Pirates, merwitches, enchanted objects, and plenty of swachbuckling action pack the pages of Aaron Renier’s The Unsinkable Walker Bean. Like many kids, Walker Bean grew up hearing tales of Atlantis, a city lost to the depths of the ocean by two powerful sea witches. So when his grandfather, a famous captain, becomes deathly ill after finding a skull bewitched by the creatures, Walker knows he has to return the cursed object to its rightful home. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who has an interest in the skull. After being chased through town by a shady doctor and a meddlesome girl, Walker ends up as a stowaway on a pirate ship with only another boy, Shiv, and his dog Perrogi for company. Together, they hatch a plan to retrieve the skull and take it to the Mango Islands, encountering all kinds of mysterious and life-threatening obstacles along the way.
This tale, the first in a planned series, is a fast-paced adventure geared at a middle grade audience that is sure to have readers of all ages clamoring for more. Walker Bean is a relatable protagonist who would rather devise elaborate inventions than seek adventure, but gets swept into it anyway. It’s easy to root for him to find a way to save his grandpa and satisfying when his ingenuity saves the day. The side characters are also entertaining — Shiv and Perrogi act as loyal sidekicks, though Shiv is sometimes skeptical of Walker’s motives. Thought it’s a fairly male-dominated story, we do get one female main character, the feisty Genoa who isn’t quite on Walker’s side at first, but eventually warms to him.
The story itself is filled with twists and turns and it’s not always clear who the true bad guys are, giving some ambiguity to what could have been a more cut and dry tale. It’s also peppered with humor and the hint of the magical without being a straight up fantasy. The plot is a little convoluted at first, but it sweeps the reader along and eventually everything comes together. And while it does have an ending, it leaves enough interest for the forthcoming sequel.
Renier has a knack for visual storytelling and his gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations shine from the glossy pages. There are several jaw-dropping double page spreads that showcase the detail put into the artwork and provide heaps of interesting little tidbits to pore over. It’s also worth nothing the colorist, Alec Longstreth, who worked with Renier to create a custom color palette of rich, bold tones that perfectly suit the tone of the story and make the images pop. Fledgling comic artists will appreciate Renier’s note about the comic’s creation process at the end of the book.
There are some frightening images, especially of the sea witches, but this should be suitable for readers ages 9 and up, who will be enchanted by this magical, entertaining, adventure story.