Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 by Alex Alice
Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 is a beautifully drawn graphic steampunk tale by author/illustrator Alex Alice, whose artwork alone makes the book worth picking up for a middle-grade reader (or relatively advanced younger reader). Luckily, the narrative/text half (translated from the original French by Anne and Owen Smith) has its own charm and strengths, even if it doesn’t quite match the quality of the illustrations.
The tale opens in 1868 with a young woman (Claire) preparing, to the inspiration of her young son (Seraphin) and the dismay of her worried husband (Archibald), to head aloft in a hydrogen-filled balloon to unprecedented heights in order to prove the existence of aether in hopes of turning it to an energy supply.
Unfortunately, the mission doesn’t fully succeed and our intrepid scientist/explorer is lost to her family. The tale then picks up a year later when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that its sender has found Claire’s logbook and asking Archibald to come to Bavaria to retrieve it.
Thanks to the letter, young Seraphin (and his father, albeit to a less active measure) gets caught up in the tense standoff between Prussia, led by Bismarck, and Bavaria, led by “Mad” King Ludwig. Which means he also gets mixed up with spies, kidnappings, attempted coups, and the construction of an aether-driven ship meant to reach the stars. He’s joined in the action by a pair of Ludwig’s servants: Hans and Sophie.
As mentioned, the artwork in Castle in the Stars is just lovely. The human figures are drawn with an attention to detail (save, oddly, for Hans) that I rarely see in graphics, with vivid, expressive faces. As well as some beautiful ones — when a character remarks that another must be “the most beautiful woman in the world,” the illustration supports the text fully. Landscapes and urbanscapes are similarly well done, whether they be soaring castles or a background of frozen mountains. My only complaint about the art actually comes out of recognition of how good it is: each page is made up of a lot of panels and I really was longing for some larger use of the page — a full spread, a half page or quarter page illustration — so as to get a more full impact of the beautiful visuals. The same holds true with the number of speech bubbles; again I found myself wishing for a few panels devoid of speech so the visual could stand out all the more.
The narrative is solid. The beginning has a nice slow build, while the middle section is mostly well paced. One starts to feel though like things are starting to get a little rushed, a feeling that becomes more fully sensed in the last third of the book, which feels like it packs a bit too much action into too few pages. There are a few moments where the exposition feels a bit clunky or dense, especially in the discussion of the geo-politics, which is mainly why I thought it best suited for middle graders or more advanced younger readers. The dialog on the other hand is fluidly handled throughout. The characters are engaging if not greatly developed or detailed. One big plus is the portrayal of the women. We see three female characters, each portrayed as strong and smart but in their own fashion. Nicely done and someday soon perhaps I can review a book without noting how nice such characterization is to see.
Castle in the Stars ends with a bang and on a cliffhanger that leads into the promised next installment: Castle in the Stars: The Moon-King, a story that is teased by yet another beautiful piece of illustration (one that takes up half the page and lacks speech bubbles). My hope for that follow-up would be that it slows down a bit to let the story develop a little more, and that Alex Alice treat us to a more expansive example of her beautiful drawings. Strongly recommended.
Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 is, in a word, glorious. I’d happily page through this book even if there weren’t a single line of dialogue or explanation, savoring each panel of Alex Alice’s beautiful artwork. The technical schematics are as carefully rendered as his landscapes and his character work, and his devotion to period-appropriate details like clothing and architecture add verisimilitude to the story at hand.
Equally impressive is Alice’s inclusion of historical details, from the political struggles between King Ludwig and Prussian Prime Minister Bismarck, to the rumored madness of King Ludwig, to King Ludwig’s appreciation of the arts (especially the music of Richard Wagner). The details don’t get in the way of Seraphin’s story, nor do they contain more information than is really necessary. Middle-grade and older readers might not know who all of these people are, and may not even realize where Seraphin and his father are headed when directed to “Swan Rock,” but everything is explained in a manner which may provide a little education among the high-flying adventures.
Those same historical figures are well-drawn and easily recognizable, and the original characters are generally given the same amount of fine detail. Each character is distinct and wonderfully expressive, leading me to agree that there could be more wordless scenes, and it would not detract from the story in any way. (As Bill noted, Hans is a bit of a broad caricature, but his father is given the same rounded features, so I’m left to infer that it’s a familial trait.)
The Space Race of 1869 is an exciting tale, and though the conclusion feels a bit rushed compared to the scholarly pace of the preceding pages, it sets up even more excitement and adventure in The Moon-King. Highly recommended.