“Yes, it is inevitable now that we must ask. And we may yet learn much. Though we may find, when we have our answers, that we were better off as we are now, with only our questions. Our ideas of the world are about to change, Mr. Pensette, and not by a little. You should not think this will be an agreeable experience.”
– Subadar Priddish, A Passage to Shambala: The Explorer’s Guild Vol. I, by John Baird and Kevin Costner, illustrated by Rick Ross
If you don’t follow my book reviews, you may not know this about me, but I’d like to kick off this particular review by mentioning that I almost always buy books when I like the covers. That’s not to say that I don’t buy books for other reasons, like the name of an author I like, or a recommendation from a friend, but I have always been a sucker for good packaging and I’m not ashamed of it. It doesn’t steer me straight every time (I bought S. and Pax for this reason, and neither lived up to their packaging… although S came pretty damn close) but I’ve discovered some gems. The Explorer’s Guild, in fact, is part of an emerging genre of what you might call novelty novels, full of bells, whistles, extra story info, gorgeous illustrations, and extra attention paid to design throughout. I’d like to think they’re a homage to the physical book, which is drifting away from us like the LP and whale-oil lamps…
But back to the matter at hand, this is one of those books that’s at least half graphic novel, a mixed media I thoroughly enjoy. The illustrations are mostly comic-style frames in pinkish sepia and black printed on a fairly convincing background of fake-yellowed-page. Scattered throughout the text (out of sequence, of course, and with subtitles to help you place them) are full-color pictures in a more realistic style, that give a hilariously accurate effect of cheaply reproduced paintings. Even the feel of the paper somehow conveys both cheapness and antiquity. Very appropriate to the Victorian-adventure-novel style. I imagine that Kevin Costner, one of the two authors (co-written books are another interesting literary trend right now), finds it easier to work in a graphic layout, as it’s more like planning out a movie, frame-by-frame, working with gestures and facial expressions rather than the long inner dialogs and background information so dear to the novel form.
This is not a children’s book, despite its many pictures, and if you need further convincing, I’ll add that while I did not like any of the characters, I felt sorry for all of them by the end. I thought, from the first few chapters, that it was going to be novel of British India, a setting I’m disturbingly fond of, but the mad captain and his crew (reminiscent of Moby Dick or Blood Meridian) quickly leave India to tour the globe, questing for a magical city. Along their way, they kidnap lunatics, interrogate millionaires, dodge bombs from World War I and escape the machinations of a cult devoted to keeping the mysteries of Shambala a dark secret in their keeping only. Some of the best parts of this book reminded me of The Golden Compass, especially in atmosphere. The backdrop is less imaginative, but the aura of steampunk conspiracy theory and the industrial-age tension between science and mystery (which combine only to birth cruelty and sacrilege) are fully intact.
This book is less ambitious than Pullman’s work, or J.J.Abrams & Doug Dorst’s S. (the last book I read with fake-yellowed pages). It touches lightly on the mysteries of the universe, but its comic-book and penny-dreadful ancestors keep it rooted more in drama and adventure than in philosophy or academia. The tone of the actual writing is very wry, slightly apologetic, and convincingly turn of the century without being stuffy.
I would recommend for fans of Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle (particularly The Lost World), His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman), S., and maybe even more complex and disturbing graphic novels like Watchmen.