Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Unwritten volume 1
Trade Paperback

Well, this was disappointing.

I must admit I perhaps had built my expectations up too much for this first volume of Unwritten. A lot of critical plaudits have been heaped upon it, and it was recommended to me by sf writer/editor Leah Bobet. Perhaps, if I had come into it without any preconceived ideas, I would have enjoyed it more.

Unwritten's premise is intriguing. The protagonist, Tom Taylor, is in a Christopher Robin/Christopher Tolkien position as the son of a best-selling fantasy author and the inspiration (and namesake) of said author's epic series. After his father disappeared many years previous, Tom has had to grow up in the literary spotlight while remaining in the shadow of Tommy Taylor the character. This all changes, however, as a convention Q&A session leads to Tom being accused of being an impostor; soon he's facing protesting mobs clamoring for his head, kidnappings, and stranger things still.

My problems with this first volume are multiple. To start with, the Tommy Taylor series is the Mary Sue of books; more popular than Harry Potter, with something like 40% of the world having read it, a movie franchise, and thirteen books in print. If a book could have flashing violet eyes, this would be the one.

And the excerpts from the book, which take up a sizable portion of each issue, aren't much to write home about. Admittedly, I'm not the target audience for YA fantasy fiction -- but then, I didn't pick this up expecting YA fantasy. I picked it up expecting "one of the most interesting comics of the year", since that's what it says on the front cover. By the end, I was skimming these portions, because I found them outright boring and wanted to get back to the body of the story, which I actually found intriguing.

The final issue of the collection is even worse in this regard, as it breaks up the flow of the entire story to relate a narration-heavy flashback about Rudyard Kipling and the shadowy conspiracy that helped make him (and, by implication, Tom Taylor's father) successful. It amounts to a 20+-page flashback about a historical character not previously shown in the series, and did absolutely nothing for me; I think Carey's writing is weakest in these prose-like sections.

I had other issues as well:

1) Since this story heavily involves YA fantasy, I'm not sure if it was wise to name one of the shadowy conspirators Pullman, the surname of a rather successful real-world author in the field. I suppose if other characters in the cabal turned out to be named Lewis, Rowling, and Nix, it could be thematic, but even then, it would be in questionable taste.

2) The shadowy conspiracy is too shadowy. I've carefully avoided calling them "evil" throughout this review because I'm not really sure what they're conspiring for. They certainly seem to wish the protagonist harm, but that alone doesn't make them evil, just antagonists. Heck, the people who are in on whatever's going on (which doesn't include the reader by the end of this volume) all seem to be rather sketchy, regardless of whether they're involved in the conspiracy or not.

3) The characterization of the secondary characters is spotty. In one issue, we're introduced to a group of horror writers who've gathered together for a retreat, and they're pretty much all one-note stereotypes: the torture-porn-writing jerk, the Laurel K Hamilton stand-in, and so on. Even the better-fleshed-out primary characters move about more like playing pieces than characters.

I'm torn. I don't think it was worth the cover price, so I can't recommend it, but I know other people have obviously enjoyed it, and I'm intrigued enough to pick volume 2 up from the library when it turns up. So flip through it if you get the chance, I guess, and decide for yourself if you think it looks worth your while.

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