Review: A Once Crowded Sky
Author: Tom King
Illustrator: Tom Fowler
Cover Price: 14.99 CAD
I have had varying degrees of opinions at different stages while reading this book. Never have I felt so bi-polar while reading and at times conflicted on what is happening before mine own eyes! I really wanted to make this point now before the continuing; this was one of the hardest reviews to write but after some convincing (at Book Camp TO 2012) I’ve decided to go ahead and share my thoughts on this story.
The plot is simple and follows your basic super hero story with a twist of despair.
From the Publisher:
“The superheroes of Arcadia City fight a wonderful war, and play a wonderful game, forever saving yet another day. However, after sacrificing both their powers and Ultimate, the greatest hero of them all, to defeat the latest apocalypse, these comic book characters are transformed from the marvelous into the mundane.”
There is a full bio available along with some more reviews on Simon&Schuster website for Canada.
I wanted to love this. I really did. When I received the solicit and read the synopsis I thought ‘well hey, I like what’s happening!’ As a professional in both the publishing and comic book publishing industries I enjoy crossover from one to the other. We’ve seen more graphic novel adaptations than vice versa so this offered an opportunity to show the pro’s and con’s of such crossovers. I love my super hero stories and I have always respected the comic medium but we all know that novels take the stage most of the time and a combination of super-hero comic book stylized novels sounds almost too good to be true.
This is where the conflict begins. I haven’t held such high hopes for a novel in some time, often more pessimistic to be pleasantly displeased but this was the reversal: I wanted this book to work but found myself ‘raging’ and ‘ranting’ whenever I talked about it.
The main characters (PenUltimate, Soldier for the first ¾’s of the novel) are shadows of familiar super persona’s and although some might scold I think this was a smart move. In drawing a parallel between your male leading characters to those of the big supers we already have a frame to build the story in our minds. You don’t need to spell every detail of their life because we feel as though we already know the type of men they are. Tortured, heroic, historic and proud; they were familiar and I like that. We see this in comics all the time and as this book modeled after a comic style of storytelling it worked well.
The women of this novel made me want to punch someone in the face. This could be exactly what out author intended and a sign of good story telling is emotionally engaging your audience but I haven’t been so enraged in a long time. Partly this was to the introduction of these women who do in some way change but it lead me to the realization about this book that I’m sad to say ruined it for me. Perhaps it is again this trend to follow comic style story telling and there isn’t an abundance of well written female supers available to model from, but these women felt more cookie cutter than they should have been.
A super hero who can fly and lives her life freely (and happens to be Muslim) drops all her super hero contacts and the life she had led to marry a man she didn’t know because she’s Muslim. We get hints of a romance that she left for propriety to her religion and does not contact people from her past because she has a ‘new life’. If this was given some more perspective from this super’s current situation so much could have been revealed but it felt like a stereotyping of a Muslim woman. There are other examples but at the risk of ‘raging’ too much I’ll leave with the words that I was unsatisfied with the women. I was displeased they were portrayed as weak, misguided or useless that I could not finish the book. I’m not a hardcore feminist but I think I expected some more perspective from a novel than what we normally get from a female portrayal of a woman in a comic. This could be a failing of my own expectations and not the author but it made me put the book down.
Pacing is Everything
I recently wrote a comic short and had it edited and the main criticism I received was ‘It took too long to get to the punch line and I lost interest’. This was the case for this book. Too much of the book was spent on building the intrigue that yes, we expect in a novel but didn’t seem to jive with a super hero story. The character development felt repetitive and I often found myself asking ‘when will something happen?’ And when something did happen I wasn’t captivated or rewarded for all that waiting.
A Once Crowded Sky was not poorly written and I think Tom King made a good try of trying to bridge the gap between comic readers and the rest of the fiction reading public. I liked his attention to interpersonal relationships within some of the specific character and how each super wasn’t the same with every other super and the dynamics, at times, were very heartwarming. Ultimately though this did not rise to my expectations. I was looking for something to show the depth and intensity of the comic hero story and I don’t feel that this novel has met those expectations.
Would I recommend this book?
If you’re interested in seeing some super heroes in a slightly realistic world situation then yes, you might enjoy this. I can’t say the ending was earth shattering because I didn’t get there so this review is probably considered a ‘half’ review. Please keep that in mind. However if you think I’m nuts and that this review couldn’t possibly be right take a stab and prove me wrong. I’d love to hear some contrasting opinions and dialogue on the subject.