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  • Anouchka Harris

A Year of Books: May

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

When I was at university doing my undergraduate degree, I took a couple of modules in medieval literature, one in Old English and then one that focussed completely on the Beowulf manuscript. Now, just one pet peeve. Old English is not the same as Middle English. Middle English is Chaucerian. Old English is a completely different language to modern English with different grammar and syntax. Old English is also what the Beowulf manuscript is written in.

So. I have a bit of an interest in Beowulf in general and that was what immediately drew me to The Mere Wife. It’s a retelling and reinterpretation of the manuscript. It’s largely set in Herot Hall, a secluded, gated community in the shadow of a mountain. Headley paints a picture of sinister domestic horror through the housewife, Willa, and her cold relationship to everyone around her, including her husband and her son, Dylan. Her life is under scrutiny from the Mothers of the people of Herot Hall. They’re the ones who tell her when she slips up, makes a mistake, how she isn’t raising her son correctly. They’re the ones who arrange the secret abortions, deal with the husbands, orchestrate events. Their chapters are narrated in a chilling first person plural. Their grandson, Dylan, is young, but something wild in the making.

Above Herot Hall, in the abandoned train station lives Dana Mills, a soldier who served in the Middle East, believed dead, found pregnant, disappeared shortly after. She has been hiding her son, Gren, from the whole world, warning him to stay away from the houses below and the monsters that live in them. One of the wonderful touches of this novel is the doubt throughout of how Gren actually appears. The main suggestion to me was that people see monstrosity where they expect to see it. And they certainly see it in Gren, a boy who looks of Middle Eastern heritage. They see it also in Dana, a thin woman with one eye, who’s been living in a mountain for over a decade.

Then there’s Ben Woolf. An aging ex-soldier with an exercise disorder and obsession with being strong and ready for action. Glory-seeking. Needless to say, his beat as a cop in a quiet community doesn’t give him much chance to prove himself. Altogether, he makes a frightening antagonist in this reinterpretation of the famous hero’s story. A detail I particularly enjoyed was the inclusion of Beowulf’s swimming exploits. Beowulf brags of how he swam in a race for days, battling seas monsters and braving storms. Ben Woolf swam against another boy in a river and caused him to go under, drowning him.

Headley’s style is most powerful when she alludes to the terrible truths of Herot Hall and all the people in it. Her style is almost impressionistic, beautiful and worth taking one’s time over. There was not a single surplus word, although her style is certainly not what I would consider sparse or minimalistic. The novel is divided into a number of parts, each one titled after a different translation of the famously untranslatable Old English word hwæt. It means ‘listen’, ‘so’, ‘what’, and ‘hark’ among other interpretations. The Mere Wife is full of lovely allusions and references to the detail from the manuscript, including the strong theme of dismemberment, casually first portrayed in the bitten-off heads of homemade gingerbread men. Anyone with a passing interest in Beowulf should read this. And even if you don’t, read it anyway.

Sara by Garth Ennis, Steve Epting, Elizabeth Breitweiser

Russia during the Second World War. A team of female snipers. The brutality of the war only echoing the ruthlessness of the Russian state towards its citizens. The deadliest shot is Sara, whose abilities have become famous throughout the German troops. And her habit of placing grenades underneath the bodies of her marks – placed just so, that when a fellow soldier of theirs rolls them over it goes off – hasn’t exactly made a good impression with all of her team.

To me, it seems very obvious that the inspiration for this comic came from the real-life sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Russian woman who had 309 kills during the war. Sara just as deadly. She’s also angry and disillusioned with her country. I got the impression throughout the comic that she never really intended on returning home from the war. The comic cuts back and forth between the present and past, occasionally making the narrative fuzzy and unclear, but the beautiful artwork and fierce dialogue made up for any moments that needed me to reread a section to fully understand. This comic is also proof that artists can draw physically and facially distinct female characters, although certain forms of media seem to choose not to (I’m looking at you, Disney animation). The comic does rather well without the need for male characters, focussing exclusively on the sniper team, veterans and relative rookies alike.

Dream Daddy featuring writing and artwork by Wendy Xu and Ryan Maniulit, Lee C.A. and Jack Gross, Vernon Shaw, Leighton Gray, Jarrett Williams, and Jeremy Lawson, C. Spike Trotman, Drew Green and Reed Black, Josh Trujillo, D.J. Kirkland and Matt Herms

This is a comic book based on the game Dream Daddy, created by Leighton Gray and Vernon Shaw. It’s a Japanese-inspired dating game where you create a character who is a single dad trying to date other single dads in the neighbourhood. You then go on three dates (scheduled on ‘Dadbook’) before you get the end of the story. There are plenty of dad-jokes and there are some hilarious animations to illustrate the response you get from your date when you give certain answers. The ‘correct’ answer animation features eggplant emojis and hearts. The game is cute, funny and you should play it. The game also challenges you to be a good dad to your daughter, Amanda. There’s a really sad ending if you’re a rubbish parent. I played it that way once and I still feel bad about it.

Anyway, this volume is a collection of comics written and illustrated by different creators in different styles, depicting the characters from the game and their wholesome antics. My personal favourite issues were ‘Let The Right Dad In’, featuring Vampire Dad, and ‘Dungeons & Daddies’ in which the entire cast take part in a tabletop roleplaying game. I make no bones of it, this entire comic is frivolous fluff and I loved every second of it. The writing is wholesome and littered with references and jokes. It’s probably most fun to read if you’ve already played the game. Otherwise, it may not make a whole lot of sense why this neighbourhood is entirely filled with single dads. All the same, I recommend both the game and the comic as a fun experience. Just don’t try to make too much sense out of it.

The Steel Prince by V.E. Schwab and illustrated by Andrea Olimpieri, coloured by Enrica Angiolini

Comics! By V.E. Schwab! How could I resist? This series of comics is set in the same universe as Schwab’s Shades of Magic series. If you’re not familiar, this series is about four Londons. Grey (our world), Red (a monarchy built on magic), White (a ruin), and Black. When Black London’s magic was corrupted and consumed the world, White London sealed that world off. Red London sealed everyone off, leaving White London to fend for itself. Now, there are a handful of people who can travel between these worlds. Kell is one of them. The Steel Prince focuses on Maxim Maresh in his youth. If you’re familiar with the books, you might remember that he is Rhy Maresh’s father and Kell’s adoptive father. In The Steel Prince, it has been two hundred years since the other worlds were sealed off. Maxim is young, reckless, and arrogant. He is preoccupied with the other worlds, a prospect his father fears. So, he sends Maxim to the coast to the city of Verose. It’s mostly lawless and the guards have their work cut out for them. Shortly after he arrives, much worse trouble arrives; a pirate queen and powerful magician.

Personally, I immediately felt a fondness for Isra, a soldier Maxim meets upon his arrival. She’s fierce and determined, but has a good heart. I would honestly be happy with a comic just about her. The art isn’t my personal preference as I tend to steer away from sketchy styles, but that in no way stopped me from loving the story. One of the great things about the comic is that I really feel like it can stand alone. You don’t need to know the books in order to enjoy it. All in all, it was a joy to revisit Schwab’s world through a different medium.

That's it for now!

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