Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

Short review: What was intended to be a brief refueling stop on Phang turns to tragedy for Marko and Alana as well as the remaining population of the comet.

After a fuel leak
Landing on a battleground
As empires collude

Full review: Seven volumes into its story, and Saga just seems to be getting better. Perhaps it is because the characters are so well-established by now that their hopes and dreams carry more weight and their tragedies and losses seem more poignant. Perhaps it is because the story has backed both the heroes and the villains into a corner from which there seems to be no escape and yet they carry on, No matter the reason for the continued improvement of the series, this volume packs an emotional punch that is almost heartless in how devastating it is, and yet feels completely necessary to the story. In short, Saga is a brutal series, and this volume is the most brutal of all of the installments in it.

This volume picks up shortly after Volume Six left off, with some unhappy people sharing the tree-ship that serves as Alana, Marko, and Hazel's home. The former Prince Robot (now merely Sir Robot) wallows in self-pity and, to a certain extent, self-hatred following his exile from his people and later separation from his son. This self-loathing has turned to sexual frustration, with an unhealthy focus on Alana. On the other side of the ship, Petrichor spends her time grumbling about the work she is doing for her "new wardens" to make clothes for Hazel and her impending younger sibling. When Izabel suggests Petrichor could make maternity clothes for Alana, Petrichor nearly erupts in anger, angrily condemning both Alana and Sir Robot. The former prisoner of war might swallow her anger sufficiently to allow her to share a ship with those from the "other side", but she isn't going to be happy about it. Even when they are all on the run from the two most powerful empires in the galaxy, the animosity engendered by the interstellar war that surrounds them is still all but all-consuming.

After the stage is set with these preliminaries, the story gets into full swing when it is discovered that one of the fuel lines in the ship had a leak and they are running on fumes necessitating an emergency landing on the contested comet of Phang, which coincidentally happens to be the refugee child Sophia's original home world (Sophia, one might recall, is the child sex slave that the Will saved and who has since taken up following Marko's former fiancée Gwendolyn around). The primary resource that Prang has is fuel, which is exactly what Alana and Marko need, and also what keeps Wreath and Landfall fighting over the place, as much to deny the place to the other as to claim it for themselves. Phang was already riven with internal sectarian conflict, but when the two great powers jumped in, the conflict became world shattering, transforming the entire populace into either combatants or refugees. One of the subtexts of the entire Saga series is that Landfall and Wreath have long since forgotten their original bones of contention and at the point the story takes place, are merely fighting for the sake of fighting. The story on Prang is quite possibly the starkest and rawest example of this fact.

Intending to stop for just a few hours to plant their tree for a bit and refuel, Alana and Marko instead meet up with a band of adorable looking little religious zealots who also happen to be pitiful refugees. When Hazel is taken by one named Kurti, they agree to help feed the wayward family despite Petrichor's objections, and then let them take up residence in the tree ship. Although not directly stated, it is heavily implied that taking in this added group has strained their resources, and as a result the refueling takes six months, and even then is not complete. This is described by Hazel as one of the happiest times she ever had with her family, but her earlier statement that few adventures ended worse than this one hangs like a looming threat over the domestic tranquility. Events overtake the more or less happy commune, and before too long the war begins to knock on their doorstep.

The action cuts away a few times to focus on the Will, Sophie, Gwendolyn, and Lying Cat, catching the reader up with what is going on in their stories. Sophie, having grown up, seeks to apprentice with a freelancer like the Will and possibly gain vengeance against Marko on Gwendolyn's behalf. Gwendolyn, for her part, has gotten married, entered the Wreath bureaucracy and set about trying to climb the hierarchy while engaging in some illicit collaboration with her nation's enemy. The Will, on the other hand, is still wallowing in drug addled self-pity, and loses his membership in the freelancers union. While Gwendolyn's story in this volume turns out to matter to the events taking place on Phang, and Sophia still seems both adorable and terrifying, the Will's story and everything else about him has just become tired and dull. At this point, I simply don't care what happens to the Will (or, as he is now called since he lost his membership in the freelancer's union, Billy). He has become such a sad sack character that he makes every scene he is in seem completely pointless.

Before too long, the tragedies on Phang start hitting fast and furious as a freelancer named the March comes to try to collect the bounty on Marko and causes an unexpected and somewhat shocking casualty in the process. Sir Robot's sexual obsessions come to a head at exactly the wrong moment when he decides to experiment with a secret stash of drugs he had hidden away, while Petrichor figures out what the forces of Landfall and Wreath are up to and pushes for everyone to get off Phang before it is too late - mostly to save her own skin, because Petrichor is nothing if not self-interested, but saving everyone else is a side-effect that she is willing to live with. In a twist Jabarah and the rest of the family that Alana and Marko had taken in elect not to leave the doomed comet, asserting that their faith in the Lord will protect them from any harm - leaving with the tragically prophetic suggestion that a good name for the child Alana is carrying would be Kurti. Waiting and trying to convince the misguided zealots to leave results in a rushed take off just in time to avoid disaster, and causes another tragedy that is small, personal, and devastating. One of the brilliant pieces of writing in the book is to take a moment in which the entire population of a world is being snuffed out, and reduce the deaths to two small and helpless people and blank black empty pages. The ending of this volume is among the most heart-breaking resolutions one could imagine. Even the fact that one tragedy is piled on top of another, which would normally seem almost cloyingly desperate, only enhances the darkness and despair conveyed by this turn of events.

On the one hand, Volume Seven of Saga is a very small-scale story, telling a tale of personal conflicts, and human scale tragedies. Our heroes suffer not one, but two terrible losses, and revelations come out that will strain the already tense living arrangements of the tree ship. On the other hand, Volume Seven is a story that is told on a sweeping scale and involves the politics of two interstellar nations and the fate of an entire world. Telling the story on both the personal and the epic level has been an element of Saga almost from the beginning of the series, but the two have not crashed into one another in such a savage way before. At the same time, one of the underlying questions running through the series has been "is there any way to end the calamitous war between Landfall and Wreath", and this volume offers the small glimmer of hope that there might be, although the spark will probably be the reaction to the events of this book rather than the odd collaboration that is seen taking place in it. In the end, this is one of the most heart-rending volumes of a series that was already heart-rending, but at the same time, the harsh and callous nature of the story feels both necessary and almost satisfying.

Previous book in the series: Saga, Volume Six

2018 Hugo Award Finalists

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