Reviewed by Donald Lemke
Since Jeff Smith's Bone, few graphic novels have truly captured the imagination of an all-ages audience. It's a difficult task, satisfying the curiosities of youth while pandering to the expectations of adults. Fortunately, Kazu Kibuishi, creator of Daisy Kutter and editor of the acclaimed Flight anthologies, has discovered the secret formula in Amulet: The Stonekeeper, book one of his much-anticipated series from Scholastic.
In Amulet, Kibuishi doesn't give readers, young or old, a chance to turn away. His distinctly cinematic style will immediately captivate readers from the opening panels. A loving family travels peacefully along an icy, mountain road. Suddenly, oncoming headlights blind the father's view. He swerves, and the station wagon skids off the side of the road, careening down a steep hillside. Miraculously, a tree stops the car from plummeting over a deadly cliff. The mother and her daughter, Emily, scramble out of the doomed vehicle; the father, however, is trapped inside, his legs pinned underneath the dashboard. As the car teeters on a ledge, Emily instinctively clings to the rear bumper, desperately trying to stop the vehicle from falling. Her attempts are useless. She is powerless...at least in this world.
The heart-pounding opening sequence demonstrates Kibuishi's skill for pacing, which he proves time and again throughout the book. Some moments, such as the accident, move rapidly, like the linear frames of a film. Others are deliciously decelerated, like the painful moments before the father's death. The sequence also establishes a tone for Kibuishi's entire series. A dose of harsh reality immediately grounds readers before sending them into a world of fantasy and science fiction. It also sets the stakes of life and death, a barometer for the risks versus consequences during the adventures to come.
After the tragic accident, Emily, her mother, and her younger brother Navin move into a shabby, old country home to start a new life. The house belonged to Emily's great-grandfather Silas Charnon, an eccentric puzzle maker; although Silas mysteriously disappeared long ago, a few of his puzzles and inventions still remain. On the very first day, Emily and her brother discover a crimson amulet in the dusty attic, and unaware of its power, Emma ties the amulet around her neck. That night, after drifting off to sleep, Emily is awakened by a voice from within the glowing amulet. "Your family is in danger. Stay with them. Keep them safe," the mysterious voice cautions. (40) Moments later, a loud "thump!" echoes from the basement, and Emily's mother investigates. The children chase after her, but they are too late -- a giant, tentacled beast has swallowed her up and scuttered away through a door to the netherworld. In the first of many decisions to come, Emily and Navin head through the portal as well.
On the other side of the doorway, the real story begins, and Kibuishi's illustrations start to shine. While rescuing their mother, Emily and Navin encounter a grand landscape of spiraling peaks and bottomless valleys, each richly colored in murky shades of blue. The simple, moody scheme of the background makes the life-forms discovered within all the more appealing. Mauve mushrooms, pink and purple snails, and, of course, the brilliant glow of the amulet, all exude a sort of kindness and light. In contrast, a dull, grey creature known as Trellis, the son of an Elf King, follows the children in their quest. He lurks like a shadow, seeking the amulet's power. The children, on the other hand, follow the guidance of the amulet, which advises, "Seek the aid of the man who lives at the house...your great grandfather, Silas Charnon." (62)
Their arrival at Silas's house is a pivotal moment in the story, and Kibuishi treats it accordingly. For much of the book the images are confined to small, almost claustrophobic panels. Although Kibuishi's illustrative skill is evident throughout, the tight angles and talking heads don't give the reader an opportunity to view the full extent of his abilities. When he finally opens up, in one of the book's few splash pages, the result is a wonderfully majestic image, like the photograph of a daydream.
The nonhuman characters found in the house are also brilliantly imagined and rendered. Dozen of multi-colored robots live within, including a mechanical rabbit named Miskit. Unfortunately, the children soon discover that their great grandfather is ill, and the robotic world cannot outlast his own death -- unless, of course, Emily agrees to accept the power of the amulet and rule over the land of Alledia. "What if I told you this power would allow you to turn back time?" says Silas, trying to entice his hesitant granddaughter. "There must have been a time in your life when you were happier." (100) Like Emily, the reader experiences the weight of this decision. It's more than a fantastical choice; Kabuishi has woven layers of responsibility, family, survival, and childhood happiness into the outcome.
Kabuishi answers the question of what Emily decides to do in book one, but he leaves many other problems unresolved, and though a dramatic battle with Trellis provides a climax, the story will leave some readers unfulfilled.
Thankfully, Kabuishi has at least two more volumes of Amulet in the works -- plenty of time to satisfy his fans and attract even more all-ages readers to this refreshing series.
Books mentioned in this post