The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City (2012) is a graphic novel by author Jared Axelrod and illustrator Steve Walker set on the flying city of Amperstam. What keeps the city flying is a bit of a mystery, and one girl who hates mysteries is Ashe, who does her own investigating, writing, and publishing for her broadsheet The Lurker’s Guide. As one might expect, this sort of digging into the well-kept secrets of the powerful doesn’t go over too well and soon Ashe is matching wits with Amperstam’s ruler (referred to as Provost), dealing with intimidation and thuggery, running from hired assassins, and trying to figure out if this is the life she wants or if she might give in to the temptation of the upper class life offered up by a rich patron who has romantic feelings for her.
At her side is her best friend and fellow journalist Tolban; Cardor, the aforementioned patron, and a non-Amperstamian, a sky captain who was forced to land aboard Amperstam earlier. Though they assist her, both Tolban and Cardor have mixed feelings about Ashe’s chosen life and fear for her future (and both would like very much to be part of her future as well). Opposed to her is the cold-and-hard-as-iron Provost and her minions, especially the sadistic captain Olig and the assassin Brilliana, with whom the Provost has an intriguing relationship.
The story moves along quickly and smoothly. The setting of Amperstam feels like a real city with its divisions of class and neighborhood, though beyond the mystery driving the story — how does the city fly — I would have preferred more of a sense of its uniqueness as a flying city. It feels like a real city, but I would have thought it should have felt like much more.
The characters are solid and while I wouldn’t call them particularly richly drawn, the authors do complicate them beyond clichés. Ashe is the plucky young woman who is determined to rise above her past and have an impact by righting wrongs, which is pretty standard, but the decision to have her get at least a taste of the comfortable life via Cardor was a good one, allowing us to witness her being torn, even if it isn’t explored for any length of time. The Provost is presented at first as the clichéd iron-fisted overlord/tyrant, but she is complicated first by a scene with the assassin and later by a scene between her and Ashe (the Provost is unaware it is Ashe to whom she is speaking) where she looks back a bit wistfully at how she got to this point in her life. Captain Olig is more of a caricature/cliché, while Torbald is mostly non-descript as the usual faithful sidekick.
I like the illustration style of The Battle of Blood and Ink more than I liked the last few graphic novels I’ve looked at, such as Girl Genius. There is very little exaggeration of facial expressions, the characters are presented with an ethnic/racial diversity which is nice to see, and in general the black and white drawings present a clean, uncluttered look with some nice bit of detail in the background. Sometimes the characters do fall into what I would call an over-dramatic pose (the kind if you saw on stage you would cringe at the ham-fisted acting) and there are places where the heavy blacks muddy the action a bit.
The plot is a bit simplistic and standard-fare, pulls a bit of a deus ex machine with the appearance of a certain piece of technology, and things come together a bit too easily for the final climax. I suppose this is partially due to the constraint of the genre in terms of length — one of the reasons I tend to not be a fan of the graphic novel form in general. I prefer to take my time with character and story, so most graphic novels feel overly simplistic and too thin in both elements to appeal much to me. That said, while I didn’t care for The Battle of Blood and Ink as much as Dear Creature by Jonathan Case, which seems to me a recent high standard in this format and length, I did greatly prefer it to Girl Genius, despite that story’s huge popularity.