Comics, Reviews

Piecing Hope Together in Shattered Warrior by Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag

Shattered Warrior - Sharon Shinn, Molly Knox Ostertag - First Second, 2017Shattered Warrior

Sharon Shinn (Writer), Molly Knox Ostertag (Artist)
First Second
May 16, 2017
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Warning: mentions of rape, violence.

It was the brown face that caught my attention when I was first presented with the cover for Sharon Shinn’s Shattered Warrior. Jagged edges frame and section a face that still communicates determination and defiance, a testament to Molly Knox Ostertag’s art. Colleen Cavanaugh won’t be stopped, the cover seems to say, even on this cover. It’s an optimistic promise that sets up the graphic novel with the flair it needs to transport readers to Colleen’s world.

Sharon Shinn, known for her prolific work in the fantasy genre, brings some of that background to Shattered Warrior. While technically it would be categorized as science-fiction, there’s an undeniable epic fantasy style to the way Shinn works with her dialogue and exposition. Colleen’s tone is lofty without being snobbish—you get the sense that she’s reminding herself of her purpose in life just as much as it informs the reader of her philosophies. For much of the first half, almost every character seems hesitant, their words measured and balanced in contrast to Colleen’s.

Shattered Warrior panel 1 – Sharon Shinn, Molly Knox Ostertag – First Second, 2017

We’re introduced to the characters around her just as slowly. The Derichets, aliens who have colonized Colleen’s planet among many others, scowl predictably, with one exception. Angit rescues Colleen from a confrontation with the glowering Korso—whether or not he remains a friend is something readers will have to discover on their own. Korso himself is not a particularly memorable villain, and his most evil actions aren’t surprising so much as they play into common fantasy tropes. A rape scene occurs in mostly silence, and I found myself wondering why Shinn felt it was necessary to illustrate Korso’s ruthlessness and violence. His ability to terrorize the humans at the factory was quite enough, and there are several scenes that display these qualities with more care from the writer. A few pages later, it was Molly Knox Ostertag’s contemplative panels that gave both the character and me time to breathe, time to sink into the reality of what this colonization and violence have wrought on the planet and its people.

Speaking of the human characters, I was pleasantly cheered to find that Colleen wasn’t the only brown person in the book. Several characters have differing shades of darker skin, hinting at a world filled with residents of all sorts of races. Tim’s grandfatherly air and Clary’s quiet strength balance Colleen’s leashed temper, and her relationship with Rose, while halting at first, adds necessary definition to her family life. Where the book is weakest is how it handles the sparks between Colleen and Jann, a Chromatti who she encounters near her home. There isn’t enough time to see what connects them besides a mutual interest, and Shinn seems to choose world building over relationship building more often than not.

At its core, Shattered Warrior is about hope, and how we move in a world when it seems like a foreign concept. Here, Ostertag’s art shines. Characters’ eyes crease and fold with subtle emotion, wisps of it flitting from page to page. There are several silent moments, and the story uses those silences deliberately, moving the reader through days at a time. Flashbacks are smooth, coloured in muted browns and oranges, sans the scratchy lines that shadow faces in the rest of the book’s panels.

Shattered Warrior panel 2 - Sharon Shinn, Molly Knox Ostertag - First Second, 2017

There is never a completely dark panel—Ostertag fills backgrounds with pinks and yellows, leading to a stunning center spread of purple and white. Like the story itself, the colours and illustrations move with a subtle beat, flaring every few pages to catch the reader and draw them in closer once again. While I was not completely engaged with the story for at least the first full read-through, it was the art that beckoned me back, asking me to reconsider and rediscover Colleen’s world. It was an invitation I found myself answering again, and once more, as hope itself seems to do in a dark moment.