5 out of 5
Books, movies, comics, music: there are examples from all of these mediums that I love, and that I can likely speak or write about at length. But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Sometimes that’s something I can only see in retrospect, admittedly: that a particular piece of media worked best at a specific time, or that it was formative in shaping my tastes, while also being flawed in some aspects. Sometimes, though, I can spot it at the time, and I think this ability gets sharper as one gets older: noting how effective or polished something is, and then also acknowledging elements that maybe aren’t as effective or polished, but that the entirety of the project still stands out.
Rarer, of course, are things that you’d consider perfect. They stand the test of time. They hold up, despite what angle from which you attack them. Yes, this is obviously still an objective judgment – what’s perfect for me isn’t necessarily perfect for you – but such prized items aren’t really debatable: you just know, without doubt, that they’re perfect.
And Dylan Meconis’ Queen of the Sea is, to me, perfect. I could call it a graphic novel or a comic or a book, but part of this perfection is that I’m not sure I can call it any of those things. Certainly other works have been written in this half-drawn, half-written fashion – closer to a children’s book in that sense – but it still stands on its own, at 400 pages, and written in that magical way that’s equally easy for a kid to understand and adore, and also for an adult to feel on-the-level reading, and in which to get completely immersed. That last bit I cannot undervalue: the characters in this historical epic – mainly lead, and narrator, Margaret – took on lives of their own; the setting had space and atmosphere; and due to the way the book segues in and out of “traditional” comic book illustration and text and, occasionally, Margaret’s more youthful representations of something, I lost track of awareness that I was actively reading this thing – rather, it seemed like a reality I was experiencing alongside our narrator. Furthering this effect is Meconis’ art, which is simplified and open-ended enough to not be daunting, but also hews closely enough to reality and carves out weighty, memorable locations and emotive characters – all graced with gentle, earthy water-colors – such that everything is equally fluid and life-like while also having the buoyancy of a classic, hand-drawn, animated film.
The story concerns the aforementioned Margaret: orphaned upon a nun-run island which she later comes to understand is purposefully kept isolated as a location for political exiles. This comes to a head when the island receives a new “visitor:” Eleanor, the recently deposed queen. Her contentious relationship with Margaret evolves, as does Margaret’s awareness of her nunly sister’s pasts, and that of the island, and of the more complex workings of the world at large… Calling it a coming-of-age tale is too easy; citing its historical inspirations – drawn from some early letters of Queen Elizabeth I, according to Meconis’ afterword – might be deterring to those of us who aren’t history fans, but I promise that it shouldn’t be; and looking at the book from a “young readers” viewpoint is narrow – Dylan is narrating from a young girl’s perspective, and remains very true to that, but Margaret’s voice is amazingly mature, and the lessons she learns along the way applicable to youngsters and eldsters in kind…
I’m making this sound heavy. Mind you, Queen of the Sea is also very funny, and exciting – hard to believe for an island-bound tale of nuns – ushered along by Meconis’ perfect grasp of timing, and characterization. And… perfect. I’ve said this before, but the projects I love the most are the ones that make me want to pick up a pen and start writing, or start drawing – two occasional pursuits that have been less occasional as time has gone on – and the passion and creativity behind Queen of the Sea certainly does that. Add to that it’s ability to make this unfeeling creature (i.e. me) have investment in its characters and story… and hopefully it’s clearer how this book has achieved its flawlessness from my perspective.