Posted by: Graeme McMillan on January 22, 2009
THE WAR AT ELLSMERE is the kind of book that makes you wonder why its author – in this case, Faith Erin Hicks, who did Zombies Calling a couple of years ago for SLG, which was also a lot of fun – isn’t much better known and feted as a “meteoric talent” or “one to watch” or something similar by a hundred bloggers. To spoil the review, let’s start with me telling you that it’s Very Good, and go from there.
It’s a tough book to talk about, because what makes it work so well is the execution as much as anything else; to talk about the plot could make it sound a little too like a less magical, less sentimental Harry Potter (although, I admit, if there was a new “The [Blank] at Ellsmere” book every year, I’d be a happy man) or like too many other stories; a poor girl gets into an exclusive private school on a scholarship and discovers a world of snobbery, cliques and mystery. But Hicks isn’t a lazy writer, and for every familiar plot device she uses, she gives it enough honesty and originality to win you over nonetheless (The dynamic between heroine Juniper and lead Mean Girl Emily is more complex than you might expect, and more interesting because of it, for example); for all their familiarity, the characters feel individual and not like stereotypes, and you believe in them.
(Also, the argument can be made that YA fiction – of which this is definitely an example, and in a weird way, the Minx book that never was, although that sounds like more of a backhanded compliment than was intended, especially considering the critical/commercial failure of much of that line. It has much more… energy, perhaps? Enthusiasm? than any of the Minx books, and feels much less studied and focused, in a good way; perhaps it’s a good model for what Minx could have been – can get away with a more familiar, simpler story with more familiar, simpler characters. I’m not sure that I completely believe that, but something that I kept thinking throughout the entire book was that it was a perfect book for its target audience, and not in the negative sense.)
All of this is helped considerably by Hicks’ art, which has progressed from Zombies Calling towards something simpler, more graphic and immediate – Yeah, I know there’ve been comparisons to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim art, but there are as many differences as similarities, to be honest. It’s like a scruffier take on something like Craig McCracken’s stuff, but with the occasional surprising note of something unexpected (No-one else will see this, but I swear there’s some Dave McKean in there. Some Hope Larson and Craig Thompson, too), but all without seeming too derivative and managing to feel all of its own style, at the same time. If nothing else, take a look at the book for the art alone – especially Cassie talking about trees on pages 63 and 64. It’s a wonderful-looking book.
I’m almost suspicious of liking something as much as I did this book; I second-guess myself and wonder if I’m missing some flaw that everyone else will see straight away, or whether I’ve been lured in by great art and enjoyable story and there’s some larger ART point that I’ve forgotten (That last one I tend to get over pretty quickly), but fuck it: This book isn’t perfect (the ending is a little too “THERE MUST BE A SEQUEL”) or for everyone; people who want to see Bullseye dress up as Hawkeye and shoot arrows through people might not appreciate it, but who cares? It looks great and warms the heart, while making you smile and worry that everything’ll turn out okay. Like I said at the start; it really is very good.