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GC4K Book Club: Foiled

I confess, I felt equal parts hope and trepidation when I first heard about Foiled, by Jane Yolen.  I was hopeful that Ms. Yolen, who has successfully written pretty much every other kind of book, would be a successful writer of graphic novels as well.  I felt trepidatious because … well … what if she wasn’t?  So when the opportunity arose for us to read the book for Book Club, I jumped at the chance.  At least this way I wouldn’t be nervous alone.

Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro
Rated: 12+
First Second, April 2010, ISBN 9781596432796
160 pages, $15.99

Many thanks to First Second for providing enough review copies to go around.

From the book:  “Aliera Carstairs just doesn’t fit in. She’s always front and center at the fencing studio, but at school she’s invisible. And she’s fine with that . . . until Avery Castle walks into her first period biology class. Avery may seem perfect now, but will he end up becoming her Prince Charming or just a toad?”

Eva Volin:  Because we always start with the positive, I want to first mention the artwork (that sounds ominous for the story — sorry about that).  I love how Cavallero’s drawings mirror the smug self-satisfaction Aliera has for her fencing ability, as it is described by Yolen.

Katherine Dacey:  I agree about the artwork, Eva. Cavallero gives us a sense of just how narrow Aliera’s world really is, and how much her arrogance estranges her from her peers. Aliera is in just about every panel in the book, underscoring the degree to which we’re seeing things from her point of view — the old unreliable narrator trick given a fresh twist through images! The other thing I liked about Cavallero’s artwork is the color palette he uses (at least until the final act of the story); those greys and browns echo Aliera’s rather dark, moody temperament effectively.

As for the story, I liked the based premise, and I liked the fact that Aliera was so believably prickly. Aliera isn’t secretly nice or shy or sweetly eccentric; Aliera is fierce and brittle in a way that seems right for a girl who’s as physically powerful and socially awkward as she is. The fact that she’s simultaneously intrigued by and angry at the object of her affection is a particularly good touch, demonstrating the degree to which Yolen remembers how confusing and frustrating being a teenage girl really is.
Eva:  I also appreciated how Yolen touched on the guilt Aliera feels for ditching her long-standing date with her cousin to go out with a boy.  Even if her cousin hadn’t been homebound, that guilt would be there and many writers forget that step most kids go through: will my friends still be my friends if my life changes? And since Aliera’s life hasn’t changed in ages, due to its narrow focus, she hasn’t really had to deal with this before.  She has no coping skills.

Robin Brenner:  I also appreciate a story that has touching supernatural or fantastical adventures, but unlike many recent series for girls, ranging from Twilight through The Hunger Games and The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Foiled is not (as of yet) going to involve an epic, melodramatic romance.  While Yolen presents Aliera’s awkward stirrings of romance perfectly, this is not a book where the handsome boy will become her world, or even be the prince he may seem.  Yolen makes it all far more complicated, promptly deflating a lot of the romantic cliches currently plaguing teen literature, and instead putting forward a story about a strong, uncompromising heroine who cares as much if not more about her friends than the boy who’s caught her attention.

In this way, our heroine feels more like the much recent beloved Katsa from the fantasy novel Graceling by Kristin Cashore.  Aliera is all that Kate says: prickly, arrogant, determined, and inwardly uncertain while externally lashing out.  Both she and Avery are far from perfect, and I can already tell that their journey together is not only not over but will likely irrevocably change their outlook.

I am looking forward to seeing how Caroline reacts to all of this Defender business — and whether she in fact will be the ally Aliera is expecting.  As a long time reader of tales about the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, I’m desperate to know more!

Esther Keller:  I have very mixed and unsure feelings about Foiled.

Reading this comic, I couldn’t point to anything “wrong.”  The artwork is superb. (I wholeheartedly agree that the use of color was wonderful. I love the differentiation between Aliera’s real world and the fantasy world she discovers.) The storytelling is excellent. The characterization is marvelous.  And yet, I wasn’t jumping up and down after reading this title. It didn’t excite me.

My first critique or reason for this is probably because this volume is just a setup.  Nothing really happens until the end. And while that’s not unusual for a first volume, it wasn’t exciting enough for me.  I wanted more to happen in this volume.  A little more action a little less set up.

Scott Robins:  I have to agree with Esther here. I enjoyed the book, but I felt the book could have opened with Aliera’s discovery of the other world and important fragments of the backstory could have been told in flashbacks or interspersed through the narrative. It leaves the ending a bit unsatisfying because nothing really happens. Sure we know that Aliera has some kind of role in defending this other world, but there’s not enough here to forecast any clues as to what’s going to happen in subsequent books — there will be a second volume of this, correct? On it’s own I think it fails to deliver a sold, self-contained story.

