Hold on, Dorothy. Kansas is going bye-bye.
Many stories that we love begin with feeling trapped, unable to change our circumstances for one reason or another, and trying to make due in that stasis until something can shift for us. A lot of us can feel stuck in the same way: in a job, with our families, or just in a general rut. Luke Skywalker felt that he was farthest from the bright center of the universe, and look where he ended up. (Okay, currently he’s also far from the action and looking pretty lonely, but there are two more movies to work with here.) In Gene Ha’s Mae, a lost sibling brings with her a powerful secret of another world, much like Narnia or Oz, where the everyday seems extraordinary to those stuck folks who just want a little adventure.
There’s no shortage of “Stranger in a Strange Land” tales, but Ha grounds his tale in the truth of his characters, with Mae and older sibling Abby reuniting with some incredible circumstance. Abby has found another world, and now is bringing its surprises and dangers home, embroiling Mae in more adventure than she can shake a stick at, and she’ll need a mighty big stick. What I love about the storytelling is how gently intelligent it is, with characters highlighting pertinent points even within the narrative, such as the racial makeup of the inhabitants (Though this is brought to light quite well, the major player still happen to be of a very white persuasion, so, hopefully, there are some characters of more racial diversity coming soon in the series.) or the absurdity of food at a fancy party. There’s a keen eye on social justice running through the narrative, and the placement of “another world” allows the author to draw his parallels freely to give us the long view on things we’re culturally blind to in our own world. This collection is not as weighty and world-endy as other books like Birthright and Autumnlands, which is a refreshing change of pace from the typical style of these scenarios, and it manages to be good for any age of reader while still being engaging and interesting. It’s nice to see someone tackle large concepts and strong characters without having to get all gritty and soap-opera-esque.
The artwork matches the fae style of the narrative well, with solid action balanced against the interpersonal drama. The most consistently awesome part of it is the composition of the panels leading to tone; nothing feels out of place even when our protagonists are surprised, and nothing breaks the world in a way that jars the reader. This lends itself to a cohesive story that doesn’t rely on tricks to engage. The colors and brightness of the collection often belay the vital importance of the narrative, but instead of muddying the specifics, it makes it much more accessible to any reader, opening them to the full range of the discourse without blasting them with crazy angles and flashy splashes. This is a straightforward presentation that is still able to challenge and entice, because it’s done so very well.
This is a fun world to play in for Ha, and one I’m very much enjoying visiting. A solid and grounded story brought to life with wit, charm, and character that any reader can jump into, Mae has all the hallmarks of a family friendly tale that can still provoke discussion and wonder. This is a book I’ll gladly be sharing with my son, as the wholesome nature doesn’t spare the nastier things that lie within, yet embraces them and opens gateways to address them. This is a story that does more than entertain, it can help us identify how we can be better. I know that I’m always looking for narratives that will leave him asking questions of his own life, and that’s what makes this a title worth picking up.
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