Artesia by Mark Smylie
Artesia, named after the main character is the creation of Mark Smylie. Before writing Artesia he was mostly known for interior art work on a number of RPG source books (two of which Faith and Pantheons and the Complete Warrior I think I have knocking around somewhere in the depths of the library). Arteisa's first issue was printed in 1999 by Sirius Entertainment, Smylie would later found his own publishing company which would mainly publish Artesia related stories (although other independent comics would be published by the company, Archaia Studios Press). Mr. Smylie is still releasing works set in the world of Artesia most recently a novel that I hope to have appearing in this review series once I get through all the graphic novels. This graphic novel debuted with a pretty big splash winning a fairly long list of awards, such as Foreword Magazine's Gold Award Winner for Best Graphic Novel of 2003, Broken Frontier 2004 Paper Screen Gem for Fantasy and more. So let's sit down and take a look at this shall we? The graphic novel comes with a great appendix that made interesting reading but I'm going to stick with what was actually presented in the story.
Artesia is a fantasy graphic novel that takes place in a solid and lushly detailed world. Background details about the cultures and peoples of the world abound and it is a fascinating one. Although I could do without the Christianity expy (Why does everyone turn us into Sun worshipers? Why!?!) bit. We have the native goddess of the highlands, which feel like an actual pagan religion! Alot of fantasy novels, don't do this, at best they repackage 21st century Wicca (to those who are Wiccans I mean no offense but 21st century Wicca is not the paganism of the dark ages or the ancient world) at worse, it's liberal Catholicism with polytheism layered on top. In Artesia, the religion is wild, raw and has the kind of edge that people living in a very untamed and violent world would demand. It is very much part of the world as well. We see through the main character's eyes spirits coming to take the souls of the dead. We see goddesses roaming the earth without much care for mortals. We see animal sacrifice and other rituals that were actually part of ancient pagan religions. I really like how Mr. Smylie made it feel like a religion that could have been practiced by our ancestors. Although I was rolling my eyes at the religious conflict that is touched upon in this novel. We have one side a goddess worshiping religion where there seem to be few if any male deities (this is despite men occupying the majority of the important political and military roles but I'll let it slide). On the other side we have a male dominated sun worshiping cult that worships male deities and seems to loathe the idea of powerful women. It's honestly a kinda lazy division that I hope Mr. Smylie fixes in later books. That said the work put in the main religion displayed in the book is amazing. As is the character's reaction, which feel more elder days then modern. Gods and goddesses aren't just revered but also feared. There's one interaction where our main character trembles in the presence of a goddess and can't bring herself to even look upon her. I liked that, that the divine wasn't turn into a drinking buddy but was presented as an awesome, powerful and while a begneinbenign force, also an incredibly dangerous one.
The politics are not deeply delved into but are fairly believable and competently handled. We have the highlands, a land divided into a series of pocket kingdoms that are always feuding with each other for land, power, glory, who looks prettier in the latest fashion, etc. The kings rule from grim stone citadels and send out companies of men with pikes and halberds led by mounted officers to duke it out. They are loosely allied with a confederation called the Midlands and beyond them is an Empire. The Empire is a dangerous foreign enemy who is believed to want to conquer the world. They're also the home of the sun worshipers. Interestingly enough they are given an Arabic spin, with rulers being called Sultans and Emirs (their Emperor is immortal but somehow unable to rule, as one character puts “lost in the gray dream”). Giving them a Christian, Arabic feel that I kinda like if simply because it's different. When the characters discuss this, there is a sense of history, a weight of many prior events shaping their views and relationships with these foreign powers. There isn't a lot of time spent on this as the focus is on events taking place in the highlands, where our main character faces a number of problems. Let's talk about her for bit.