That said, Yolen does a fabulous job on Aliera’s voice — it’s so distinct and idiosyncratic and has enough pop culture references to make the book relevant, but not too many to make it seem too ‘trendy.’ My only other criticism, and this may be just a symptom of ‘I’ve written my first graphic novel,’ but did anyone else think that it was just a bit too over-narrated?

Robin:  I will say, upon finishing this first volume, I wondered how much more there might be.  I am willing to wait to see how the narrative unfolds, now that I realize this is the beginning of the story, but I can definitely see how the slower beginning could end up being a problem.  I’m not sure how many more volumes are planned, but there’s a part of me that hopes it’s more than two volumes — this is the kind of beginning that would expand to cover a 300-400 page novel, and I would hope they’d let the story progress naturally at that pace in the way that many manga fantasy series do.  On the other hand, I’m not that optimistic that it will be longer than two volumes simply because publishers are often unwilling to commit to a long series unless it’s a definite money-maker.

I also see what you mean, Scott, about it feeling over-narrated.  I do think that’s a common problem with first time graphic novels, even if the writer is well-versed in comics.  I do think that in this case, it wasn’t too much for me — the images told more of the details of the story, as they should, while the narration or internal monologue was not over-explaining the images.  Was there too much narration?  Possibly. I was grateful the words weren’t just explaining what we were seeing on the page, although that doesn’t automatically make it a great graphic novel.  I know that some readers (myself often included) get very tired of stories told through voiceover, which is essentially what this story is.  Did anyone else get irked by that?

Katherine:  I had a similar reaction to the narration, Robin. I felt like the artwork needed a little more room to breathe, as the script sometimes overwhelmed the images. I wasn’t always sure why this particular story needed to be told in sequential art medium; if anything, Aliera’s voice-overs seemed better suited for a traditional YA prose novel.

Esther:  I think you make a good point, Kate. The narration lends itself to a prose novel.  The comic format is a nice added touch, but the story could have been told either way.

Katherine:  I’m glad it’s not just my “show don’t tell!” bias asserting itself, Esther!

I have a question for the librarians: how did you feel about the fantasy element that’s introduced at the very end of the volume? Personally, I was disappointed that Yolen chose to take Foiled in that direction, as I thought it was working really well as a character study up until the scene in Grand Central Station. I would have preferred a story that reached a satisfying end in the real world — and by “satisfying,” I mean true to the realism of Foiled’s earlier pages, not necessarily true to what readers might hope will happen (i.e. misfit girl gets cute guy, in spite of her prickly behavior and insecurities). Is that just my adult sensibility asserting itself, or do you think your tween and teen readers would have a similar reaction to the introduction of a fantasy-adventure plot?

Robin:  Kate, on my part, I’m a long-time fantasy reader, and so departing into a fantasy realm was expected and enjoyed.  Jane Yolen is well known as an author who tends toward fantasy and I would have been surprised if it hadn’t veered toward something fantastical.  In fact, I was pleased with it being urban fantasy — i.e. fantastical elements introduced into an ordinary, modern life.  I might ask how much fantasy you read or have read given your reaction.  That twist was not at all jarring for me as I am comfortable with the tropes, but I can definitely see how it would be odd to someone who’s not expecting or used to fantasy’s traditions.

There’s a lot of urban fantasy out there including novel series from Melissa Marr, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare.  Teens these days are gobbling up such series.  Harry Potter is still the touchstone for magic intruding on the real world, but it is by no means a new trend, with excellent series like the Bordertown short story collections, Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, and Diana Wynne-Jones’s Fire and Hemlock all appearing on the scene more than fifteen years ago.

Aside from just the fun of having fairies showing up in Grand Central Station, I think that the fantasy works well.  It’s slowly introduced, true, and it’s something that will work or not depending on where we go in future volumes. The key for me is this — there has to be a reason that its both fantastical and set in our world.  I have to feel like there’s a point to having the fantasy for Aliera’s journey aside from just having magic for the heck of it.  All good fantasy stories should reflect and refract our own world and issues or else they won’t have much impact, and this is no different.  So while I’m likely to pick up any story like this because of my love for urban fantasy, the story won’t succeed for me unless both sides come together in Aliera’s character development.

Esther:  I was also fine with the fantasy. In part, because Jane Yolen writes a lot of fantasy, and I was expecting it. Also, the story was set up in that direction and I was expecting it.  From the beginning I got the sense that there was something magical about the foil. Like Robin says, there’s a huge market for teens and fantasy reading, so I wasn’t at all disappointed with the direction of the story.
page 28 of Foiled
Katherine:  I’m more accustomed to the pace of shojo or shonen manga, where the author devotes one (or maybe two) chapters to the protagonist’s everyday life before introducing fantasy elements (e.g. being sucked into an alternate realm where he/she has magical powers). In Foiled, however, I felt the balance between the mundane and the fantasy elements was off — there was too much build-up and not enough pay-off, even if there will be subsequent volumes chronicling Aliera’s adventures.

