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Fleen Book Corner: Queen Of The Sea

I almost had a nit to pick with Queen Of The Sea Dylan Meconis’s gorgeous, immersive, engaging, and absorbing alternate history of the disputed succession of the British crown. It’s not the history we know, it’s a different history with the lands of Albion, Gallia, and Ecossia standing in for England, France, and Scotland. King Edmund reigns in Albion rather than Fat Henry; his daughters from various wives include Catherine and the fire-haired Eleanor (taking the place of Mary and Elizabeth), and the order of nuns¹ that make a large portion of the cast all worship the Mournful Mother and the Sorrowful Son.

Everything is just a little bit off, but so little that if you came to the book not knowing much about the tail end of the Wars of the Roses, and figured that for some reason some Latinish names were used for countries, you might not realize it’s a different history at all. The economics of an isolated abbey on an infrequently-visited island, the politics of serving and betraying noble families, the mechanisms of exile, the remnants of pagan culture to be discovered, the modes of dress, they all read mostly familiar and just a little different. It’s our history, plus or minus a few key differences at a few branches of history’s tree.

A metaphor may help you place the degree of familiarity and oddness that we’re talking about, one that I think Meconis would appreciate — this is the 16th Century by way of a Trekian Mirror Universe². Not the one that we keep seeing in the various iterations of Star Trek where good is evil and everybody has the same name with a reversed personality; it’s more of an angled mirror, one that’s a random 17.6° off from our reality instead of 180.

And that is why I decided that I don’t have a nit to pick over the first few pages of the book, where we see a put-upon and about to be captured Queen Eleanor, flanked by a pair of rather majestic greyhounds.

You see, they’re actually grey, uniformly grey, from tip to tail, and in our reality greyhounds very rarely come in that color³, and those few that do are nearly always sporting a tuxedo pattern of white on their chests. But in that world that’s 17.6° off from ours, let us allow that the grey in greyhound actually refers to the color, rather than having an unknown origin as it does here.

I mention it because it was literally the only thing in the book that I didn’t absolutely love with all my heart from the very beginning.

Young Margaret, our POV character, takes us through her life on an isolated island and the ten other people that live there, the socio-political state of her world, the foundation of the dominant religion, and the rhythms of her life in a natural, conversational tone over two dozen pages. The plot kicks in when two more come to the island to stay, and she discovers that the simple truths we absorb in childhood have layers of hidden truth behind them. As she grows (and grows more inquisitive), she finds that answers to earlier questions and personal biographies change, the world becomes more complex, and that the heroes and villains she’s heard about are both more nuanced — and closer — than she’d dreamed.

And so her story goes, learning to navigate the priorities and plottings and conspirations of people who range from utterly dismissive of her existence to desperately willing to exploit her. Her personal experience is no different from any other pre-teen girl, one that’s still got a sense of adventure and inquisitiveness, that hasn’t yet been pulled fully into the allowed gender roles of her time. She’s naive — or maybe merely uninformed, not having grown up among intrigues — but not stupid. She knows when things appear right and when they appear wrong, and she feels the sting of injustice as keenly as any child whose temper flares in a That’s not fair! reaction. She may not appreciate the weighty nature of all that’s landed on her little home island, but she’s willing to kick back at the cruel and manipulative to the best of her ability.

The lack of chapter breaks in Queen Of The Sea may have been for practical reasons (the book is exactly 400 pages long, plus endpapers), but it makes the experience of reading reflect Margaret’s perception of time. A child of just about ten years, she lives life in a continual flow, one thing leading to another, aware of the larger passing of days, but not really saying and then this ended and having it be a true break before the next thing begins. It also makes it almost imperative to read the book in one sitting.

Be sure to set aside enough time for that sitting, though — the art throughout is gorgeous, subtle, each page a watercolor (some decorated by embroidery), done in a color palette inspired by the cloudy skies and choppy seas around a little spit of an island housing a rather subdued order of nuns. Each face is lovingly lived-in, each life revealed by posture and expression as much as word and deed. Every drape and fold of clothing reveals the effects of both gravity and a cycle of wear and repair. Eyes and brows speak volumes, and the noses….

Ah, the noses. Who pays attention to noses when they design comics characters? Meconis does, each one different and full of character. In a medium where too many careers are built on sameface and samebody and clothing that may as well be spray-painted onto naked (exaggerated, idealized, ridiculous) bodies, Meconis does her characters the respect of making them stoop here, sag there, to exist as gloriously varied and imperfect people.

Queen Of The Sea is, by turns, contemplative, pulse-pounding, educational, silly, philosophical, and overall a perfect distillation of what it’s like to be a child learning your way in the world rather too quickly for comfort. It’s a perfect read for anybody of, let’s say 8 or 9 years and up. Producing it was a labor of years — I was privileged to watch several of the pages be painted last year, in the rush towards deadline — and I wouldn’t wish that burden on anyone, but if Meconis should feel the need to tell us what came next in the dynastic struggles of that world that is 17.6° off from ours, she’ll find a crowd of readers eager to join Margaret, Eleanor, and the rest in the next phase of their lives.

Queen Of The Sea by Dylan Meconis is published by Candlewick Press. It’s available wherever books are sold.

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¹ Of which we are introduced to four: the Clarites, the Wandering Sisters, the Lamentines, and the Elysians.

² Meconis, one may recall, is a Trekkie from birth, and one of the few people I would trust with an actually operational phaser.

³ Which greyhound people refer to as blue. And plausibly-colored or not, these greyhounds are marvelously rendered, each pose and proportion perfectly rendered. It’s almost like she had a live model to draw inspiration from.

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