I spent the first ten minutes of Queen of the Sea underwhelmed. The book’s set in the mid-1500s—maybe—it’s unclear because creator Dylan Meconis isn’t doing a straight historical fiction thing. Meconis is sort of doing Elizabeth versus Mary but not exactly. The world is a lot like fourteenth century England, but it’s not exact. Everything’s got different names and for a while it seems like there’s some point to it, the fake history lesson. There’s not. There are other real history lessons, which are great and interesting, but the fake history exposition at the beginning… big yawn.
And Queen of the Sea is geared fairly young. It ends up getting really complicated but the first fifth of the book seems like Meconis can’t get the engine started.
The opening scene is a problem. It’s the Elizabeth stand-in, Eleanor, only we don’t know her name yet because it’s just her and some dude talking about how she’s got to go because the enemy has arrived. They make plans. The dialogue’s iffy. The art’s… okay. It’s not a catchy opening at all. Then Meconis introduces protagonist Margaret, a tween living on an island in the something something itsh-Bray Channel in a convent. The convent’s the only thing on the island. Margaret’s an orphan.
Then comes the exposition dump, where Margaret explains everything to know about the convent and the island. The supporting cast, the geography. It’s a bunch and, while it often looks great, it’s a slog to read through. Because besides the main nun, none of the rest have much of an impact on Margaret’s character development or the story in general. And Queen’s got a big story. One day two new residents arrive on the island—a fellow kid, albeit a boy, named William and his very serious mom. They’re political prisoners, exiled to the island for safe keeping (of sorts).
Margaret and William become friends and make all sorts of discoveries about their lives, including how it just so happens all the nuns in the convent are nuns because they’re political exiles too. Margaret’s there for a similar reason, even if she doesn’t find out what exactly. The arc with William and his mother and how they change Margaret’s life is fantastic. It’s where I stopped wondering if I was wasting my time with Queen. Meconis has very pretty art with a great style, but the art’s not challenging. It’s welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with how often Queen interrupts the comic to insert a prose block, which doesn’t negate the book being incredibly successful with that device. And once Meconis gets more comfortable about Margaret’s narration and we’re done with all the fake place names, the pauses in the comic narrative get to be a bonus. When Meconis and Margaret explain how the nuns’ day works—eight hours and what’s done during those hours—it’s this fantastic double-page perfectly executed infographic. It’s awesome.
It just took the book a while to get there through some rough waters.
But then it turns out the William stuff is just prologue. He’s how Margaret learns to be around people who aren’t nuns or the convent servants; she’ll need to learn to apply those lessons once the Queen from the first scene shows up on the island. It doesn’t take long before Margaret is ex-Queen Eleanor’s bestest friend, even if Eleanor doesn’t want one; a big part of Margaret’s character development is how she internalizes the teachings of the convent order and how to help those in need. Eleanor is in need, Margaret is bound to help her. It’s fascinating character stuff.
Especially once the secrets, adventures, and romances start playing out.
Meconis is always able to ratchet up the stakes, without ever losing sight of how to best make it work for Margaret’s character development. Queen’s got a very strong lead character and Meconis is very deliberate with her. Great work.
Queen of the Sea isn’t short. Approximately 400 pages. The first 85 or so are maybe tough, the next 150 are great, the final 165 are even better. The weird not historical fiction but also not exactly ahistorical fiction takes some time to work itself out. Also very weird is how Meconis handles religion. It’s too cute, especially given the convent angle.
But it’s a good graphic novel. Very impressive work from Meconis.
There’s a sequel tease at the very end, which seemed a little too forced but I’m also very interested in reading said sequel.