Her name is Artesia, she's a warrior, a priestess (possibly a witch) and a concubine for a man named Branimar. She's also very nice to look at, but side issue. Neither she nor Branimar are from the highlands but through the dint of their personal talents and skills have risen to high offices. Artesia seems to have done most of Branimar's fighting and the very beginning of the book shows us why as we see a short battle where Artesia proves herself to be a very skilled two legged murder machine. We're shown a lot of her individual skill of combat in the book and the loyalty her company has for her. Although I'm not entirely sure if the basis for their loyalty is anything besides her sheer badassness. While several characters make a big point at her tactical skills, that's not really shown here (maybe in Vol II?). Her skill in magic is shown however, as is her command over 3 rather alarming familiar spirits who show a connections to the goddesses of war. There are number of conflicts swirling around Artesia, first is her conflict with Branimar, they don't have a close relationship and fall out with each other in the first chapter (he converts to the Sun worshiping religion). Another conflict is one she seems to have with other women who don't approve of her choice of taking up arms and a military career. She is berated for abandoning a woman's arts and magic (if she's abandoned any magic I'm not seeing any sign of it), to which she'll reply she's abandoned nothing but decided to follow her own path.
Which leads to another conflict, which is with the memory of her mother. From what the graphic novel tells us, her mother was also a woman with a lot of magic power who was burned at the stake as a witch. Artesia repeatedly states that she knows that her mother would be disappointed in her path and that does seem to wear on her, not a lot but a little. Artesia is shown in this book to be a very intelligent, brave, headstrong woman, who from what I can tell is carrying a grudge or five. Considering that the grudge might be about having to watch her mother die a terrible death and having to run for life to the highlands... That's probably pretty good grounds for a grudge or five. An interesting note here, Artesia doesn't seem to be able to have close friendships with men, all of her close friendships are with women and she seems distant even with her own brother. Let me be clear she doesn't hate men and has perfectly good working relationships with her male Lt's. She is even attracted to men. She just doesn't seem to consider having a friendship with a man to be something that is worth the effort. It's an interesting reflection of a number of male protagonists who have in the past displayed the same attitude but towards women. I've known people of both genders with this stance in real life and all I can say is while everyone should be free to decide such matters for themselves... If you decide you can't be friends with an entire gender you're cutting yourself from really good people, no matter which gender it is.
I can't talk to much about secondary characters in this graphic novel. The antagonists go down fairly quickly so we don't get much of a sense of them, most of the male Lt's all blur together for me and outside of that, no one else gets a lot of time to display any real deep characterization. This book is relentlessly focused on Artesia. She's a pretty decent character to focus on all things considered. I'm hoping in the next 3 volumes to see other characters expanded on honestly.
As for the art, it is damn pretty! The battle scenes are so nice you might want to hang them on your walls. The characters are well drawn and inked. I was very impressed. I liked the equipment the troops showed which was clearly based on late medieval/early renaissance period arms and armor. Most of the women in this book wore armor that wasn't any different from the men! Artesia's armor is... Okay. Her torso is fully covered by her armor as are her arms but her armpits are very exposed. I got the feeling that Mr. Smylie didn't know that people didn't wear armor over bare skin (because it's very clear Artesia is) which frankly means after a battle she should be chaffing so badly that she needs medical attention. Her upper legs are also very exposed. It's restrained compared to the standard Red Sonya get up and sexy in it's own right, but if I was in charge of her gear I would shake my head and send her back to the armory to get some padding and upper leg protection but I'm honestly quibbling there. There is also a lot of smut in this book. Do not get this for a child! It's equal opportunity smut with both male and female nudity but it's still smut. In this case it's a little embarrassing for me as I am not trying to review only smutty graphic novels (this isn't a porn by any means but between this and Rat Queens...) thankfully for my birthday I've picked up something to break that streak.
Artesia get's an A-. A well crafted main character and world along with it's art carry this story pretty far. Hopefully future installments will give us additional characters and deeper looks into the world itself.
Next week, our first light novel. Which light novel? Well let me ask, are you ready for the punchline?