Saturday, April 21, 2007

Book Review: Neotopia

When's the last time we had a book review around here, anyway?

Neotopia by Rod Espinosa. Four volumes: The Enlightened Age, The Perilous Winds of Athanon, The Kingdoms Beyond, and The New World. Antarctic Press Pocket Manga, San Antonio: 2004.

If manga, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, kung fu films, swashbucklers, Dinotopia, and sword-and-sorcery all got together and had a kid, that kid might look something like Neotopia.

In the distant future, pollution, lack of resources, and man's inhumanity to man have led to the collapse of the Age of Heavy Industry. Out of the ashes of the old world arose a new world, Neotopia, a time when man has learned to live in harmony with nature. Joining humans in this new, enlightened civilization are the magical elves and fairies formerly banished from the humanity's mechanized society, as well as numerous animorphic extraterrestrial races trapped on Earth for no particular reason.

In the enlightened kingdom of Mathenia, Crown Princess Nydia is a spoiled brat who would rather spend her time going to lavish balls than going to school, learning combat training, and preparing to be Mathenia's empress. To escape her duties, Nydia forces her servant Nalyn to dress in her clothes and, with the help of fairy glamour, imitate the crown princess. Unbeknownst to Nydia, Nalyn, a much more intelligent and generous person, is slowly stealing her entire life.

And Nalyn is about to get more than she bargained for when she accepted this deal. The neighboring empire of Krossos, a last vestige of the Age of Heavy Industry, begins an all-out war on Neotopia, which will propel Nalyn to the role of military leader. Captain of the floatship Intrepid Explorer, she and her oddball crew, including aliens, a brownie, a psychic dolphin, and an android, among others, will embark on a desperate quest to rally the scattered Neotopian nations together to beat back the Krossian invasion. Nalyn's tough but likable (and oddly gullible) character indicates Espinosa is fond of grrrl power, as he further demonstrates with The Courageous Princess and Battle Girlz.

Central to the comic is Espinosa's impressive art. He has a degree in Architectural Drafting, and it shows. His landscapes, architecture, and costume design are an inventive, highly detailed blend of styles complemented by impressive digital color. All of this adorns a lush world full of creative machines and strange people. There's lots of eye candy in Neotopia; It stands with Dinotopia and Robota as one of the most fun fantasy/sf books to look at. And like those works, it suffers somewhat from weak writing.

The only real drawback to the art of Neotopia is the "Amerimanga" style. In imitating manga, Espinosa matches many of the Japanese comics' strengths, but he also matches some of their weaknesses. His characters have a range of about four facial expressions, and talking balloons often float around with no clear attachment to a speaker. Espinosa does, however, refrain from closeups so tight you can't tell what you're looking at.

By far the greatest problem is not Espinosa's fault, but his publisher's. These volumes are so small, you'll want a magnifying glass to read some of the dialogue. This shrinking is especially detrimental because of the quality of the artwork.

There's lots of good stuff in the Neotopian universe, but the centerpiece is undoubtedly the floatships. They look like big boats with elongated balloons in place of sails. They float on water, sometimes dive under the water, and also fly through the air. This gives Espinosa opportunity to combine old-fashioned swashbuckling with numerous physics-bending aerial stunts. Why board an enemy ship by crossing a plank or swinging on a rope when you can do it by skydiving? He has to make some ridiculous explanations of why aerial battles don't pop the ships' balloons, though.

Most of the series consists of a whirlwind tour of Neotopia as the Intrepid Explorer and her crew visit each of the enlightened societies in turn, braving hazards, fighting skirmishes, and developing formulaic romances on the way. The plot and characters are all conventional. So big is the epic story that it often feels rushed: Espinosa wipes out an entire race of elves in about three panels, for example, and then brings them back in the epilogue (!). The story also features a clichéd romance, and the plot ends with some forced "twists," one of which is a cheap, though effective, tear-jerker. Complicating matters is the gigantic cast of villains who are indistinguishable in personality as well as appearance. The book might have done better with one evil emperor and one nasty general (a Palpatine-Vader duo) instead of a huge committee of evil emperors and three or four nasty generals, not to mention several quislings and traitors.

Like a high fantasy, the story ends with a big battle sequence occupying most of the fourth volume. In a high fantasy, however, the final battle is just scenery because the important thing is the magic doohickey that's either the villain's one weakness or the source of his power. In Neotopia, the final battle is actually important and decisive, though it still follows conventions: The villains make boneheaded moves such as sending their allies into the front and withholding air support just to show how nasty and callous they really are, and the heroes have unexpected allies who show up at the last minute.

The conventional epic storyline prevents Espinosa from exploring his world's complexity. As the Intrepid Explorer visits each Neotopian land in turn, the Neotopians' claims of enlightenment sound increasingly hollow. Eriden, for example, looks like a genuine paradise, but as it turns out, its inhabitants maintain their leisurely, idyllic lifestyles with the help of a massive slave labor force. The Lesazonians, in turn, are a race of vicious womyn who "cleanse" male-dominated societies with mustard gas and smart bombs. By the end of the story, the battle between Krossia and Neotopia is not so much a battle between evil and good as a battle between evil and less evil. In all this, Espinosa shows more wisdom than James Gurney, author and illustrator of Dinotopia, who suggests that humans would give up war and greed if they only hung out with talking dinosaurs and memorized platitudes like, "One drop raises the ocean." Espinosa, by contrast, depicts a better world in which human nature hasn't changed; Neotopia is flawed, and it maintains its precarious balance only through strict laws governing technology and scientific inquiry, laws that all Neotopians, one way or another, break.

This doesn't prevent Espinosa from an occasional lecture about abuse of the Earth. Claim is that eco-friendly technology would have been available in the Age of Heavy Industry if money-grubbing powermongers hadn't kept certain scientific secrets to themselves. Such lectures would be easier to take if Neotopian technology didn't include such things as perpetual motion machines and electronics powered by the human aura. Espinosa's vision of science is not quite as clear as his vision of people.

Espinosa's mature, realistic view of humanity may derive from a religious background. I don't pretend to know his religion, and I'm of the opinion that trying to guess an author's religion from his fiction is a good way to embarrass yourself. The Neotopians for the most part follow some form of polytheism, though no specific deities are mentioned. Espinosa himself, however, begins his acknowledgements at the end of the fourth volume by thanking God and ends by thanking his St. Matthew's Church Group. Neotopia's climax includes an event clearly inspired by the story of David and Goliath, probably the comic's only definite religious image, though a scene at the end reminds of some of the horrible experiments of the N.I.C.E. in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength.

The story is wholesome, sometimes inspiring, occasionally thoughtful, and fit for all ages. Neotopia is definitely a world worth visiting.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Neotopia:

Myth level: High (mythic world and plot line)

Quality: High (incredible artwork, entertaining story)

Religion/Ethics: High (fit for children)
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