Review time! with ‘Compass South’ and ‘Knife’s Edge’

“From Macao to Acapulco from Havana to Seville, we’ll see monoliths and bridges and the Christ up on the hill”

Hope Larson is a fine writer (and good artist), so I had to pick up her recent graphic novels, Compass South and Knife’s Edge, which tell the story of twins on the high seas in the 1860s. Larson’s partner in crime on these books is artist Rebecca Mock, and they’re published by Farrar Straus Giroux. Each book is, strangely enough, exactly 224 pages long (did Larson have a page limit?). They’re for “young readers,” but aren’t we all young at heart?

If I were to call this story “Dickensian,” I’m not sure anyone would disagree, and I consider it a compliment, because Dickens was, after all, a good writer. Larson does a lot of what Dickens did (and she’s not the first, of course), as she takes kids (12-year-old twins Alex and Cleopatra) and gives them a mysterious background, an adventure, and lots of coincidental meetings. The prologue shows their “secret origin” – a man shows up at a man’s house in Manhattan in 1848 and drops the babies off with a Mr. Dodge. Dodge knew their mother, Hester, in Ireland years earlier, and the man says that she’s dead but she wanted him to raise the children. He gives Dodge a compass and a knife and tells him that they’re the kids’ inheritance, and he must never sell them. Spoooooky!!!!

Twelve years later, the kids are running around New York with a gang of thieves because their father is always away, looking for work on the high seas. They see an advertisement in the newspaper about a rich dude in San Francisco who wants his 12-year-old, red-headed twins to come back home. Alex and Cleo decide to head to San Francisco and bilk the dude, even though his twins are both boys. Cleo cuts her hair short, and hey presto! they’re off! Of course, the leader of the gang, a slightly older boy named Luther, is angry at them for betraying the gang, and when a pirate named Worley shows up and asks about the kids, he’s only too happy to head off with the pirates to find them. Adventure time!

The two books are very well plotted, and I don’t want to get into all the ins and outs of said plot, because of course the kids come up against a great deal of adversity on their way. They get separated and find their way to San Francisco in two different ways, and of course they meet another pair of twins (both boys) who have come up with the same scheme that they have. Luther and the pirates chase them around, and toward the end of the first book, they find their father, who had been pressganged into the pirate crew. As there are pirates, you know there’s a treasure, and of course everyone tries to find it, so they head off to the South Seas in Knife’s Edge to see if they can. There’s a good amount of violence, and some people die, but Larson knows how to keep things “young adult,” so nothing is too graphic. She smartly shows the consequences of all this tomfoolery while also making sure that the adventure is, after all, adventurous. It’s a nice balance.

As per usual, though, the interesting part of the book isn’t the labyrinthine and coincidental plotting (the crew comes upon a mostly deserted Pacific island, but one crew member knows one of the only two people on the island, because of course!), although those are certainly fun. Larson sneaks a coming-of-age story into this, which is to be expected as the two main characters are 12-year-old quasi-orphans, but it’s still nice that it’s done somewhat stealthily. Cleo and Alex are forced to grow up through their circumstances, and Larson does a nice job showing us in the beginning that joining a gang of street urchins is grown-up play-acting in contrast to the trials they go through after they leave New York. They’re both in situations where they have to act more like adults, and Larson does a fine job showing how different it was for boys and girls growing up in the nineteenth century – Alex is encouraged to learn how to do things on the ship so he can on day captain one himself, while Cleo is discouraged from learning things that are too “boyish,” even by her father, despite the obvious signs that she can handle herself. The twins also have to deal with nascent romantic feelings they have – Cleo more than Alex, but Larson does a good job with the contradictory ways hormones affect pubescent children. Family is a huge part of the book, too – not only are Alex and Cleo trying to find their father, but when they come up with the scam that set everything in motion, they are not only trying to swindle money out of the millionaire, they’re trying to replace his family as well. This becomes clear when we see the end of that particular story arc at the end of Compass South. As noted, the twins find their father, and they discover more things about their mother that partly drives the plot of the second book, as they figure out how to make their “new” family work (it’s been so long since they’ve seen their father they don’t quite know how they work together). Of course, the street gang at the beginning is a twisted version of a family, and when they leave, it’s more of a betrayal than it might seem to be because of this. Luther follows them, and it becomes clear that not only does he have a crush on Cleo, but he’s looking for a family as well. Larson doesn’t sugarcoat the travails of a family, especially when it comes to the relationship between Cleo and her father, which is exacerbated by Cleo’s yearnings for independence, as she shows how difficult it occasionally is to get along even when the love between family members is deep. Even the pirates are like a family, and this complicates things toward the end of the second book, when secrets are revealed. Larson does a nice job making sure the themes are present without being too unsubtle about them, which is nice.

