Tuesday, December 1, 2015

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

Short review: Alana and Klara are still prisoners of a vengeful robot, Marko and Prince Robot IV are still hot on their trail, and Gwendolyn and Sophie go dragon hunting. Pretty soon people start dying and everything just gets worse.

A robot needs help
The Last Revolution
Is not who to call

Full review: In Volume Four of Saga, the story of Alana and Marko became fractured as their relationship splintered apart under the stress of living on the run. Their romantic whirlwind courtship turned into a crushing obligation as the realities of raising a child while the entire universe turned against you began to truly sink in. In the other story line, the futility of trying to heal The Brand was made clear to Gwendolyn and Sophie, their desire to help their friend crushed by the extreme nature of his injuries. One would think that in Volume Five, the fact that Marko and Alana fight across the depths of space against almost impossible odds to reunite and with the help of The Brand a cure is found for The Will, this would result in a brighter, happier story. One would be wrong.

The opening pages of Volume Five of Saga serve to bring the reader up to speed on the ongoing conflict, providing an outline of how the war between Wreath and Landfall consumed both world and moon, and then moved on as each side outsourced their conflict to others, and eventually set the dispute on autopilot, to consume and destroy other worlds. The stage set, we move to see Alana and Klara chafing at their imprisonment by the Robot Dengo, who had previously kidnapped the heir to the throne of the Robot Empire and Hazel in an attempt to gain revenge for the death of his own son. Next the story brings the reader up to speed on what The Brand, Gwendolyn, and Sophie are up to, showing them hunting dragons in an attempt to acquire the needed ingredient to work the enchantment to cure The Will. And finally the story moves to the strained alliance between Prince Robot IV and Marko, along with their somewhat less than happy crew mates Ghüs and Yuma as they try to track down their kidnapped family members.

The volume proceeds along these three broad strokes: One story line following Alana and Klara as they deals with her captivity by Dengo, the second following Gwendolyn, Sophie, and the Brand on their dragon hunt, and the third following Marko and Prince Robot IV as they pursue Dengo in an attempt to recover their loved ones. In a somewhat interesting twist, the three stories present a study in contrasts, as the putative "villains" attempting to revive the contract killer The Will behave in generally honorable and upstanding manner, while the other groups prove to be somewhat less admirable, notably Prince Robot IV and Marko, who spend much of their journey together at each other's throats, and in Marko's case, seem prone to fits of rage and a little bit of experimentation with drugs. Although hinted at in earlier volumes, Marko's true affinity for making war has never been made as clear as it is in this one, prompting Ghüs to tell Prince Robot IV that the prince doesn't scare him, but he's terrified of Marko.

Alana and Marko spend much of this volume involuntarily separated from one another, after having spent much of Volume Four more or less emotionally distant from one another, and it soon becomes clear that neither of them do well on their own. Even though their marriage may have been impetuous and foolish, they seem to rely on one another to deal with their shared experience of war. What has become painfully apparent by this point in the series is that both Alana and Marko are haunted by their experiences in the war, and are slowly being destroyed by the pressure of being hunted by the two most powerful nations in the galaxy. Marko's struggles to deal with this larger concern are compounded by his feelings of inadequacy, blaming himself for losing his family, even blaming himself for violent actions he took as a small child. His response, paradoxical as it may seem, is to lash out violently, brutally intervening in the middle of an attempted convenience story robbery. Of course, as violent as Marko is, Prince Robot IV desires to take things to an even more lethal level. Marko also dabbles in drug use, which seems somewhat ironic since his primary criticism of Alana from the previous volume was her addiction to drugs. Being lonely, desperate, and depressed, it seems, can cause someone to take actions they might otherwise never have contemplated. Marko's drug-induced hallucinations show the stark reality of why he chose to give up war: He was simply too frighteningly good at it, and that truth scared him to the core.

Alana, on the other hand, spends much of this novel dealing directly with the problem of being Dengo's captive, and also trying to handle Klara as a disapproving mother-in-law. Dengo compounds Alana's problems by calling in the "Last Revolution", a band of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on who you ask) who are dedicated to stopping the war between Wreath and Landfall. In some ways, this group is the ideological opposite of Oswald Heist, and to a lesser extent the putatively pacificistic Marko and Alana, seeking to stop the violence of the war by unleashing even more violence, although their is apparently primarily targeted at civilians (a distinction that doesn't seem to matter much given how careless the primary combatants have been shown to be with regard to collateral damage). This eclectic collection of aliens appears to be at least figuratively the ultimate expression of rage at the futility and pointlessness of the war. The only trouble is that their rage is almost entirely destructive, seemingly quite short-sighted, and, as Dengo discovers when their deal making goes bad, unpredictable.

Woven throughout these dark and depressing plot lines is the tale of Gwendolyn, Sophia, and The Brand as they go on a dragon hunt. This part of the story seems almost light-hearted in comparison, even though it involves getting peed on by giant lizards, and eventually finding an enormous creature with an over sized phallus. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when one of the trio sacrifices their own life to save another, a theme that ties all three of the stories together. In each plot thread on character engages in a heroic act of self-sacrifice to save others. One might think that in a story about war and the rage that goes along with it, there would be some thematic unity among those who, instead of killing, choose to sacrifice themselves so others can live. However, as with so many elements of Saga, the story offers no easy answers. Those who sacrifice themselves are widely varied characters, and do so for widely varied reasons. One sacrifices herself out of guilt. Another to save a loved one. A third does so almost reflexively and without thinking about it. On the one hand, it seems that those who would sacrifice themselves for others are marginally better people than many of the others in the story, especially those who are the quickest to resort to murder, but on the other hand, most of the characters in this particular segment of the story are fairly awful people.

In the end, the story ends on what might almost be considered to be a worse note than the previous volume did, and that seems like quite a morbid accomplishment. Marko and Alana are reunited, but Hazel winds up in the hands of capricious terrorists. Prince Robot IV finds his son, but may not have any home to return to with him. The Brand is healed, but when he learns the price that was paid to accomplish that it seems to drive an unbridgeable wedge between him and his companions who fought so hard for his recovery. And these are the best outcomes for any character in the volume - many of the others wind up either dead or with their plans irretrievably broken. In one small element of hope, Marko and Alana not only find one another again, but after drifting in pain for the last two volumes, they also seem to find their moral center as well. In a slightly more ominous turn, The Stalk's brother shows up and presents a gift to Gwendolyn intended to help her hunt down the deceased freelancer's killer. At this point in Saga, small victories seem precious.

Volume Five of Saga continues the story, delving yet deeper into the characters of Marko and Alana, as well as many of the supporting cast. Unlike most of the previous volumes, this one doesn't introduce very many characters that survive past its pages, and it wraps up several ongoing story lines. As happened at the end of Volume Three, this book seems like it signals a slight pause in the story, even though there are several points that are decidedly unsettled. Plot lines that were set up in previous volumes pay off, and everyone comes to a brief resting point before heading off into the maelstrom of their lives again. But it is an uneasy rest, with lives still torn apart, and terrible wounds and losses to recover from. At this point, Saga is cold and cruel, tearing into the reader at almost every turn, but still compelling and with a core of beauty that makes all of the heartbreak worthwhile.

Previous book in the series: Saga, Volume Four
Subsequent book in the series: Saga, Volume Six

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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