MMGM (1/20/2020): Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! For MMGM, I am recommending the graphic novel Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis.




         Queen of the Sea is a historically inspired graphic novel set in the 1500s on an island off the country of Albion (loosely based on the U.K.). The book's protagonist and narrator, Margaret, is a child who lives on this island, a remote convent populated only by six nuns, a priest, and three staff. Margaret does not know who her parents were or why she has come to live on the island; she only knows that she was brought to the nuns aboard the Regina Maris (a ship that visits the island twice a year) and has lived with them ever since. Margaret has not left the island since arriving, but she has grown accustomed to the island's unaltered beauty and her life at the convent, ultimately preparing to become a nun as an adult. When a boy her age named William and his noblewoman mother arrive on the island, she becomes even happier finally having a friend her own age. But then another woman arrives on the island: Eleanor, once the queen of Albion until her half-sister Catherine sent her away to claim the crown for herself. As Margaret gets to know both William and Eleanor, she learns surprising information about the island and becomes involved in the treacherous drama of royalty.

          I have reviewed many books in the three years I have been blogging, and I have recommended many of these. However, with many books that I recommend, I feel that they are a great book to add to the bottom of your to-be-read pile if they sound like something you would enjoy. With Queen of the Sea, I feel that it is a book to put at the very top of your to-be-read pile regardless of if it sounds like something you would enjoy. Frankly, this book is one of the best books I have ever read!

         One of the best parts of Queen of the Sea is what a vivid picture it paints of life in the 1500s. I have always wondered how anyone lived happily in a time when there was virtually no entertainment and countless chores (drinking a glass of milk was far harder than just running to Walmart and grabbing a gallon), not to mention confining social norms (especially for women). After reading Queen of the Sea, I understand how people found joy in their lives during such a time. Whether keeping busy with chores, exploring the island and its many beautiful locations, playing games, or finding solace in religious customs and stories, Margaret makes a pleasant, vividly depicted, and fascinating life for herself. (I also appreciate that the setting of a convent allows for female independence that likely was not prevalent in other facets of society at the time.) Queen of the Sea is filled with information about what life was like at the time, especially on a convent: you will never have to wonder what each nun did, when people prayed, how a convent was set up, or what being a Christian was generally like at the time. Author Dylan Meconis has clearly done a near-ridiculous amount of research to make Queen of the Sea accurate (albeit with some fictional elements) and truly realistic, and every page of exposition needed to accomplish this feeling is worth it. (You can read more about how Meconis balanced extreme accuracy and fiction in this interesting NPR article.)

          Of course, every book needs an interesting plot and compelling characters, and Queen of the Sea does not disappoint in those regards either. Margaret is a fabulous narrator and protagonist. She is exceedingly brave and clever, never afraid to stand up for what she believes in and who she cares about or to think up and execute an ingenious plan. Margaret is curious and adventurous, but she also finds satisfaction in the calm, isolated lifestyle of the island and convent, which make her especially realistic: no one is always content with their current life, but characters who despise the way they live now often end up bitter and unlikeable. Meconis balances Margaret's contradictory character aspects in a way that makes her seem far more realistic than the one-note protagonists that pervade many books today. The nuns and convent staff are also fascinating characters: although character development largely centers around the prioress, Sister Agnes, every character has a fascinating backstory and a role that makes them seem real. Although we do not see quite enough facets of Eleanor (though she is more mysterious than underdeveloped), the glimpses we get of her feelings about the royal life and slowly developing fondness toward Margaret are wonderful (plus, the clear setup for a sequel leaves room for far more development). Finally, the book's plot balances calm, beautiful moments to savor with exciting action and plenty of emotion and humor: although the logic of the plot gets a bit muddled at points regarding who knows what and how that puts them in danger, those few points are easy to overlook in the context of everything else's excellence.

          The last attribute of Queen of the Sea I want to discuss is the art and format. This book is a graphic novel, and it has an entirely unique and beautiful art style characterized by surprisingly detailed faces and lush, watercolor-like backgrounds. (Many panels are so stunning that one could frame them.) The book has many comic-style panels and many illustrated sequences of prose narration, and these sequences are often characterized by inventive layouts: at one point, when Margaret learns to play chess, each chess piece is depicted as a real person or structure like its inspiration, flanked by a clever explanation of the piece's backstory and movement (for instance, the rook is a tower filled with troops on wheels that will only roll in straight lines). The book is also a fabulous example of how metaphors can be visual, not just written: when complex and fraught royal decisions have to be made, chessboard backgrounds or depictions of characters as chess pieces compare the thought and intentionality of the situation with that of chess. By combining flawless execution of the traditional graphic novel format with new and inventive pages and features, Queen of the Sea stands out from other graphic novels.

        Queen of the Sea is more of a commitment than other graphic novels: it is 394 pages with much prose, and fascinating exposition at the beginning means that, if you are only interested in the plot, you will have to wait around 100 pages. However, the commitment is absolutely worth it, as Queen of the Sea is one of the most exquisitely crafted, absorbing, and fun books I have read (graphic novels or not) in a long time. I promise you that, if you try this book, you will be captivated from beginning to end and left thrilled at the prospect of a sequel (even if it means a wait of a few years)!

Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Stunning!



Comments

  1. Wow. This sounds amazing. I like anything set in Medieval times. I will definitely put this at the top of my TBR list. Thanks for such a thorough review.

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  2. I do not usually read graphic novels, but after reading your glowing and insightful review of this book I may take the plunge! Thank you for the time you took to share your in-depth thoughts about this book. Happy MMGM!

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    1. Sure! I hope you like the book, and I'm glad you enjoyed the review!

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  3. My TBR pile might tip over with one more book, but your enthusiastic review has me intrigued. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and this time period is not one I've found in MG books. Thanks for featuring on MMGM. Timberrrrrr...there went my pile.

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  4. Your enthusiasm and your captivating and indepth review of the book makes it even more enticing. I love historical fiction, cringe at graphic novels, but this one may be worth it! Again, strong women! Will check it out. Thank you for sharing Queen of the Sea!

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