Porcelain: Ivory Tower
Benjamin Read (Writer), Chris Wildgoose (Artist), André May (colorist), Jim Campbell (letterer)
Opening more than ten years after the last book in the Porcelain series, covered here by Christa Seeley, Porcelain: Ivory Tower begins with a lone woman working in an expansive and tranquil garden complete with perfectly tended flowers and a butterfly. Known as Child in the first volume of the series and as Lady in the second volume, she is now known only as Mother and it quickly becomes evident that she exerts strict control over her household. Her title refers not only to her role as mother to both her biological daughter Victorienne (Tori) and her adopted daughter Ariemma (Ari), but also her status as the “Mother” of the entire race of porcelain creatures that she has created and controls through a combination of science and magic.
Though at first glance these Porcelains seem to be little more than automatons, they have evolved to have bodies that are suited to their own particular pursuits, which can range from helping in the kitchen, to creating art, to serving as a military force. Beyond their form, each maintains their own personality, opinions, desires, and, in some cases, religion as well, despite the fact that Mother has the power to force them to bend to her will and is quick to use it. Wildgoose’s intricate drawings hint at the impressive range of functionality and the depth of each individual’s personality with a deft subtlety, which helped to keep me invested in the growing tension between the Porcelain and Mother. His art style incorporates elements of steampunk in a way that I found to be a fitting complement to the story.
The peaceful setting of the garden ultimately serves as a stark contrast to the rest of the book, which is almost entirely about conflict and war, much of which is caused by Mother’s own choices. Although this volume does not delve into the characters’ pasts in great depth, it is clear that Mother has made enemies while building the tower that she and her children now inhabit. And, over the course of the book, these enemies build their strength to attack her stronghold in an attempt to drive her and her magical powers away. Though the book features impressive fight scenes and battles, these remain on the periphery, never stealing too much attention from Mother and her daughters, making this much more of a story about power eating away at a solitary woman and less a war story. I felt that this focus on the diverse cast of characters made for a much more compelling read than did the war elements of the book. By the end of the book, I felt that I had seen clear character development, for both better and worse, and had a real sense of who these people are, which left me wanting to read even more as the book ended.
While she firmly believes that she has the best interests of all of her children at heart and is confident that her approach is the only way to save them, Mother’s attempts to exert complete control over both her human and her Porcelain children ultimately and inevitably backfire. The book offers a powerful glimpse at the way that power, control, and fear can lead a person to make shortsighted decisions. In some ways, Mother is an admirable figure. She is clearly smart and skilled at the science/magic that allows her to create her Porcelain children. The choice to present her as an appealing character initially makes it all the more powerful as the reader slowly watches her make decisions that are the result of fear and a need for absolute control rather than rationality. Much of the intensity of the story comes from the fact that Mother finds herself backed into corners (many of her own making) that readers know she will not escape unscathed. It is fitting that the reader only occasionally sees the enemy forces throughout the book, because in the end, it is Mother rather than those who would attack her that drives the central confrontations. Though this occasionally left me frustrated with the character, I felt that author Benjamin Read still managed to make her a believable character and kept me invested in her story.
With a protagonist called only Mother, it is no surprise that parenthood is also a key element of this story. Just as she wishes for complete control over her Porcelain children, Mother also tries throughout the book to exert total control over her daughters. She sees this as a way to protect them from those who might harm them and a way to ensure that Tori does not exacerbate her existing health problems, but instead it only serves to drive a wedge between her and all of the members of her household. Throughout the book, Wildgoose’s artwork brings this growing sense of isolation to the forefront of the page, first with the design of the tower that Mother and her children inhabit and later with her slow descent from a powerful figure to a more damaged character. He also captures the way that Tori and Ari change over the course of the book with Ari resisting Mother’s will and Tori becoming more and more like her mother over time.
Though this volume is clearly the culmination of the story that has been in progress since Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale, it also works as a standalone story for those who have not read the other two volumes. Even without the context of the larger series, it is a thought-provoking story about war, control, secrets, and the dangers that come from all of the above. In the introduction, Read refers to this as “a bleaker book than before,” but never in a way that made the book difficult to read. Rather, with its fully realized world and compelling characters, Porcelain: Ivory Tower will keep readers engaged even as they watch with horror as the events of the book unfold.