Castle in the Stars: The Moon King by Alex Alice
Castle in the Stars: The Moon King is the second installment of Alex Alice’s graphic story involving a 19th Century space race between the two hostile nations of Prussia (led by Bismarck) and Bavaria (ruled by “Mad” King Ludwig.
Book one tells of the attempt to prove the existence of “aether,” a substance that along with flight would potentially be a nearly limitless source of energy. The first book ended on a cliffhanger, with the prototype space vehicle unexpectedly taking off with more on board than expected. The Moon King (2018) picks up right afterward, with the vehicle entering space and then, thanks to sabotage, landing on the moon rather than returning to Earth. This version of our moon luckily has a thin seasonal atmosphere, so the crew can survive, but only during the “day” (354 hour). When “night” falls, the cold will set in, the atmosphere will fall back to the ground as snow, and our characters will die.
So while book one dealt with a race between people, The Moon King is a race against time as the characters try to repair their ship before the atmosphere disappears. The ticking clock adds a nice sense of urgency and tension to the storyline. There’s also a bit of mystery added as some unexpected discoveries are made below the moon’s surface.
As in the first book, plotting is somewhat unbalanced thanks to a sense of rushing in places as well as some clunky exposition that gets tossed out more than a few times. And there are a few hand-waving moments of resolution. On a more positive note, the plot does take some nice turns in the latter third, which also offer up the story’s best moments of conflict and the most affecting emotionality.
Characterization meanwhile is thin or non-existent, save for some of those moments at the end; slowing things down to let us know these characters a bit more fully would have helped.
The artwork is not quite as stunning as the first book’s, which was truly gorgeous. The color palette here is much more restrained thanks to the setting, with the moon mostly a pale bluish-white and so the visuals can feel a bit monotone/repetitive.
And I’m repeating my same complaint from Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 that there are too many panels per page, which not only squeezes the action (and the text) into too-small boxes at times, but worse, doesn’t allow Alice the fullness of space that the artwork deserves. A full-page spread (save for a small inset panel) of an orrery is a beautiful piece of work, and one wishes there had been a few more such pages, or half-pages.
While their adventure on the moon is resolved, the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger and sets us on the path for book three’s quest. The Moon King is a weaker work than The Space Race of 1869, mostly due to the reduced impact of the artwork.
Because the text, as with its predecessor, is clunky at worst and adequate at best, the art really needed to shine. It does on occasion, but not quite as much as one would hope for. I’m hoping there’s a return to form in book three.
One last note — there is a single scene of violence where a father disciplines his son by backhanding him, hard, across the face. It was a shocking moment for me, and I admit I couldn’t quite get past it with regard to the father’s character. Any parent reading this aloud to their child should be prepared to deal with that scene somehow.