Seraphin’s mother died in an attempt to study the aether from her hot air balloon, and the potential of this mysterious, invisible, and deadly substance has obsessed Seraphin since. One day, Seraphin’s father, Professor Archibald Dulac, gets a note that the king of Bavaria has recovered his wife’s log book from her last flight, also included in the note is a one-way train ticket to Bavaria. However, at the train station, Professor Dulac and his son are confronted by Prussians and barely escape.
When they arrive in Bavaria, Professor goes straight to work for the king as the lead engineer on the king’s pontoon, a surprisingly solitary spaceship with quarters for the king, an orchestra for him to hear music, and that’s about it. Meanwhile, Seraphin befriends the gamekeeper’s children, Hans and Sophie. The children uncover a Prussian spy who is close to the Bavarian king and wants access to the king’s aether technology. Will the spy get the technology?
What’s spectacular in the artwork is the attention to architecture in all of its forms, from the more mundane, urban train stations of Paris to the fairytale castles of Bavaria. For a book that’s about characters who love technology, its power, and its promise, it makes sense that the columns and archways of the castle occasionally spill out into the gutters of the page. That out-of-panel attention to blueprints and maps not only gives the readers a new way of reading, but it also furthers the plot: when the reader sees a map of Germany’s various kingdoms, it helps explain Prussia’s militarism later in the story. When the reader sees a floor plan of the Bavarian king’s pontoon, the reader can appreciate the king’s desire to be removed from his political life and cast in a fantasy world.
As a whole, though, the love for adventure undermines the story. Seraphin’s obsession with aether and his motivation to discover more about what happened to his mother is developed well at the beginning of the story, but that character line diminishes when the action begins. Hans and Sophie have potential to round Seraphin out and present other complications in his world, but they never develop beyond sidekicks along for the ride.
This richly imagined and mildly historical middle grade adventure will appeal to fans of comics like Compass South by Hope Larson and NewsPrints by Ru Xu. This story was translated from French and will be published in two parts, with the next book to be published by First Second in September 2018. Since the first one ends in a sort of intermission, I would encourage librarians to wait for both volumes to be translated into English before purchasing. However, if you work with a French-speaking population, as I do, you may want to consider purchasing the books in French if that option is available for you.
One final note: with an 11 ¼ X 8 ½ trim size, these books may not fit on some library shelves, as it’s an usual trim size for a children’s comic. You may want to plan accordingly!
Castle in the Stars, vol. 1: The Space Race of 1869
by Alex Alice
Macmillan, First Second, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14