Sunday 4 November 2018

Windhaven: The Graphic Novel, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

A graphic novel is a new experience for me. I have never considered buying one, probably because I associate them with the comic books of my youth (mostly featuring derring-do in World War 2). However, I understand they are popular with a wider audience these days, and since Windhaven is a novel I like and have reviewed here, I accepted the offer from Titan Comics to review the graphic version of it.

I will start by replicating my review of the print version:

This stand-alone 1981 novel consists of three novellas (the first two originally published separately in 1975 and 1980) and an epilogue. The stories are set on the planet of Windhaven which is almost entirely covered by ocean except for a few widely-scattered groups of islands. These islands were populated by the survivors of a spaceship crash-landing generations before the events in the novel. Due to resource shortages the civilisation has regressed to the medieval level with one exception: they still possess quantities of almost indestructible but extremely thin and light fabric, ideal for making glider wings. The Windhaven weather is almost always windy and frequently stormy and, although not specified in the book, the combination of surface gravity and air density is sufficient to support long gliding flights by highly-skilled hereditary "flyers", with the aid of folding wings with a twenty-foot span. The high-status flyers form the main communication links between the islands, as shipping is hazardous due to the storms and sea monsters.

Although nominally SF, there are no mind-stretching concepts other than the initial premise described above. The story is really about people; their alliances and antagonisms, struggles to succeed, failures and successes.

The novellas focus on the story of three stages in the life of Maris, a girl of humble origins who is adopted by a flyer and thereby given the chance to learn to fly – the only thing she has ever wanted to do. She is faced by many obstacles and problems throughout her life, and this is far from a "happily ever after" story. It is something of an emotional roller-coaster ride, being very moving in places. There are some impressive set-pieces such as the intense and brilliantly argued debate at the end of the first part in which the flyers decide who should and should not have the right to be trained to join them.

The character of Maris is superbly developed throughout the book and the richness of the descriptions of the society, the personalities and the emotional intensity of their complex and ever-evolving relationships irresistably drew me in. I found myself really caring about what happened, sometimes even reluctant to carry on reading because of the dangers Maris courted and the pain and disappointments she suffered.

Windhaven is not a long book by modern standards but nonetheless tells an epic story, the stuff of legend. It is beautifully told and deserves to be far better known, and I highly recommend it.

The first point to note about the graphic version is that the adaptation was done by Lisa Tuttle, co-author of the original novel, which is a big plus point. The artwork is by Elsa Charretier. The book is a smart hardback, the full-colour graphics printed on high-quality paper; it is an attractive book to handle and look through. Unlike the comics of my childhood, the illustrations of the characters are, well, somewhat stylised and cartoonish rather than realistic, but I understand that is the popular fashion these days. Most of the text consists of dialogue, supplemented by a few short information boxes per page. Effectively the text forms a precis of the print book, and a good one too – all of the key moments are there.

I approached this book with some reservations (which would also apply to any other graphic novel) because of the way in which I normally experience a novel. While I don't do this consciously, I realise that when I read a text, the words generate pictures in my mind; effectively, I create my own movie as I read. This quite strongly affects my experience of the story. For example, if the text describes a building on one side of a river, I form an image of the view with the building located on what I think is the correct side. If, later on, it turns out that the author means the building to be on the other side of the river, I find this very disorientating. I generally find that it is very difficult to rewind and "reshoot" the view in my mind to match the change;  it is easier to ignore the author's words and continue to picture it on the "wrong" side, unless that really messes up the plot. With a graphic novel of course this situation cannot arise: in effect, the reader is seeing the illustrator's movie of the story (or stills from it, at any rate). This reduces my involvement in the story as I become a spectator rather than a participant.

However, I need not have worried. Somewhat to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story once more and read it without a break (it took about an hour, a quarter of the time it takes me to read the print version). Of course, it is a different kind of experience to reading the print novel but I found that I had no problems with getting into and appreciating the story, and the conclusion was still moving. I was aware that my familiarity with the tale may have enabled me to understand the context rather more easily than a newcomer to the story could manage, but it's impossible for me to assess that.

What is the value of the graphic version of this (or any) novel? It certainly saves time and some mental effort, so is an easier way to enjoy the story. It is more accessible, potentially stimulating an interest in the story which could be a lead-in to the print version. It is unlikely that I will ever prefer the graphic format, as I gain so much pleasure from exercising my imagination as I read, but I found the graphic Windhaven surprisingly enjoyable.

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