Mock has a lot to draw, and she does a fine job with it. She nails the historical aspects of the book, from the seediness of New York to the beautiful but threatening jungles of Panama, from the wind-swept rocks of Tierra del Fuego to the lushness of the South Pacific islands. Her linework is energetic and crisp, and her characters have that vague manga look that means they have large, expressive eyes, which brings their emotions to the surface easily. She does a good work with the action in the story, as there’s plenty of it and she needs to make it exciting and even slightly brutal without being too graphic, but she finds that sweet spot well. The one problem I had with her depiction of the characters is that Cleo looks too much like a boy. She cuts her hair, true, but over the past few years, as my daughter has hit 12 (which she is right now), the differences between boys and girls, physically, becomes more pronounced. I can’t think of one girl in my daughter’s sixth-grade class (when most of them were 11, true, but I don’t know many of the girls in her class this year) who could pass for a boy just by cutting their hair and wearing “boys’ clothes” – they just had different facial features than the boys did. I can suspend my disbelief for this book, of course, but I just thought it was something to point out.

The main thing Mock has to do, of course, is draw sailing ships. This part of the artwork is magnificent, as Mock shows both the majesty and squalor of the ships. When I read this, I of course contacted Lucy Bellwood, who has made a cottage industry out of drawing comics with sailing ships in them, and asked her if she had read these. She said that she and Mock toured a galleon replica in Maine last year, so I assume Mock took a lot of pictures and a lot of notes, because her depictions of the ships are wonderful. She shows the raising of the sails and other mundane but important tasks on board, and she gets the cramped conditions on the ships while also showing how the sailors can make their small spaces cozy and comfortable. In most of the wider shots, she remembers to show the sailors working in the background, which adds to the verisimilitude of the book. There’s a wonderful, harrowing sequence where a ship tries to avoid a reef, and Mock makes it white-knuckling exciting, partly because she’s so good at showing what exactly would happen on board as the ship shifts. The book looks great anyway, but the fact that Mock took so much time to make it as historically accurate as possible adds an extra layer of awesomeness.

Compass South and Knife’s Edge are definitely YA in their tone, but the best YA stuff is accessible to all, and Larson and Mock have created an exciting, heartfelt tale that keeps you turning pages, because it’s so much fun to discover what’s going to happen next. The only criticism I have is that I’m surprised there’s not more coming (unless there is, of course). The second book ends seemingly with everything wrapped up, and it feels like there was at least another book in there, as Larson seems to rush a bit to the end. Perhaps they just don’t have the time to do another one, but these two are well-written and well-drawn, so why shouldn’t I want at least one more book about these characters from this team? I guess two will have to do.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

(As usual, if you’re interested in getting this, you can get it really cheap on Amazon – use the link below! – and I will get a tiny piece of that. Or do some New Year shopping – that’s a thing, right? – by using the link below and I’ll still get a tiny piece of it!)

One Comment

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Nothing wrong with enjoying a good YA story. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed quite a few YA or children’s books in recent years, like the Tintinesque City of Spies by Kim, Klavan and Dizin, or the totally-awesome-seriously-everyone-should-read-it Zita the Spacegirl by Hatke.
    And damned if you don’t have me thoroughly intrigued by these two books. The art looks great, and the story sounds like fun. It also reminds me a little of the basic plot of David Brin’s novel Glory Season. That one also has a pair of twins (albeit both girls, and already teenagers) setting off to find their fortunes at sea. Of course, the setting is a human colony on another planet far in the distant future, but still…

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