets are scorched. His mother than grabs him and they flee from a danger that she won’t divulge. This is the beginning of an amazing and terrifying adventure for Lucky, who will learn about the war, the stars, the Axxa, and his only newly discovered powers.
Said manages to create the space setting, with its multiple planets technologies, pretty effortlessly. He doesn’t shy away from having complicated ideas, but is able to present them to his readers in such a way that is neither simplistic nor too abstract. Complex ideas and metaphors are not shied away from, but presented through Lucky’s eyes, in a mixture of the strange poetic language that children adopt and a harder core of technological understanding. There aren’t enough space adventures for the young, which is odd considering the popularity of science fiction film and television. Lucky and his companions travel from planets to spaceships, and the switched between the natural and artificial environments are easy for the young to grasp. The spaceship setting is particularly effective; it imagines a ship that is a combination of the Serenity from Firefly with perhaps some more sophisticated Star Trek-like technology. This kind of combination is easy for any sci-fi geek to understand and picture. In addition, the descriptions of the enemy spaceship, which cuts across the sky like a knife, is both awesome and terrifying. Indeed, it is good that Said is bold enough to know that sometimes, things can get scary, and young readers need that bit to understand to full complexity of the setting and story.
A good book really stands on two legs: its story and its characters. Thankfully, both of these intertwine with great strength. Essentially, this is a coming-of-age story about a young boy discovering his true nature and power, and how he will use that power. Lucky is confused, alone and frightened, and again, Said doesn’t shy away from expressing this pain in full. The characters surrounding him are mainly Axxa, at first seemingly the enemy, and their appearance seems to be modeled on a Christian idea of the devil, with strange horns and cloven feet. But they certainly aren’t two-dimensional. Some are warriors, some philosophers, some scholars. Said is able to present the physicality of the characters in such a way as to represent their personality, such as warrior Bixa with needles in her hair that respond to her mood. Letting these things and actions speak for the characters keeps the story humming along at a brisk yet manageable pace.
The narrative is not only enhanced by the wonderful illustrations by McKean (who has illustrated work by Richard Dawkins and Neil Gaiman among others), but these illustrations take a interpretive rather than direct approach to the material at hand. While they are black and white drawings, this is not to suggest that they are simple or child-like; quite the opposite. They are depictions of what is happening in the story when they appear, but they move like beautiful webs, much as the trail a ship or a body would leave if traveling through outer space. It uses the vastness and emptiness of space as a tool, filling this negative space with the movement of lines that enhance the vastness, and both the fear and joy that comes with being alone in it.
At nearly 500 pages, the book may seem daunting, but it’s the kind you can’t put down. Above all, Phoenix is about the universe and our place in it. Through the eyes not only of Lucky, but his companions, Said creates a beautiful and awesome mythology, which is served through the hero’s metaphysical coming-of-age journey. It does not hold back the fear and inevitable death that comes with war, nor does it exploit the accompanying violence or trauma. A remarkable adventure story for any age.