Graphic Novel Friday: The Stonekeeper's Curse, Book Two of Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet Series
The history of Fantasy is littered with the scattered remains of books that took their magic seriously but not their characters—or, more accurately, didn’t take life seriously. True fantasy classics, in any medium, reflect what we know about the real world: that it is a bittersweet place in which terrible things sometimes happen for no apparent reason. Further, imagination and creativity must be wedded to the personal, with actions having real consequences. Otherwise, we’re left with diaphanous eye candy that doesn’t remain in the reader’s memory. Artist and writer Kazu Kibuishi, editor of the Flight comics anthologies, seems to understand this truth--at least, its reflected in his Amulet series from Scholastic, a truly imaginative yet grounded fantasy story that has amazing potential. The second volume, The Stonekeeper's Curse, is just out now, but won't work for readers without context about the first volume, The Stonekeeper.
In the opening scene of The Stonekeeper, Emily and Navin’s father, David, dies in front of their eyes during a car accident. Two years later, the children and their mother, Kathy, move to an ancestral home because they can’t afford to live in their old house anymore. Silas Charnon, the children’s great-grandfather purportedly locked himself away in the house after the death of his wife and was never heard from again. Now, years later, Kathy is spirited away into a tunnel by a tentacled creature. The children race after her, only to find themselves in a strange underground land. In their attempts to find their mother, they encounter all manner of peculiar creatures and people. Elves, robots, and mysterious cloaked strangers make appearances, without these disparate elements seeming to clash.
In terms of the story arc, the children seem to have stumbled into a larger battle, the outlines of which they can only vaguely see, but which, in part, revolves around an amulet Emily found in the house. By the end of book one, a few mysteries have been resolved—like, what happened to Silas Charnon—but new mysteries have replaced them.
The Stonekeeper's Curse, then, works to advance the plot and is less about mystery than about resolution. It fleshes out the world and the story in ways that are necessary but more prosaic. There's a different tone and a different approach, with more action and fewer of the lovely reveals of surreal images and creatures. On the one hand, I miss that sense of discovery, but on the other you have to respect Kibuishi for realizing a guided tour of a fantasyland isn't enough to sustain a series. The kids grow up in the course of battling evil elves and looking after their mother. They show toughness and determination, and it seems hard-won. The Stonekeeper's Curse has its own internal consistency--a sense of wonder isn't enough; engagement with the world isn't always easy--but does also seem like a transitional volume, and one in which it's difficult to see where the story will go in volume three. With any luck, readers will get more of a mix of the tone of volume one and volume two, more of a balance.
A note about the art in the Amulet series. It's fully up to the task of illuminating the complex and multilayered plotlines. As a counterpoint to the intense nature of the action, Kibuishi finds joy and delight in ingenious portrayals of monsters and of the underground land through which Emily and Navin travel during most of The Stonekeeper and The Stonekeeper's Curse. Giant mushrooms used as parachutes, stampeding herds of huge tick-like creatures, land-dwelling squid embedded in the walls of a corridor, a marvelous flying ship—these are only a few of the wonders that await readers new to the series. The color palate throughout is burgundy-rich without being garish, Kibuishi’s drawing style expressive and deft without being facile. The detail work on backgrounds is complex but not overwhelming.
In interviews, Kibuishi has cited Jeff Smith’s Bone and Hayao Miyazaki films as influences. If so, the influence is subsumed enough that the Amulet series doesn’t feel like pastiche. Unlike Bone, Kibuishi doesn’t indulge as much in slapstick—given the serious subject matter, it would be difficult to incorporate too much humor. The book also lacks Miyazaki’s environmental concerns, which tend to affect the overall tone and individual set pieces in his movies.
In fact, there’s a great old-fashioned feel to Amulet, in that there’s little irony and no winking at the audience. This helps to reinforce suspension of the reader’s disbelief even during the most outrageous events. The Amulet series is being marketed to children and young adult, but it contains plenty of marvels for all readers. I highly recommend it.
(Portions of this post previously appeared in the hardcopy version of Realms of Fantasy in greatly altered form.)