Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review - Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Short review: Nimona becomes Ballister Blackheart's sidekick and upsets all of the apple carts.

Mystery sidekick
Can shapeshift to anything
Full of joy and rage

Full review: Nimona is the story of Nimona, the cheerfully lethal shapeshifting sidekick to the villain Lord Ballister Blackheart who is opposed by the Institution for Law Enforcement and Heroics that is championed by Ambrosius Goldenloin. Set in a world that is an odd and delicious mixture of medieval fantasy and mad scientist style science fiction, the story is full of action and adventure, with plenty of twists and turns to keep things moving. Along the way, the story shows how the law and heroics are not always good, that heroes are not always admirable and villains are not always evil, and that having even almost unlimited power doesn't necessarily chase your inner demons away. Above all, the story shows what friendship is made out of, and how important it can be.

Nimona is a wild and unpredictable teen full of both boundless joy and barely contained rage who wears her emotions on her sleeve, but at the same time she is an enigma. She shows up on the first page of the book and inserts herself into Ballister's life as his sidekick, simply jumping into his service with no references and almost no explanation. Nimona turns out to be a shapeshifter of enormous power, able to change into pretty much anything, no matter its size, and even able to change herself into a form such that she can imitate specific people. Even her age is unclear: She appears and acts like a teen, but verious hints throughout the book suggest that she may be considerably older than she appears. The origin and extent of Nimona's powers is never fully explained, despite Ballister's intense curiosity on these subjects, leaving her as an unresolved mystery throughout the book.

Nimona's putative boss, Lord Ballister Blackheart, is an almost perfect counterpoint to the wild teen. Blackheart was originally a member of the Institute, and in the running to take the mantle as champion of the organization until an incident cost him an arm. In response, the Institute threw Blackheart out and turned him into its adversary. Although nominally a villain, he is only a reluctant one, and acts in accord with certain rules in his activities. For example, when given the opportunity to take revenge upon his nemesis Ambrosius Goldenloin by cutting off Ambrosius' arm, Blackheart declines.Needless cruelty is simply not in Blackheart's character. In contrast, Nimona is an almost elemental force of raw chaos, ignoring almost all rules and restrictions with a gleeful abandon. In their first caper together, Nimona kills some of the Institute's soldiers who try to capture them, an action that greatly distresses Blackheart. This tension runs through the entire story, with Nimona pushing the boundaries while Blackheart tries to restrain her frenzied abandon.

Against this backdrop, Blackheart's conflict with the Institute seems secondary for most of the book. In fact, at the beginning of the story, it almost seems like Blackheart and the Institute are working together in a strange way. Blackheart follows a certain set of rules in conducting his villainy, while in turn, the Institute seems to observe certain formalities when opposing him. This tacit understanding seems to serve the Institute's purposes, as evidenced by the fact that when, at one point in the story, Nimona expresses confidence that Blackheart will come up with a cunning plan and prevail, he replies that he has a track record comprised mostly of failure. As Blackheart experiences almost nothing but success following Nimona's arrival in his employ, Blackheart's admission seems to indicate that prior to Nimona's arrival, both the Institute and Blackheart were involved in a mutual dance in which Blackheart consistently lost, but the Institute treated him with kid gloves. This situation, in which the Institute had a congenial adversary that they could blame misfortunes upon and distract attention from their own activities, seems to have worked entirely to the Institute's benefit. It is by upsetting this implied balance that Nimona's impact is most noticeable, and in which she demonstrates herself to be a true agent of chaos.

Nimona's arrival on the scene sparks a cycle of escalation in the conflict between Blackheart and the Institute that spirals out of control, driven mostly by Nimona's desire to actually win the confrontations Blackheart's schemes create, and the Institute's often vicious responses. While the increasing level of violence is disturbing at times, it is only when spurred on by Nimona that Blackheart actually accomplishes anything, and without this push to move Blackheart out of his comfortable symbiosis with the Institute, it is likely that the various underhanded plots that come to light would have been found. Despite the fact that the conflict is ostensibly between Blackheart and Goldenloin and the Institute, Nimona is the catalyst that sets everything in the book in motion, placing her at the heart of the entire story. This is something of a radical act: Placing a female teenaged character who is supposedly a sidekick at the center of the story. This seems even more radical when one considers that there is no reason for Nimona to appear as either a teenager or a girl - as a shapeshifter she can appear as absolutely anything she desires, even taking on the appearance of Blackheart at one point. Nimona is a teenage girl because she wants to be a teenage girl.

The relationship between Nimona and Blackheart is more than merely that of villain and sidekick. As the narrative develops, so does the relationship between the pair, with Blackheart progressing from a reluctant mentor to a caring friend, and eventually displaying a fatherly affection for his young companion. It is the relationships the Blackheart and Nimona have with other characters that really highlights the relationship between the two. Both Blackheart and Nimona have been pushed to the position of villain as a result of factors beyond their control, but each has reacted in a different manner. Blackheart has a complex relationship with others in the story, most notably Ambrosius Goldenloin, who Blackheart blames for the disfigurement that led to Blackheart being forced into the role of villain. But Ballister isn't really seeking revenge, or even justice, but rather acknowledgement. He is estranged from others, but doesn't necessarily want to harm them. Nimona, on the other hand, has an incredibly simple relationship with most people other than Blackheart: She either simply doesn't care about them, or actively hopes for their demise. Hidden within her cheerful exterior, it seems that Nimona isn't merely bent on revenge, she wants the entire world to suffer as she has. The differences in how Blackheart and Nimona view others informed their relationship, as Ballister seeks some form of rapprochement, while Nimona decidedly does not, a difference that leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Nimona is, like its titular character, joyful, angry, violent, and tragic. Wrapped in relatively simple but effective artwork is a finely crafted story told with a perfectly balanced mixture of wry humor, lovely emotional relationships, silly superscience and fantasy, and barely suppressed (and at times, completely unsuppressed) rage. Blackheart is cunning and honorable, Ambrosius is clueless and noble, and Nimona is wounded, innocent, and terrifying. Stevenson takes these characters, plus the others contained in the story, and weaves their tales together to create a narrative whole that is at times jubilant, at times brutal, at times melancholy, and at times harrowing, but at all times, brilliant.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2016 Nebula Award Nominees

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  1. So glad I have a copy of this on my TBR shelf. It will be one I have to read soon!

    1. @fredamans: I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!

  2. I had no idea this was a graphic novel! I thought this was a book. I am putting this on hold at the library now.