I grew up on fantasy series: Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and Brian Jacques were among my favorites. Jacques, in particular, had a special charm for his earthy depictions of anthropomorphic animals in the quasi-medieval Redwall series, which contrasted with so much of the “high fantasy” I was surrounded by as a child. Animals formed their own distinct societies, but there was a common humanity in those stories as well. Beyond the Western Deep hits a few those of same good feelings, and the first collected volume of this webcomic introduces a surprisingly deep world that evokes some of the goodness of Redwall.
The Four Kingdoms are a landmass home to four different nation-states: Sunsgrove, Navran, Kishar, and Aisling. After two centuries of peace, the fragile truce between them is failing as the Canids face war with the Ermehn, whose land they originally seized. Sunsgrove, home to the Lutren and the Tamians, is obliged by treaty to assist the Canids, and the story focuses on a young Tamian captain of the guard named Quinlan.
For somebody who doesn’t read very many webcomics, the format of this book takes a bit of getting used to. Individual pages don’t have a great deal of dialogue on them, so it’s a break from the text heavy comics that I’m used to. That isn’t to say that the comic is light on substance: there are seven races, four kingdoms, and multiple characters to keep track of just in this first chapter, and I have a feeling it’s going to become more complicated as time goes on. However, the pacing is very different from a typical twenty-four page comic, as there’s no particular rush to introduce everybody and everything all at once.
When it comes to substance, this book does well. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for the geopolitical in any story, and that’s what you get here. Power politics are at the root of this story, and while it does seem to be closely anchored to Quin and his friends, it’s thus far about their place within this order. Whether they can shape it at, all is another question entirely. It also raises the complicated kinds of questions I like: should Sunsgrove help the Canids even if they’re fighting people whose land they stole? What happens if they refuse? The inclusion of the Ermehn’s perspective is also good, though it does get a bit less attention compared to Quin. There are divisions on their side as well about the wisdom of provoking a war or of using deception to unite the tribes.
Overall, I had a good time reading this book. There were a few issues, however, mostly related to form. The book feels very short, and while it does pack a lot of context in, the action is comparably much smaller. I’d like the second chapter to introduce characters beyond Quin and Hardin in greater depth, who were the only two I felt like I had a real grasp of. And the generally slow pace of webcomics does mean that the second chapter (not yet collected as far as I know) took a year and a half to finish. Burdened as I am with A Song of Ice and Fire, I almost hesitate to adopt another fantasy series that will resolve itself slowly. Still, I’m nothing if not an addict, and I’m currently reading chapter two of the series, so I guess it’s hooked me.
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Beyond the Western Deep Volume
Writer: Alex Kain
Artist: Rachel Bennet
Publisher: Action Lab Comics
Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital