Shattered Warrior written by Sharon Shinn & illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag
Shattered Warrior (2017) is a new graphic novel written by Sharon Shinn and illustrated by Molly Knox Ostertag. The artwork is excellent, but as far as plot, it’s an overly familiar one and, as usual for me with graphic novels (fair warning), neither story nor characters are rich enough for my deep engagement.
The story is set on a human world conquered years ago by an alien race (the Derichet) and mostly wholly subjugated, though there a rebel group known as the Valenchi sabotages the occasional convoy or bridge. The planet’s main mineral is used to fuel the Derichet spacecraft. The main character, Colleen, was once the daughter of one of the Great Families (rich aristocrats in a highly stratified society), but the invasion, besides destroying the society (and thus her family’s wealth), killed everyone in her family save her sister and niece, who went missing a few years back. The lesson learned, as far as Colleen is concerned, is to never love anyone again.
One can immediately predict she’ll unlearn that lesson relatively quickly, and indeed she does as her job at a processing factory, combined with the location of her ancestral home, eventually entangles her in several relationships. One with the rebels and another with Jann, a former miner as a boy and now a member of a violent gang known as the Chromatti.
That Colleen will learn to allow herself to get close to people again is not the only predictable element in the story, as it pretty much plays out mostly as one might expect, Again, it’s solidly related, but nothing ever really surprises or startles and we’ve seen this story so much (plucky rebel group, alien invaders forcing humans to work, human workers who turn their job against the invaders, heart-of-ice melted, etc.) that something has to pop out to make this book stand out and nothing really does. It doesn’t help that there is some heavy at times foreshadowing and/or exposition or that various actions don’t make a lot of sense. The aliens are a bit too dim/inept at times, and are shockingly low tech for a space-faring race. The graphic novel structure doesn’t help as the emotional shifts are either too quick or implausible (time passage could also be more clear). The same lack of space means not everything is clear or fully explored. In short, with regard to the text, it’s mostly either predictable or problematic, and while the prose style is smooth and quick-moving, it isn’t particularly memorable at any point, save for a few nice lines now and then.
The plus here is the artwork, which is vibrant and clear and strong throughout. Ostertag does an excellent job in choice of color and shading in terms of providing atmosphere, and I’d say conveys emotion better, and at times more subtlety/richly than the text. One particular powerful series of wordless images shows Colleen recovering from a traumatic event and then steeling herself to present a “happy face” before facing people who don’t know what happened to her.
YA audiences are more likely to enjoy Shattered Warrior as they won’t be bothered as much by the familiar nature of the plot and also are generally more tolerant of fast-moving emotional arcs (the “thin” characterization here is less in the characters’ background/nature than in how they move toward change). The prose will carry them along quickly and easily, while the artwork will please pretty much everyone. I’m giving it a weak 3 (I hemmed and hawed between 2.5 and 3 stars), but I’d bump that up to a 3.5 for MG/YA readers, especially if they like graphic stories.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Shattered Warrior for me was the wordless sequences — Molly Knox Ostertag’s art is so expressive, and the way she portrays a series of events or a shift in emotions in either just a few panels or over the course of several pages is both effective and affecting. Her use of color makes each location distinct, whether Colleen is at work in a factory, skulking around a house in disrepair, or star-gazing. And even small touches, like omitting black outlines during storytelling and memories, contribute to the overall appeal.
While Sharon Shinn’s “humans banding together and rebelling against an invading culture” storyline follows expected beats, less-predictable and very welcome was the wide diversity of characters and lifestyles represented here. There were people of every race, age, and gender, all of whom were featured in both prominent and supporting roles. One character leaves a homosexual relationship and begins a heterosexual one, but doesn’t suffer negative judgement from other characters for that development. And the interactions between Colleen and Angit, a Derichet overseer who treats her with some kindness, added a layer of complexity to the story without fetishizing his position of authority.
I agree with Bill that the basic plot of Shattered Warrior is pretty rote, but I do think that YA readers who are less familiar with its narrative structure will find much to be surprised by, and will cheer for Colleen as she works through a tumultuous emotional journey. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for MG readers, though; there’s quite a lot of implied or off-page sexual assault, in addition to on-page physical assault and bloodshed, and a couple of instances of light nudity, leading me to think some parents/guardians will want to block their pre-teens from tackling this graphic novel until they’re a little more mature.