Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars by Alex Alice
Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars (2020) is the fourth book in the graphic novel series by Alex Alice that follows a steampunk journey first to the moon and then to Mars. Like the others, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in its art-text balance. I’ll let you read the reviews of the first two here and here rather than recapitulate the plot, focusing here instead on the artwork and the words. The few plot points that are vitally important is that one character is searching for his lost father, another for her lost king, all while an imperialistic Prussia is readying for war not just against nations on Earth but perhaps against other worlds as well.
The artwork in all the books is simply lovely (though the first is my favorite). Exquisitely detailed in places, teasingly soft and vague in others. The settings and life forms on Mars are a beautiful mix of otherworldly compositions and shapes and forms suggested by places and life on Earth. While the artwork in book one was stunning and vibrant, book two, set on the moon, turned to a cooler, bluer, and less varied palette, representative of the difference between the two worlds. Here the palette changes again to, no surprise given the setting, a soft red, both to reflect the actual color of the world and also its sense of an ancient world waning in life and energy. It’s a nice move, both aesthetically and for its haunting nature.
Unfortunately, the text and plotting continue to be weaknesses in this series. Events happen too quickly and abruptly, problems are too easily overcome, and there’s an overall rushed and perfunctory sense to the plotting. Meanwhile, the text itself has its own issues, one being (and this is a hill I continue to fight on for this series) that there’s just too much of it. I know that seems somewhat counter-intuitive given the complaint about rushed plot, but the text, which is as noted the weakest part, crowds out the book’s best part — its gorgeous artwork. Given a choice between less text and more art or the reverse, it’s a no-brainer as to which I would choose. Plus, the evocative nature of the artwork and the otherworldly settings really cry out for a more restrained text, more along the lines of poetry’s concision or a children’s picture book that lets the art carry much of the plot and emotion. Even if that means sacrificing some plot threads, I’d rather see less text. Especially as the prose rarely rises above pedestrian and often rather falls into clunky exposition (especially via monologue).
The series therefore is hard to rank via an over-simplified star system. I’d give the art a five and the text a two. You’d think just splitting the difference would solve the problem, but I think that undersells just how enjoyable it is to simply look at the books. So I’m continuing to highly recommend the series with the caveat of don’t expect much from the story or text.