Four hundred years ago, Master Zeosh inducted young Iscariot into the world of magic as Iscariot’s town burned behind him. The obelisk on the outskirts of the town was used by wizards to channel the world’s magic, but because the town was falling, it had to be moved. Iscariot and Zeosh then began a long journey with high hopes of remaking the wizard Empyr anew.
The reader sees Iscariot again in a modern-day hospital, befriending a number of patients in long-term care, especially a young girl named Carson. Carson loves Iscariot’s magic tricks, and a particularly amazing one involving turning a candy bar wrapper into a cardinal convinces Carson that Iscariot is using real magic.
Unrest in the Empyr prompts Iscariot to introduce Carson to his world. As Carson’s involvement deepens, she discovers that magic is tied closely to danger, sacrifice, and death. Further, Iscariot’s efforts to divorce magic from its darker side feature her in a central role, and will have consequences neither of them has imagined.
There are many problems with the storytelling in this graphic novel. Events unfold in an uneven, sometimes illogical manner, making the plot difficult to follow. For example, when Iscariot arrives at the hospital near the beginning, he promises to do a special magic trick for Carson, and invites her friend Adyan to watch as well. Adyan, scared, runs away. The next panel shows someone wearing Carson’s same color shirt, holding a cardinal in his or her hands, but the character’s face is not shown. The next panel shows Iscariot saying, “Well, I guess we will be forced to proceed without him.” The cardinal does not yet exist at this point; the magic trick of turning the wrapper into the cardinal has not yet happened. Is Iscariot looking into Carson’s mind as Carson wishes to hold a cardinal? Is it some form of foreshadowing? If so, why insert that panel into that particular sequence? And was that even Carson holding the cardinal, or someone else—perhaps in the past? None of this is clear.
Additionally, the dialogue is artificial-sounding and contributes to the reader’s confusion. As Zeosh completes the ritual that allows young Iscariot to use magic, Iscariot asks, “But why me?” Zeosh replies, “Iscariot, it takes someone who has lost dearly to understand the enormity of our task. We keep something beautiful in this world from disappearing forever, it is—Iscariot, be careful! Don’t get too close to the edge!” Iscariot, standing next to the obelisk, is peering over the cliff’s edge. Then a soldier appears and says, “Sir, the town is burning. Our soldiers are falling back. We have to leave now.” And Iscariot, looking over the edge of the cliff and onto a large ship, says, “Wow.” Readers find out much later in the book that Iscariot’s brother had just been killed when this scene took place. Iscariot does not appear to be grief-stricken in the least during this exchange, yet later on the loss of his brother is revealed to be a huge source of pain for him and the reason behind his visits to the hospital. Additionally, Zeosh’s response only makes sense once the reader has finished the graphic novel, because it’s only one part of a longer explanation. If a story centers on a magic system as much as this one does, the reader should fully understand how it works early on, so that the rest of the story makes sense. Sadly, this is not the case here.
Meanwhile, a lot of space is devoted to scenes that are either repeated or just fail to add anything new to the plot or characters. For example, after performing the magic trick and talking to Carson for a bit, Iscariot leaves the hospital and returns to the Empyr’s floating island. There is a wordless page showing Iscariot’s journey and progress through the castle on the island. The next page shows the cardinal turning back into a candy wrapper in Carson’s hands. Then, a full two thirds of the following page shows Iscariot traveling through the castle some more, with the beginning of a scene between Iscariot and Zeosh crammed onto the bottom. It’s not clear why the exchange between the two characters is delayed for so long. In fact, I got the impression several times that the author was adding panels simply to increase the book’s page count.
The artwork mirrors the flaws in the storytelling. Ink and watercolor are unusual medium choices for children’s graphic novels, and could have been very interesting. Unfortunately, there’s very little detail in the ink work and a lot of sloppiness with the watercolor. Often, simple matters of perspective and anatomy are skewed; a trash bin viewed from an angle looks strangely misshapen, or a single pair of legs looks mismatched in length. The panels often feature close-up shots of body parts or objects, which bring these flaws into startling relief. Also, decorative panel borders and entire panels full of either statue fragments or melted candles occur often and with no explanation. If they are meant to signify the passage of time, the borders still don’t make sense, and there are many more economical and less obtuse ways to do that in panels. The overall effect is that the artwork obscures the story or distracts from it, rather than enhancing it.
There is little here to recommend to potential readers aged 9-13. The best feature of the book is the overall concept: though a system of magic that comes at a high cost is an idea that has been explored extensively in other works of fantasy, this is the first time I’ve seen it paired with long-term illness in a graphic novel format. However, because of the flaws in the artwork and storytelling, it was difficult to enjoy the idea’s novelty. Kids who like stories with similar elements should read Doug TenNapel’s Cardboard instead.
by S. M. Vidaurri
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13