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Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869
by Alex Alice
First Second, $19.99, 64pp
Published: September 2017

I keep raving about the wonderful design work being done at First Second, but then they keep on doing it. This is a large format children's book that they've had translated from the French, Alex Alice being a young French graphic novelist who clearly has a vast amount of talent. My only complaint is that 'Castle in the Stars' is being published in two parts, as I believe it was in the original French edition, but they're not particularly large parts, this one running just over sixty pages. At twenty bucks a pop, that's a heavy investment for parents when it could have been a real treasure of a single volume.

The obvious influence here is Jules Verne and would be whether Alex Alice was Peruvian or he'd set this creation in Outer Mongolia. As the back cover blurb suggests, 'What if man journeyed into space in 1869, not 1969?' It's exactly what Verne was asking at the time and this is written very much in his style, a mix of high adventure and engineering science. Alice conjures up the element of aether to make a wild array of things possible but, outside that fantastic first step, everything else follows a consistent internal logic worthy of the master.

While we begin in France, with the Dulac family, we spend most of our time in Bavaria, at a time when a unified Germany is but a dream. Claire Dulac vanished during the prologue, a pioneering balloonist who soared up into the stratosphere in search of the element of aether but never came back down. Of course, while her family, husband Archibald and son Seraphin, believe her dead, we in the cheap seats have little doubt that she'll be back in the second volume, 'The Moon-King', having survived the journey to... well, I'm just guessing but it seems a safe enough guess to put money on.

Anyway, back on Earth, Claire's log book is found and her husband summoned in mysterious fashion to the Swan's Rock in Bavaria. He goes, of course, and so does Seraphin, given that his father's departure is accompanied by intrigue and violence. What they discover is the mad king, Ludwig II, who is maybe not quite so mad as he's been made out, even if he sequesters himself in the 'forbidden wing' of his castle to dream of, well, of all sorts of things, including the construction of the Aethership 'Schwanstern', shaped like a swan. This is an interesting take on Ludwig, known as the 'Fairy Tale King'. His wild and expensive fancies were seen as madness at the time, but now constitute a great deal of Bavaria's tourist income.

Of course, this story was never going to be as simple as Archibald Dulac, talented engineer and designer of aether engines, being the missing piece in the king's vision. There's all sorts of intrigue going on and we see that not through the eyes of the old, but the young.

The book is told from Seraphin's perspective as a young man utterly caught in the romantic thrall of space. He meets a like mind as the Dulacs arrive in Bavaria in the form of Hans, whose first scene unfolds in a runaway balloon; he's older than he looks here but he's still a young man. Sophie, a young servant in the castle, makes three and, convinced that the Prussians are hatching a plot against the king (and they're not wrong), they become the 'Knights of Aether', sworn to defend the king and his aethership.

I ate this story up, but I'm a steampunk with a taste for Victorian science fiction and adventure. If I was twelve years old, I'd be the target audience for 'Castle in the Stars' and, at almost four times that, I may still be; this works nearly as well for the adult me as it would have done for my younger self. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the artwork. As a graphic novel, this is told through the art of Alex Alice as much as through his words and his art matches the material perfectly!

I'm no art expert, but it looks like he drew this in a combination of coloured pencils and watercolours. It feels like it could have been painted a century and a half ago, especially with the choice of font used for narrative bubbles. Only the dialogue font and the fact that I'm reading a brand new hardback that feels brand new and says so keep me in the 21st century. The smaller, simpler panels, drawn in pencils, have an agreeable impressionism to them, Alice never seeking draughtsmanlike perfection. Larger panels of setpiece scenes are watercolours and I'd love to have some of the original art on my walls! In and among them are pencilled engineering diagrams that equate to the more technical passages in a Verne novel.

Most impressive of all to my mind is Alice's use of colour. There's something majestic about exploring a story like this in pastel shades of blue and green, with red introduced when warmth is needed or danger is at hand. The final page tells us in no certain terms where we're going to be in book two, but I'm drawn (pun not intended) to that as much to see how Alice changes his colour palette as to see how Seraphin's Knights of Aether save the king, defeat the Prussian plot and explore new worlds in the process.

I haven't read anything by Alex Alice before, but his bio on the back cover suggests that he was happy to travel Europe as a child, falling for 'the ruins and castles of the medieval and romantic ages'. That shines through in this depiction of 19th-century Bavaria. He also wrote an adaptation of the saga of Siegfried, a subject of which I'm sure his fictional King Ludwig II would have approved. I could easily imagine a panel or two in the next volume featuring a fictional version of the author doing precisely what he does in real life but with Ludwig as his patron.

While almost anything I see from First Second is something to treasure, this especially feels like a book for kids to read, treasure, re-read, keep safe on a shelf far away from critters who might damage it, pack it up as they get older, then haul it out carefully decades later to pass on to their own kids so the cycle can begin again. However, I should emphasise that, while this is certainly a story aimed at children, it's well-aware that it will appeal just as much to those who are children at heart. Those who read steampunk literature will be thrilled by this and, if they happen to be older, then they can enjoy it with their kids or their grandkids. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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