Mystical elfin beings, a monster serpent, a boy with a magical birth, a vengeful king, even a sweet monkey sidekick, this first in a new series of Mesoamerican-inspired graphic novels has fantasy action covered. Acclaimed author and teacher David Bowles provides the story while the art is by his daughter, Charlene Bowles, in her graphic novel debut.
It’s a hard book to sum up, each piece of the tale is woven inextricably into the next. Set a thousand years ago in the Yucatan peninsula, the story follows Almah as she goes from a young woman seeking a powerful token from the jungle realm of the aluxes to a witch who has helped her town grow and prosper. But the aluxes also gifted her a special drum that would announce a new king of the Uxmal. She hides the drum and a cruel king rises up, one who tells the people they only need the king’s priests and they must forget the aluxes and shun the witches. Almah prays to the Goddess Ixchel about her deep loneliness and finds a strange egg on a walk in the hills. A baby hatches from the egg, growing into a young boy, but never aging past that. The boy, Sayam, learns Almah’s traditional magic and a prophecy has him squaring off against the cruel king in a special trial.
The story comes from the author’s YA-aimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico. The Maya culture becomes a living, fully developed world in the graphic novel, full of lush colors and a great combination of iconography and realism. The cities, the agriculture, and the writing system are highlighted. The blend of religion and magical creatures creates an exciting power source that today’s readers of Greek myth-inspired fare will love. The aluxes are said to have gone in hiding when humans appeared, living thousands of years and shepherding magic. Shown shorter than our heroine, Almah, they have rounded features and intricate costumes that recall real Maya artifacts. David Bowles plan to portray the cohesive and vibrant mythological world of the Maya is very well executed.
The book is as fun to read as it is culturally enriching. Due to its focus on legend-building, the characters don’t have a lot of depth or development on their own, what we learn in the short descriptions of the cast list at the start is thorough. They stand in for common character types: wise and faithful Almah, hardworking and precocious Sayam, ruthless sorcerer Zaatan Ik. You still come to care about the characters and cheer on their successes. Their interactions feel realistic. Charlene Bowles’ gets a lot of emotion out of her modern cartoonish style, with angular faces and thick lines that are similar to standard realistic middle grade graphic novels. The build of the story and the action that comes from the many magical trials and tribulations is more than enough to make the book engrossing. The art has a sense of movement and glowing life that jumps off the page.
As with the mythology and fairytales of most cultures, there are some dark concepts in Rise of the Halfling King. A giant serpent eats the mummified dead of a village and is put down in an attack that is gory in theory. The experience of reading that section was fun and thrilling rather than frightening, it was only in looking back over the book a few times that I realized just how dark an episode it was. It has some slapstick moments, full of sound effects, and comes off as a suspenseful but action-packed time. The moody purples and grays of the underground mausoleum and the snake provide the appropriate dread, but Sayam, Almah and the clever but clumsy spider monkey Maax pull the reader along in a way that will not freak out the young readers it’s aimed at.
The publisher’s age range of 8-13 feels true, with a rich enough world to interest the older of that range but a brightness that still works for the younger. The page count is low and and the story flies by, when the series reaches the ten volumes David Bowles plans in his post script it will make a satisfying stack for many a fantasy and myth-loving reader.
Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent
By David Bowles
Art by Charlene Bowles
Cinco Puntos Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-13
Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Highlights: Mexican-American
Related to…: Book to Comic