Our story opens on a desolate, mountain landscape where we meet Zora, discouraged, scared, and alone. Then she meets Broxo. He claims to be a king, but he looks — and acts — like a barbarian boy to Princess Zora. Gradually, she becomes immersed in Broxo’s world and the mysteries of his life and origin, until she is faced with a series of choices. Will she help Broxo, risk angering the mysterious witch Ulith, and trust Broxo’s ghostly grandmother? Or will she return in disgrace to her own clan and admit that she has failed to find other tribes?
There are plenty of themes running through the story, such as family loyalty, trying to fit into society, making mistakes, and what defines a “barbarian.” Zora at first thinks of Broxo as a primitive, strange savage because of his behavior and lifestyle, but she quickly sees that he’s adapted to live in difficult circumstances and to survive in a harsh world. There’s no “noble savage” about Broxo though; he makes as many mistakes as Zora does and needs Ulith’s help to continue living in the wild. These more mature themes are really secondary to the main plot though, which is basically a fantasy adventure with zombies, spirits, magic horns, an outcast witch, evil giant cat creatures, a giant white bear animal, and more.
The artwork has a slick, cinematic feel, with lots of dark shadows and earth tones showing the devastation of the zombie-infested mountain. Flashbacks to Broxo and Ulith’s pasts are shown in muddy browns with wavering lines along the artwork and panels. Surviving off the land is portrayed in all its glory, from scrounging food, to eating rats and lizards, and to trying to find a clean spot to bathe. This is compounded by the evil atmosphere of the mountain, shown in the poisoned lake and warped vegetation and animals. There’s quite a bit of zombie gore, plus the occasional injury for Broxo and Zora as well as Ulith’s scanty fur costume and artfully placed shadows, so I’d place this in a teen collection, although there’s nothing really inappropriate for the average middle school reader.
The story and art made me think of a combination of Doug TenNapel and Kazuo Kibuishi, with TenNapel’s grotesque art and dark situations meeting the hope-infused adventure and fantasy of Kibuishi’s cinematic world. The story moves at a rapid pace, and there are many questions left unanswered; Zora is only briefly introduced and we never really learn anything about her homeland and tribe. Her sudden identification with Broxo is abrupt and hard to believe, although it does move the plot forward. There are lots of hints about Ulith’s involvement and the belief system of Broxo’s people, but nothing is ever really defined. There are hints of a sequel online, but nothing definite.
Older middle school and younger teens who like cinematic art, fantasy adventure, and seeing young teens faced with hard choices will enjoy this story, even if it’s not particularly unique.