Thursday, January 5, 2017

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

Short review: Hazel and Klara seek a way out of prison, Alana and Marko seek their daughter, Upsher and Doff seek a story, and The Will seeks vengeance.

Trust in a teacher
Allies of convenience
Unexpected news

Full review: The sixth volume of Saga doesn't exactly pick up where the fifth volume left off, but instead jumps forward some years in time, with Hazel now grown into a school-age child while living with her grandmother in a Landfall prison for captured Wreathean civilians. The story contained in this book is chaotic, in large part due to the scattered and disorganized state the characters find themselves in. At the center of this chaos is Hazel, and this volume makes clear, in a way none of the previous ones really did, that the story of Saga is really Hazel's story.

Hazel has narrated the background from the start of the series apparently recounting the events from some future vantage point. Even when her character was an infant, Hazel provided the commentary on her parents' efforts to evade the forces of both Landfall and Wreath. This pattern continues in this volume, but the time jump from the previous volume to this one reveals just how focused upon Hazel the story truly is: All of the other characters enter into the narrative only when their stories are due to intersect with Hazel's. Alana and Marko have been trying to locate their lost daughter for years, but their story only becomes relevant when their efforts to recover her are imminent. The reporters Upsher and Doff have been working on a myriad of other stories, but they only become relevant when they start pursuing the story about Hazel's parent's again. The Will has been in a coma and revived by powerful magic, but the two individuals who worked hardest to revive him - Gwendolyn and Sophie - don't appear in this volume. What they are doing with their time is not particularly important, because it doesn't impact Hazel. And so on. Unless a character's life is going to intersect with Hazel's, it seems that it isn't important to the story of Saga.

The story in this volume follows four different threads, which shortly collapse into three, and eventually into just two. In one, Alana and Marko continue their joint effort to recover their child, who had been taken from them first by the Robot Dengo, and then later by the Last Revolution. In a second, Klara and Hazel find themselves in a Landfall prison used to house captured Wreathean noncombatants, remaining all the while on guard to prevent their captors from discovering Hazel's heritage. In a third, the journalists Upsher and Doff learn that the Brand has died, releasing them from her spell that prohibited them from pursuing the story of Marko, Alana, and Hazel that they had embarked upon so long ago. Finally, the Will, having been revived in the previous volume from his long medical coma, is out to avenge his dead sister the Brand, and goes off in pursuit of the missing Prince Robot IV, who now calls himself merely Sir Robot.

One notable element of the volume of interest is the fact that children drive almost all of the action in the story. Alana and Marko's story revolves around their quest to recover their missing child, and when they go to recruit the assistance of the former Prince Robot IV, it is the opinion of the errant Robot's son Squire that convinces him to join their efforts. In the women's prison in which Klara and Hazel have been interred, the action is driven by a decision made by Hazel to reveal a deadly secret to her teacher. Even the Will's story line is driven, in some part, by his encounter with Squire. Time and again, the plot is pushed forward by decisions made either by or related to the children in the story.

One minor weakness of this volume of Saga is that the sprawling nature of the ongoing story seems to be catching up with it. Even with two regular characters completely absent from the book, the story jumps back and forth at an almost frenetic pace, hopping from one plot thread to another, with some characters like Izabel getting only the most fleeting of cameos in this volume. Even so, the book introduces two new characters into the mix - Noreen, Hazel's school teacher in the women's internment facility, and Petrichor, a fellow prisoner who has her own secret that is potentially as hazardous as Hazel's secret is. In previous volumes, the growth of the cast of characters was generally solved by the high fatality rate which resulted in a rough balance between new characters arriving in the story and old characters exiting feet first.

On a side note, at one point in the volume Petrichor brings up how many of the Landfallians she had killed. This is the second time in the Saga series that a Landfallian has boasted of their combat prowess using the opposing body count as a measure of success. This seems eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam War era practice adopted by the United States of measuring "success" in the conflict by the number of enemy casualties. I suspect that this is intentional, as there doesn't seem to be any kind of strategic measure that could apply to the galaxy-spanning war at the heart of Saga, especially since the two primary antagonists - Wreath and Landfall - are effectively off-limits in the conflict. This, along with other Vietnam-influenced imagery, such as a scene in a previous volume where an entire skyscraper was leveled by orbital bombardment in order to suppress a single sniper, seems directed at impressing upon the reader the utter pointlessness of the war, and impress upon them the horrific uselessness the ongoing waste of lives represents.

All told, volume six of Saga is an excellent addition to the series. At this point in the story, the background is sufficiently well-established that Vaughn and Staples can get right to advancing the plot without the need for much expository background. As a result, this installment in the series is meaty, with lots of action moving the plot forward substantially all the way from the opening classroom in prison scene through to the final surprising revelation on the last page. In the end, this is yet another strong entry in the Saga story, building upon the material in previous volumes and leaving the reader looking forward to the next.

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

Potential 2017 Hugo Nominees

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