Blue tarn birds possess
no wisdom, ferocity;
they're no sea dragon!
I was going to take a break from comics after my blitz through the toxic jungles of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but I'm reading a pretty brutal academic work-- I wasn't an English major so big passages of Middle English are rough on me-- & I wanted a train ride to relax, & grabbed this. Plus, on the cover it says "Read this graphic novel. If it stuns you, if it leaves you marveling...you will have gained some idea of Vance's stature as a writer, a thing I cannot possibly convey." - Gene Wolfe. You know how I do, if Gene Wolfe says jump I say how hi...actually, if Gene Wolfe says jump I check the context because there might be an unreliable narrator messing with me. Besides, I read that Songs of the Dying Earth anthology earlier this year, which were short stories in honor of Jack Vance, so I figured I might as well get an adaptation under my belt. A wealth of degrees of separation! I hadn't read the short story this is based on, so this is my first exposure. In short, Edwer Thissell has been appointed Consular to the planet Sirene. The people on Sirene are largely unconcerned with Thissell's galactic government, being far more interested in their occasionally violent & always intricately complex social customs. Social cache-- strakh-- is the only currency & status that matter, & strakh is a messy & complicated matter.
Everyone on Sirene wears a mask at all times; not always the same mask, but always one appropriate to their station in life. The plot is, of course, a murder mystery, rendered nearly impossible by the fluid sense of identity created by changing masks & shifting strakh. Communication is a mixture of song & musical accompaniment, & this is where Humayoun Ibrahim's adaptation shines. The alien musical instruments add subtext to the conversation, as well as conveying the proper tones of formality & authority, meaning that even the most polite song-speech can be insulting, if you accompany it with the hymerkin, which you play when addressing slaves, & even the most vicious & vitriolic rant can be rendered cordial when you play the crebrarin. What Ibrahim does is provide a visual glossary at the front of the book, with each of the instruments & the metaphorical colours & shapes they make. The sharp purple edges & shapes of the krodatch, the ethereal powder blue lines of the strapan. These provide the borders of the speech bubbles in the story, & the fact that you have to keep flipping back to the reference really evokes the confusion Thissell feels as he tries to use the music & words together-- badly, at first-- which paradoxically ends up immersing you in the story further. I'm a sucker for non-standard speech bubbles-- blame The Sandman if you want-- so I really liked this.