The Shadow Glass has an amazing premise, an unusual setting, and a potentially fascinating main character.
Aly Fell sets this historical horror story in Elizabethan London, centered around a fictional version of real-life court magician John Dee. An archetypal “Renaissance Man” in every sense, Dee’s “magic” blended early modern Christian mysticism, science, and entertainment–and inspired literary figures from Prospero to Doctor Strange.
Pop-culture representations of Early Modern England tend to get stuck in cliches about Shakespearean romantic comedy or witch-craze horror. So it’s refreshing that Fell has realized the fantastic potential of Renaissance magic as historical source material. Basically, as soon as I heard about this book, I couldn’t wait to pick it up.
Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by the actual experience of reading Shadow Glass #1.
For starters, I had difficulty really getting immersed in the story because of its uneven tone. Fell has clearly done some careful research about Elizabethan history and culture, but doesn’t seem sure how to deploy it. His detailed drawings of clothing and architecture are fantastic–whether Fell is drawing sunny Tudor houses or dark, musty interiors, the art instantly transports you to this strange fictional world with admirable specificity and detail.
In contrast, the first two pages start with a cheesy, very extensive description of what sixteenth-century London looks and smells and feels like.
Is this book trying to immerse us in a vivid historical setting, or to set up an ironic, pulpy tone? To be clear, either would be fine! There’s nothing wrong with luxurious supernatural-historical comics-verité… or with ironically purple prose. But the overall effect is uneven and mixed, like Shadow Glass can’t fully commit to how seriously–or non-seriously–it wants to take itself.
It’s also in the first few pages that Shadow Glass is most riveting and well-paced, as we (barely) glimpse the terrible magical horror at the heart of the story: a fateful betrayal twenty years before the main action. This is the best, most interesting part of the story so far: a short flashback about actual magic. By contrast, the rest of issue #1 is mostly the young protagonist, Rosalind, asking earnest questions of old men who are hiding things from her. Any sense of mystery, as well as Rosalind’s entire motivation (discovering the dark secrets in her family’s past) is undermined by this flashback. I can’t help but think that the structure of this book would be much more interesting if Rosalind’s knowledge (or lack thereof) lined up with the reader’s. Otherwise, we’re just watching a character find out what we already know.
On the surface, Rosalind is everything I like in a heroine. She’s determined, brave, and plain-spoken. She’s named after one of my favorite characters, and she dresses like my namesake Molly Frith. I mean, she’s a sword-fighting student of a legendary magician! (What’s not to love?)
But in practice, Rosalind is a bit of a blank slate. Fell draws her with confused wide eyes and a soft, slack mouth as she asks “Father…? Father? Father?” again and again and again.
(Seriously, the word makes up a disconcertingly high percentage of her dialogue.)
I get the sense that Rosalind is supposed to be a nascent adventurer coming into her own, but we’re not seeing much of that side of her yet. She’s reduced to a girl in search of old men’s answers, defined by the sins of her father(s), and the exact nature of her education under Dee is completely passed over… at least for now.
To be fair, none of these criticisms should be the final word on Shadow Glass. This won’t be the last issue I’ll read, because it’s still entirely possible that issue #2 will more fully develop Fell’s potentially fascinating alt-historical world, or give some depth to his potentially fascinating heroine. These might be the awkward birthing pains of a solid new series, or they might be fundamental flaws.
Story: Aly Fell Art: Aly Fell
Story: 6 Art: 8 Overall: 7 Recommendation: Wait and See
Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review