Friday, February 17, 2006

Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil (Book 1: The Gathering)

Please note, while there are some spoilers in here, I try not to talk directly about events in the plot aside from how they related to reviewing the quality of the story and art.

John Siuntres' interview with Colleen Doran over at WordBalloon turned me on to looking into A Distant Soil, and I'm glad for it. The interview made the story sound quite interesting, so I grabbed it when I went over to the comic shop today to see what this Wednesday had brought.

I'd seen the DS trades sitting around various shops in the past, but since a lot of my buying is done in terms of whether I've read the artist or the writer's previous works before, I hadn't paid too much attention (sorry, Colleen!). I'm finding it quite interesting, though.

The art is solid. I think I prefer Colleen's later work on stuff like Orbiter more, and I think she's come a long way (parts of the first compilation were drawn nearly 20 years ago according to the copyright information), but its solid. Actually, considering much of the comic art that was coming out around the time that A Distant Soil was first published, the art is above par for its period.

A few things in the art deserve special attention, the Ovanan clothes being one of them. Colleen renders the costumes of the book's main alien race quite lavishly, even in black and white. They have this wonderful simplicity and complexity to them at the same time. Alien, but not sillily alien or too close to Earth clothes. There's a definite medieval influence on them, but it really comes off in more of a sci-fi way, rather than the "Dark Age Lords of the Stars" that you occasionally see. There's something about how she draws the Ovanans themselves, though, this sort of androgynous beauty that really gets across, I think, in art the fact that this is a culture predicated on survival of the best and carefuly genetic engineering. They look very similar, to one degree or another, a similar style of facial features.

I think, overall, one of my favourite pieces of artwork is the Siovansin, the Ovanan warship. It's incredibly intricate and...well honestly it's just real pretty. Its a hanging jewel in space, like some one-of-a-kind piece of jewlery you'd see some rich benefactress of the arts wearing, or a modern art sculpture rendered with geometric precision. I could wax poetic on the subject of the Siovansin for quite a while. Its not just the rendering of it, but the fact that Colleen went outside the box and made a war ship that doesn't even look like a conventional space ship.

One last point on art, and this is in regards to how psychic powers are represented. I love the triangles and geometric shapes that accompany the effect...its just really nifty and not the typical Professor X/Martin Manhunter-style glowly puffy clouds.

The story and writing are interesting and character driven. There's a lot going on, and some of the events don't immediatly make sense (though they are later explained), but the writing, like the art, is pretty solid. I don't know if it was intentional on Colleen's part, but the Ovanans seem similar to the Takisians from the George RR Martin-edited superhero novels, Wild Cards. This may just be something that jumps out at me since I just finished reading Book 10, which was all about the Takisians (telepathic human looking aliens with outlandish dress sense and a penchent for selective breeding). Its not a bad thing, but I am curious if that was a conscious choice or if Colleen had never even heard of the novels before.

Similarly, the stuff with the Arthurian knights and Galahad coming to Earth are very similar to Grant Morrison's introduction of Shining Knight in Seven Soldiers of Victory in 2005...looking between them, I wonder if Morrison took some cues off Colleen, since the setup of his enterance scene is VERY similar.

The Gathering definitly gives a sense that its part of a much larger story. There are multiple plots brought up aside from the "A" plot involving the Ovanans attempting to recover Lliana. The book reads in many ways like an episode of Babylon 5 or The West Wing...there's a LOT going on, and multiple plots mingle together in some very nifty ways. If anything it reads like the first few pilot episodes of a new series, introducing a larger cast of characters who will be important later on. I like the mixture of science fiction and fantasy that comes up about halfway through, with the melding in of Galahad into the story, and then the appearence of the magician Dunstan Auchenlock. It makes things weird, but gives the sense of a much larger world beyond just one alien race and the tendency of its exiles to hide out on a planet full of people who look more or less identical to them.

Not sure quite what else to say. A Distant Soil definitly isn't for everyone. Its got a lot of 80s and early 90s in it, and while its certainly not a superhero book it is definitly science-fantasy. Its not something to approach if you're looking for hard SF, or strict urban fantasy, or even strict SF of "humans and aliens meet up in the modern day". It combines quite a few genres together, and makes the combination work. I can't give a full appraisal of how The Gathering leads into the other two compiled collections, The Ascendant and The Aria. While the book can stand alone, I think that it would be far better with the other two to tell the entire tale.


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