Bottom line for me: I admired the craft that went into this book, and I liked Yolen’s portrayal of Aliera, but it didn’t work for me as a graphic novel or a fantasy-adventure.

Brigid Alverson:  I agree with Kate that the fantasy was introduced too abruptly. Yes, the gem on the hilt of the sword was a tip-off, but I wasn’t expecting to be plunged into a full-blown fantasy battle. I never really regained my footing after that. I just felt the first and second parts of the book weren’t well integrated. I started off reading one book and ended up reading another, and as I’m more a fan of realism than fantasy, I wish the creators had stuck with that first story and seen it out. In that respect, the fantasy portion felt like a copout—what do they do next? HEY LOOK, FAIRIES!!!

Furthermore, there was nothing about the book to even hint that this is the first volume of a series. I assumed the book would be complete in a single volume, and I was disappointed to come to the end and find that there was obviously more to the story. If the creators did a better job of signaling from the beginning that this was going to be a fantasy story, I would have liked it better. And I’m sorry, it’s not enough to say “That’s what Jane Yolen writes.” Not everyone is familiar with her (I wasn’t), and I think the book should be able to stand on its own.

I liked Aliera, and I agree that there was a good deal of emotional resonance to the things she went through—her relationship with her cousin, her love-hate relationship with the boy. The device of using her narration about fencing to mirror the events of the story was a bit obvious but well done, and I think for a younger reader who hasn’t seen much of that sort of thing before, it might really bring the story to life. I liked the metaphor of color-blindness as well. And one thing that I really liked was the way Aliera talks about the gross, physical aspect of fencing—it’s graceful, but it’s also sweaty and stinky and a lot of work.

Robin:  I definitely see the points about the abruptness of the change from realism to fantasy.  I do agree that the transition was clunky — perhaps because the length of the book didn’t really help the sudden shift.  If there had been more book to go, there might have been more time to explain just why we’d ended up with fairies.  With it cut off like this, there’s no sense of discovering where the fantasy is coming from story-wise or character-wise.  As Kate says, too much build up, not enough pay off.

On the other hand, I wonder what kind of signals you would need to know that the story was leading to fantasy.  Too obvious, and you’ve given up the fun of the surprise.  Perhaps the clues were too subtle?  I’ve read plenty of novels that end up being fantasy but aren’t for a good chunk of the story, and I don’t like them any less for the ratio of real life to fantasy.  The rise of urban fantasy has made this trope even more common — it’s your every day, angsty teenage life and then, wham, you find out you’re a changeling.  I do think the pacing in and of itself makes it work less well, but I maintain that introducing fantasy in this way isn’t a flaw but more a trope of the genre.

I do agree, Brigid, that any warning that it was a series would have helped.  I knew that from general osmosis of comics world buzz, but readers don’t really have any other clues.

Esther:  I’m trying to figure it out — were there clues in the story that made me realize this was going to be a fantasy or did I pick up on it because I know Jane Yolen writes fantasy?  (Actually, she also writes historical fiction and other genres.  Of late, it’s been fantasy.)  It feels a little like the chicken and egg scenario.  That jump to fantasy didn’t bother me at all, but the abrupt end of the story did bother me. I also thought the story would end in one volume.  And that goes back to the whole… this was way too much set up and not enough story conversation that we had earlier.

Eva:  I’ll be honest, the abrupt change from realism to fantasy was jarring to me as well.  Even knowing that Jane Yolen writes a lot of fantasy and fantasy-tinged books, it took so long to get there that I’d stopped anticipating it.  And I’m still not sure I’m happy it was there.  So this brings me to my wrap-up question.  We seem to be split on whether or not the jump to fantasy works in this book.  Did the rocky transition bump you right out of the story?  Or are you left at the non-end wanting to know what happens next?  Are you on board for the follow-up volume, assuming there is one?

Esther:  While the abrupt change didn’t bother me, the slow build-up did. So, yes, I probably will want to read the next volume, but it probably won’t immediately make it to the top of my reading pile.

Robin:  Esther, that’s pretty much where I am — I want to read the next volume, but I wonder at this volume’s cut off point.  I would have preferred a longer graphic novel so as to get more of an explanation in this volume, and not to have to wait for a second.

Brigid:  Not me. I’m out. I think Yolen and Cavallaro broke the contract with the reader when they shifted gears with so little warning, and since I’m not a fantasy fan anyway, there’s not much incentive to keep me going. On the other hand, I would have stayed with the book if it had stayed in the style it started out with.

Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.

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