A strange folk-horror Euro adventure of a young Frenchman on a quest to the heart of 17th century Iceland, a three-part adventure taking us deep into witchcraft and superstition…
It’s never ideal dropping into a 3-part series right in the middle, but that’s what I ended up doing here with Islandia. All I knew of it when opening the book was what was there in the blurb for volumes 1 & 2… which boils down to this…
Sometime during the 1600s, Jacques, a young orphan from France, stows away aboard a fishing boat heading to Icelandic waters. Willing to brave the dangers and the rough life of a sailor, he is intent on one goal: to go to Iceland. There he hopes to find answers to the mysterious visions that have plagued him since childhood, to his unexplained ability to speak and read Icelandic, and also to the strange phenomena that sometimes occur around him.
Jacques continues his journey through the heart of Iceland, still looking for answers to questions even he doesn’t quite understand. However, he unknowingly leaves behind a trail of disasters and tragedies that strike everyone he’s come close to. Pursued first by vengeful men, then by the authorities, he eventually arrives in a village where he finds a rocky formation that … he’s dreamed of long before touching down on the island …
So, going into volume 2, I was rather expecting to be a little lost, but that just wasn’t the case. We’re straight into the tale of young Jacques travelling through Iceland looking for the source of those dreams he’s had since childhood. And it’s something that’s remarkably easy to follow, which points both to the skills of Vedrines as a storyteller and the fact that volume one was, I imagine, merely a scene-setter for what comes here and in the third and final volume. In fact, given that what appears to be the key revelation in the series happens at the end of this volume, I can’t help thinking that this is one of those series that could well have done with a little trimming, no matter how enjoyable the buildup to this volume may well have been.
As for what actually happens, it’s all very folk horror, all very 17th Century witchcraft and superstition, opening as it does with what appears to be some kind of witchfinder passing judgment and execution upon one of the Icelanders.
And of course, young Jacques is right in the midst of all this, discovering plenty of islanders looking at him with fear and suspicion as he ventures forth, making friends and more enemies along the way. There’s witchcraft and sorcery here, and Jacques finds himself drawn inexorably into it all.
But most importantly, in what I imagine is the crucial part of this tale, coming in the final pages of this volume, Jacques will discover his true identity along with the reasons for all the strange events that have followed him, the burning desire to come to Iceland, the strange phenomena that manifests around him.
Now, because it’s there in those final few pages, it’s not something I’m going to talk about in anything other than generalisations.
But it’s a fascinating twist in this tale, one that completely switches the focus of Islandia around and one that we will explore in the third volume. But that’s at least part of my problem with Islandia. As good as it is, and make no mistake it’s certainly a good read, full of mysterious ancient folklore and witchy goings-on, with the adventures of Jacques allowing us to take a good look at the mythology he’s become part of, I couldn’t help but think it’s a 3-part series that gets the pacing slightly off.
Firstly, I’m wondering just why it’s taken two volumes to get to the reveal here. I haven’t read volume one, but given that there’s an awful lot of expositionary travelling and extraneous wandering around the place in this volume, I can’t help but think that the first volume may well be just the same. Secondly, given the nature of the reveal at the end of this volume, there must, absolutely must, be plenty of story left in the tale, far more than another 48 pages will satisfactorily deliver.
However, despite my concerns, what I read here was still a rather intriguing thing, written well enough, despite the meandering, to draw you into the strange superstitious world of the islanders, to get that whole Wicker Man feel of trepidation that we’re never too far away here from false accusations of witchcraft leading to yet another burning.
And then there’s the artwork, beautifully done stuff, angular, distinctive stuff. His line is wonderfully thin, colours are beautifully expressive, page and panel layouts a delight. It all adds to the sense of exploring a beautiful yet barren and vast landscape, rich with greens and browns, the tightly drawn characters sometimes lost against the backdrops of the world they inhabit.
Volume three should be out either later this year or beginning 2021 and it will be fascinating to see just how Vedrines ends this, whether he can nail the landing on the two-volume setup. But taken alone, this second volume delivers just enough of the folk horror and mythology to work.
Islandia Volume 2 – The Westfjords – Script and art by Marc Vedrines, colours by Laetitia Schwendimann, published by Cinebook