Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review - Saga, Volume Four by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Short review: Marko and Alanna settle into domestic life, but the stresses of trying to be a normal couple while remaining hidden threaten to tear them apart.

A domestic life
Hiding from all in plain sight
But so unhappy

Full Review: Saga, Volume Four marks something of a departure for the series. While the first three installments were connected quite closely to one another, all taking place in a short period of time following Hazel's birth, this volume is set apart from the previous ones, taking place after Hazel has become a toddler. Thematically this volume is different from its predecessors as well, with Alanna and Marko's desperate flight to escape their pursuers replaced with their struggles to try to live a domestic life and raise their daughter while in hiding.

To a certain extent, Volume Four feels like the actual beginning of the story of Saga, giving the sense that everything that happened in the previous books was merely a prologue. The three prior volumes spent much of their time doing the heavy lifting of world-building and character back story, giving the reader the lay of the land while telling a fairly straightforward tale of two star-crossed lovers struggling to make their way in a world where almost every hand was turned against them. This installment, on the other hand, uses the foundations laid by the earlier sections of the story to focus much more directly on the relationship between Alanna and Marko without worrying so much about the development of the larger context in which that relationship takes place.

As the story opens up, we find that Marko and Alanna have settled into what seems like a comfortable domesticity on the neutral planet Gardenia, with Alanna working as an actress on "the circuit" and Marko taking care of Hazel as a stay-at-home father. But it soon becomes apparent that this domestic tranquility isn't quite as nice as it seemed to be at first glance: Alanna struggles under the pressures of her job, and eventually turns to drug-use to cope, while Marko chafes at the isolation of being a recognizable criminal on the run with no real adult companionship and finds himself on the brink of an affair with a friendly local woman. As the story moves on, these two unhappy trains steam towards one another in a headlong rush, eventually colliding in an argument that threatens to break the couple apart. Dealing with everyday stress damages Alanna and Marko's relationship in a way that being hunted by two warring superpowers never could. The impetuous, and almost foolhardy infatuation that fueled the pair has been drained away by the years, and the two are left trying to make a solid relationship out of what seems to have begun almost on a whim.

Even though the focus in this volume is on Marko and Alanna, the world around them doesn't stand still while their relationship falls apart - even as they struggle to hold their crumbling relationship together, events proceed elsewhere that will have substantial consequences for the pair. Probably the most significant developing in this volume is the fleshing out of the Robot Empire, which turns out to be a place that is substantially less happy than one might have previously believed. While Prince Robot IV wallows in self-pity in a whorehouse, a commoner named Dengo takes brutal action against the royal family as revenge for the unjust death of his own son. This spurs Prince Robot IV out of his torpor, but as the Prince's story progresses one finds out that the brutality of the Robot Kingdom doesn't only affect the oppressed commoners, but seems to be a pervasive fact of life for the entire nation. After some twists and turns that include a rather predictable betrayal, this story line crashes into Marko and Alanna's life, disrupting the domestic arguments with something more overtly threatening, and spurring some unusual choices that seem to jar Marko out of his sullen moping.

In a way, Dengo is the mirror image of J. Oswalt Heist. When Heist's child was killed as a result of the conflict between Landfall and Wreath, his reaction was to write a novel that served as a thinly veiled plea for peace. When Dengo's child died as a result of the class divisions and neglect of the welfare of the commoners endemic to the Robot Empire, his reaction is to go on a murderous rampage seeking revenge and a form of twisted justice. Part of what makes Saga such a brilliant story is how it takes an issue such as the loss of a child and then gives the reader a view into the myriad of responses that might ensue, playing out the consequences of these decisions out for all to see. Vaughan could have constructed a simpler story that showed one possible reaction to a situation, but instead he seems to have taken to showing how many different ways individuals can react, creating a multi-layered work that examines the same idea from multiple sides.

Despite the fact that The Will, Gwendolyn, Sophie, and Lying Cat have been relegated to a fairly minor story line in this volume, they do show up, although The Will doesn't really do very much as he is still in the coma he was in at the end of Saga, Volume Three. This means that The Will has been in a coma for several years while Gwen and Sophie have been searching for a way to heal him. This leads them deep into the recesses of a patent vault and eventually into an alliance with The Brand. This part of the story is told in an almost perfunctory manner, and is clearly merely the set-up for more to come. There is also a small, but somewhat ominous  cameo by Upsher and Doff, which is almost certainly a foreshadowing of things to come in future volumes.

In many ways, Volume Four brings the galaxy-wide war that has served as a backdrop for Saga down to a human level. While most people cannot relate to being on the run from two star-spanning factions bent on killing them and kidnapping their child, almost everyone can relate to the stress of holding a job you don't particularly lie and which you are not particularly good at, or the loneliness of having a spouse who has become emotionally distant. Saga, Volume 4 also highlights how large effects can have small causes - such as the indifferent neglect of its populace which seems to be changing the course of an entire nation. But more importantly this volume highlights the intensely personal nature of the conflict by showing the personal cost those who are swept up in it must pay. At the same time, this volume shows that even when one is in a story sweeping enough to bear the title Saga, that the pressures of everyday life are just as weighty as those caused by events of an epic nature.

Previous book in the series: Saga, Volume Three
Subsequent book in the series: Saga, Volume Five

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