Monday, November 7, 2011

Elfquest - Journey to Sorrow's End

I’d always been interested in the concept of Elfquest as a graphic novel, but could never find the early issues to follow the story properly, so when I happened to see a cheap 2nd hand copy of the novel, which I believe is a prose version of some of the earlier issues, I decided to give it a try.

With things like Peter & Max (based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic) and Agatha H. and the Airship City (the novelisation of the 1st 3 volumes of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s webcomic; Agatha Heterodyne Girl Genius) I’d been shown that successful comic concepts could make the jump into novels, and do it with class. I was hoping for similar story quality with Elfquest – Journey to Sorrow's End.

Wendy and Richard Pini were pioneers when it comes to independent publishing, and Elfquest was definitely an interesting and revolutionary concept in a market dominated by powerfully muscled guys in colourful costumes. They melded science fiction and fantasy to create a comic book version of an epic fantasy. Unfortunately for me it didn’t translate on this occasion.

The story is fairly simple. Some years ago a spacecraft landed on a planet with two moons. The local human inhabitants attack the craft and it’s pilots. Those that escape become the elves of the title.

The tribe that the story follows is that of the Wolfriders, they’ve dwelled in the nearby forests, which they call the Holt, and have bonded with a local wolf pack, hence the tribal name, they also use the wolves as steeds. They regularly fight with the humans, and in retaliation for a recent battle the humans set fire to the Holt. Forced from their home, and led by their chief Cutter, the Wolfriders initially seek refuge with the trolls. The trolls, wanting to be rid of the Wolfriders (I can’t actually say I blame them, the Wolfriders are a fairly obnoxious bunch), the trolls offer to lead them to a sanctuary they call Sorrow's End. They dupe the elves and instead leave them in a trackless desert.

With characteristic perseverance, and using their finely honed survival skills, the Wolfriders manage to make it through the desert and arrive at Sun Village. Sun Village is also inhabited by elves. They call themselves the Sun Folk, and they’re peaceful, they raise crops and farm, although they do have one designated hunter. Because the Wolfriders seem to exist for conflict they attack Sun Village, and Cutter carries off their healer and daughter of the chief; Leetah. They are pursued by the Sun Folk’s hunter; Rayek, who surprise, surprise is carrying a torch for Leetah.

The Sun Folk and the Wolfriders come to an agreement of sorts brokered by a first generation descendant of the original elves; a woman called Savah. The matter of who should have the right to court Leetah, Cutter or Rayek, is settled by a test of skills. There are some mildly tense moments during the trials, but Cutter was always going to win.

Humiliated, Rayek exiles himself, and with the Wolfriders the Sun Folk don’t require a hunter now in any case. The Wolfriders make themselves useful to the Sun Folk in the great zwoot (a sort of wild horse that the Sun Folk ride and use as a beast of burden, they also seem to eat them at times) round up. Leetah falls for Cutter and bonds to him. Fade to black.

I wanted to like this, but I just couldn’t. The idea of an elf society being similar to a native American tribe was a good one, but the book failed in so many other ways. What works in a comic using drawings doesn’t necessarily work in a prose novel. The characters were very two dimensional. The fact that the Wolfriders all had these wildly alliterative names: Dewshine, Skywise, Strongbow, I felt like I was reading roll call in a hippy commune, didn’t help me differentiate between them. Of the three leads I took an instant dislike to the boastful Cutter and the stiff necked intolerant Rayek. I liked Leetah a little more, but even her attraction to Cutter, while continually referring to him as a barbarian was totally unbelievable and rather tiresome. The idea, while it was original as a comic, and maybe slightly less hackneyed in the early 80’s when the book was originally published, was very trite and has been done over and over since, often a lot better. Then there is the prose itself. Oh my God! Overblown, too alliterative, overly descriptive, again what you can convey in a few strokes of a brush (Wendy Pini is quite a talented artist) is a very different thing when you’re trying to write it down and describe it in words, and the writing talents of Wendy Pini and husband Richard simply weren’t up to it in this book.

To be totally honest I only managed to finish this because I hate to give up on a book. If I hadn’t bought it very cheaply I’d feel ripped off. The original comics may be quite entertaining, everything I’ve heard says that they are, so if you’re at all interested in Elfquest you may want to track them down, but avoid this novel at all costs.

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