Stonebreaker is the second graphic novel by Peter Wartman about a girl named Anya and her demon friend Toris. Wartman originally published the first book in this series, Over the Wall, as a webcomic, and later as a printed and bound graphic novel. While Stonebreaker, the subject of this review, can be read independently, the whole thing makes much more sense if you’re familiar with Anya and her world. If you’re going to buy this book, you need to by its predecessor.

Anya is a scrappy, sixteen-year-old heroine living in a magical world that’s equal parts ancient Mesopotamia and Studio Ghibli. Her people, the Noridi, abandoned their ancient city-on-a-hill, Noridun, to demons generations before Anya was born. Anya lives in a town several miles from Noridun and supports herself and her family by sneaking into Noridun, evading the various demons that inhabit it, and finding focus stones. These stones have magical properties, and Anya sells them to a local priest to supplement her merchant father’s meager earnings.

One demon Anya doesn’t avoid (and indeed, actively seeks) while scavenging for focus stones is Toris, a demon (and librarian) who maintains Noridun’s massive library. He’s the only demon who ever goes to the library, though why that is is never quite explained.

Wartman does an excellent job of creating the city of Noridun, where most of the story takes place. Its entire aesthetic, from its architecture to its iconography, borrows heavily from Ancient Mesopotamia. The written language of the Noridi looks like cuneiform. The gods in the stories Anya’s grandmother tells her look like they stepped out of an ancient Babylonian stele, and the architecture of Noridun and Anya’s village looks like ancient Ur—the only thing missing are actual ziggurats.

For me, the most enjoyable part of Stonebreaker is the level of detail and thought Wartman obviously put into creating the city. I spent a lot of time lingering over the panels that showed Noridun, from wide panoramic shots to the smallest corner. I also really enjoyed the lore and myths Wartman shares with the reader to buttress his aesthetic choices. His character design, which I’ll discuss later, may be lacking, but the world his characters live in is rich and endlessly fascinating.

While Stonebreaker’s aesthetic leans heavily on ancient Mesopotamia, its plot and characters remind me strongly (in the best way) of Studio Ghibli movies. There’s a young girl protagonist (who is probably more than she appears), and she’s well set up to go on a journey of self-discovery. Anya is plucky, and while she doesn’t seem to be as subtly crafted as a Chihiro or a Nausicaa, I am curious to see how she’ll grow in later books in this series.

One of the book’s pervading themes, much like Studio Ghibli productions, is the central conflict of humans vs. nature, and the weaving of the supernatural into nature. The Noridi are obviously in conflict with the demons that control their shining city, but the myths present the demons as intrinsic parts of the landscape that predate the Noridi. I found myself wondering which side was in the right, and Anya’s own nonchalance about the entire conflict intrigued me. The conflict has been ongoing since before she was even born, and it’s such an ingrained part of her daily existence that she just accepts it.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will also recognize the character Kohjen. Kohjen, like Lady Hiboshi from Princess Mononoke or Kushana from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is a foreign warrior who comes to Anya’s home seeking to extract some precious resource. Instead of iron or a long-dead mythical warrior, that resource is focus stones, the very thing that Anya is so adept at finding. Kohjen acts as a foil to Anya, and Stonebreaker is at its best when the two characters interact.

Stonebreaker gets points from me for the art, the character arcs, and its basic premise, but it falls short in storytelling and character design. The first time I read through it, I had to keep jumping back to earlier parts of the book just to try and make some sort of sense of the mythos and actual plot. Even after reading through the book twice, I’m still not sure how a lot of the different pieces fit together. I found the webcomic version of Over the Wall, but that only helped somewhat. Wartman doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the basic premises on which his world operates, and the story (and reader) suffer for it.

Compounding these difficulties is the character design. While the landscapes and cities are lovingly drawn and detailed, most of the characters are not. There are several supporting characters who look nearly the same, and it’s difficult to tell which one is interacting with Anya or Kohjen. I’m still not sure if the merchant Kohjen talks to is Anya’s father or not. Either they are the same, and the character isn’t drawn consistently enough, or they’re two different characters who look just too much alike.

Stonebreaker is an all-ages graphic novel, but I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it. You’d definitely need to buy Over the Wall with it, and since Stonebreaker ends on a cliffhanger, there’s at least one book more in the works. Once the series is complete, I would re-evaluate, but for now, there are plenty of other books with strong female protagonists navigating mythical worlds to fill your shelves.

By Peter Wartman
ISBN: 9781941250358
Uncivilized Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 12-17

  • India

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! India is a recent MLIS graduate. She works at a university library, where she helps purchase books for the graphic novel collection. Her love of comics began when she picked up an issue of Uncanny X-Men in high school, and she’s been a die-hard Marvel fan ever since. She’ll read anything from superheroes to small press, and she’s always looking for a new webcomic. When she’s not working or studying, she likes to cook, hike, brunch, and spout long-winded historiography rants.

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