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Review: ‘Estranged: The Changeling King’

Estranged: The Changeling King
Writer/artist: Ethan M. Aldridge
Harper; $21.99

Ethan M. Aldridge’s 2018 modern fantasy Estranged was premised on a slight twist of the concept of the changeling. In European folk belief, the fairies or other supernatural entities would steal a healthy human infant from its parents, replacing it in its cradle with a creature from their world, often one that was weak or sickly, or, sometimes, an older, wicked creature just posing as a baby.

Changeling stories don’t usually continue much longer than the revelation of the switch and the resolution of the conflict resulting from it, but Aldridge’s Estranged begins years afterwards, when human and changeling have both grown up in what would have been one another’s homes for several years.

The human child is simply called “The Child,” as his fairy parents, the king and queen of their underground fantasy realm, have always been cold and distant, treating him as something like an exotic pet to dress up as a knight and show off at their parties. The Child’s only friend is his servant Whick, a wax golem that is something like a living candle.

Being practically beneath the notice of the high court fairies helps save The Child when there’s a coup, and an evil fairy uses her magic to turn his adopted parents into mice and conquer the kingdom. The Child has nowhere to turn but to the changeling who took his place in the human world, Edmund.

Edmund, whose fairy powers and the knowledge of his secret lineage make him feel like an outsider, is of course reluctant to help, as the only life he’s ever known is with his human family, but he doesn’t have too much choice in the matter once creatures from the underworld start prowling around his neighborhood, looking for him. So the two kinda sorta brothers, and their older sister Alexis, who figures out what’s going on and insists on joining them to protect them both, journey to the fairy kingdom below the streets of their city, have an exciting series of adventures and, ultimately, save the kingdom.

When it’s all over, the changeling Edmund gives his name to the human Child, as he had essentially stolen it along with his identity, and allowed the Child to return to his parents in the real world. Meanwhile, he reclaims his original name of Cinder, and, after after they have deposed of the usurper, Cinder becomes the rightful king of the fairy realm.

Estranged, then, was a changeling tale with a happy ending, and a rather epic but gentle adventure full of sometimes familiar fantastical creatures and Aldridge’s impressive, immersive world-building and design work preceding it. In an epilogue, Cinder and Whick come to visit Edmund and Alexis, and explain everything to their parents; after all, they are all family, either by nature or by nurture, and, with other supporting characters, they’ve formed a broader found family.

As to how, exactly, that reunion ended up going, Aldridge left that to the reader’s imagination…at least until the release of second book in the series, Estranged: The Changeling King.

The two boys are now in their birth realms, both leading very different lives than they had before their very first meeting and both struggling to adjust. Edmund feels restless and unable to apply the quest-oriented nature of his fantasy kingdom to everyday, normal people life. Cinder, now King Cinder, is struggling to rule a kingdom where he’s technically of the highest caste of creature, but he doesn’t have the same aristocratic worldview of his peers and would prefer to rule in a more egalitarian manner.

Both boys get a distraction when Edmund and his whole family—parents included—come to visit the kingdom, but the visit is interrupted by an emergency quest, in which special seeds of magic must be gathered and distributed in order to keep the fairy realm running as it always has.

By bringing the parents into the magical other realm, Aldridge does something fairly daring with genre convention, making almost every panel in which they appear below ground somewhat intensely suspenseful, although he also demonstrates why grown-ups so rarely make these sorts of journeys with children: It’s a lot harder to write a realistic grown-up in such circumstances without short-circuiting the momentum of the narrative. Indeed, after some fun fish-out-of-water bits, the parents get everyone into a great deal of trouble and end up leaving mid-quest.

As with the first book though, Aldridge again ends Changeling King with an exceptionally unusual move in which the fantasy and mundane realms are knitted together far more closely than is usually the case in such stories.

There is apparently no current plan for the publication of a third book, which is something of a pity, as Aldridge definitely laid a little groundwork for a future conflict involving Edmund and some of the denizens below.  This time, then, Aldridge really has left what comes next regarding a dramatic shift in status quo to the reader’s imagination.

Many readers will find their imaginations are up to the task, of course, but the beauty of a compelling comic series like this is that after two books, we already know how wide, deep and rich Aldridge’s own imagination is, and we’ve seen him so fully realize his thoughts with masterfully designed and drawn imagery.

If there ever is a third book, I think it’s safe to say it will be a good one. 

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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