Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Review - Pretty Deadly, Vol. 2: The Bear by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Short review: The world is at war and the Reaper of War rides triumphant, but Deathface Ginny means to do something about that.

A reaper of grace
And reapers of war and fear
Reaper of courage

Full review: The second volume of the Pretty Deadly series, The Bear doesn't follow on directly after The Shrike, but instead picks up several decades after the events of the previous book, deep in the heart of the horrors of World War I. DeConnick's writing is still terse and pointed, Rios' artwork is still beautiful and hypnotic, and the story is still epic in scale and intensely personal in nature. In short, this is an excellent follow-up to an excellent opening act that serves to deepen the background and carry forward the overall narrative.

The most crucial difference between this volume and the previous one is that of tone. The Bear takes the mythic and at times ethereal nature of Pretty Deadly and grounds it quite firmly in our world. While The Shrike took place in a time no more distinct than "sometime when revolvers where the height of firearm technology, and in a location no more specific than "the Old West", The Bear quite explicitly takes place during World War I, and many of the events of the book are quite clearly located in France, in the trenches of the Western Front. This grounding givens the entire volume a different feel than the previous volume: Grittier, more visceral, and more tragic. By carrying the fairy-tale like atmosphere forward from the first volume, and weaving it together with the all too real horrors of the Great War, DeConnick and Rios have revealed the true terror behind the magical and almost airily surreal supernatural elements of the story. This contrast drives the book forward, and gives the book weight and strength that could not be achieved without this mixture.

Despite the years between the previous volume and this one, almost all of the characters from The Shrike return in The Bear, which isn't really all that surprising given that most of them are nigh-immortal servants of Death itself. Both the Bunny and the Butterfly are present in this volume, serving their roles as a framing device to help narrate the story. Deathface Ginny and Fox are back, as are Big Alice and Johnny Coyote. Sissy, the current incarnation of Death, and an elderly Sarah Fields, at the very end of her life both return in this volume as well. Sarah's impending death provides the impetus for the story, as Fox comes to reap her into Death's domain, while Sarah's daughter Verine demands a reprieve so that her brother Cyrus can return home to bid their mother farewell. This is complicated by the fact that Cyrus is away in France, fighting on the Western Front and making friends with Frenchmen and cavalry horses.

To a certain extent, the plot of The Bear is not the point of the story. Instead, the real meat of the book is in how it develops the mythology that underpins the world that DeConnick and Rios have created. In this volume, the nature of the reapers is made more clear - especially where they come from and why. In these pages, we not only see a clash between two reapers over the course of the First World War, we also see the birth of a new reaper born in the shadow of that conflict. Since this is Pretty Deadly, this birth is accompanied by death, as nothing can happen in this series that is not paired with death. One interesting element is that the line between life and death in Pretty Deadly is so indistinct: Characters slip from life into death without even knowing it, and without the reader even noticing until later, when the fact that these characters are no longer living is brought to one's attention. In a very real sense, death sneaks up on both the characters and the reader, wrapped up in pretty riddles and parables that cloak its real nature until it is too late.

The mythology of the book also revolves around the symbolic stories that it uses, and in this volume the most notable such story revolves around the characters of Johnny Coyote and Molly, the Reapers of Luck. Which reaper represents good luck and which is bad luck is not clear, and as Johnny Coyote points out, that's more or less the point. Their story is told using a folksy tale involving a Chinese farmer, a runaway horse, the farmer's son, and the Emperor's soldiers, with the repeated refrain "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" This piece of folklore is reflected in the path followed by Cyrus and his fellow soldiers, as they come across things that both hearten and dismay them, as they believe their fortunes have turned for the better, or turned for ill. The problem is that neither they, nor the reapers who circle around them invisibly, can know the ultimate meaning of these happenstances until they reach the end of their journey. In a related tale (which serves as the basis for the title of the volume), the bunny and the butterfly tell a story about a bear and a hive of bees, in which the hungry bear tries to get into the hive to eat the honey and larvae found within, but is driven off by the stings of the bees. The butterfly asserts that this is wonderful, which the bunny agrees with, provided one is a bee. Once again, the story highlights how whether something is good or bad depends entirely upon one's perspective - as the bunny says, "the needs of the bear are not the same as the needs of the bee". One might even say, what is good for death is not good for the living, and the needs of the reapers are not the same as the needs of their quarry.

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 2: The Bear is a maturation of the beautiful and affecting story begun in The Shrike. Taking the fable-driven story introduced in the first volume and melding it with the harsh reality of one of the most vicious and destructive events in real world history results in a final product that is both hauntingly stunning and horrifyingly brutal. This combination of the mundane and the supernatural makes the mythic elements seem more fairy-tale-like, but also roots them in a reality that grounds them at the same time, while it takes the bitter harshness of war and elevates it to the status of fable. With this volume, DeConnick and Rios have taken the strong story they launched with the first installment and raised it up to even greater heights of excellence.

Previous book in the series: Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

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