One of the side effects of having read A LOT of books in my life is that at this point, very little surprises me. I’m savvy to most plot structures and character archetypes and I can usually tell where a story is headed. That’s what I thought going into reading Gunnerkrigg Court by Thomas Siddell, but I’m pleased to say I was completely wrong.
Though it may sound like a story you’ve already heard– 12 year old orphan, mysterious boarding school, talking stuffed animal sidekick who‘s really a demon– but the book immediately distinguishes itself with it’s novel and sometimes bizarre plot twists. The creativity involved in this story is staggering. The plots unravel like a dream, where familiar events turn surreal and no matter how odd the story is, there is a real emotional impact on the reader. And though the setting is moody and off kilter and the characters are often strange (such as a girl with blacked out eye like some kind of creep from a j-horror flick), the story immediately endeared itself to me.
Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation is actually a collection of chapters from a web comic. It’s the winner of multiple Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards, including Outstanding Newcomer (2006), Outstanding Environment Design (2007), Outstanding Dramatic Comic (2008), and Best Comic, Best Long Form Comic and Best Writing (2009). It also has at least one big name reader: Neil Gaiman, who praised it on his blog. It won it’s first award just a year after it began running, which should prove inspirational for anyone working on a creative project who fears toiling away in obscurity forever.
Early in the book, the art is a little awkward. The main character, Antimony Carver, looks like a cross between a Brats doll and Hey Arnold– and I say that in the most loving way possible, because I do like the early art for is ugly cuteness. I gathered from an interview I read with the series’ creator, Thomas Siddell, that he made an active choice to draw heavily stylistic characters in the beginning, and as he became more skilled, the character designs became more refined and elegant. The art improves dramatically over the course of the story. I really enjoyed watching the gradual shift and frequently flipped back to see how different characters had evolved. The art change works for the story– as the reader becomes more familiar with the environment and the characters, everything seems to soften and become more friendly. It’s especially a significant for the main character, Antimony, who begins as a somewhat awkward and stoic girl and eventually reveals herself to be a very warm and likeable person, all of which is reflected in the subtitle changes in her character design and coloring.
Gunnerkrigg Court has an outstanding balance of mystery and humor. It rides the line between being fantasy and science fiction– it’s a little bit of both. Death and magic are common themes. Mysteries are established and answers are slowly revealed. Each chapter is a standalone story, but together they lash together a sprawling plot where seemingly incidental events are revealed to be significant precursors to future storylines. I went into it feeling like I was taking a leisurely stroll through a breezy little fantasy and somewhere along the way I became embroiled in an epic storyline. I’m sorry to be so brazenly corny, but the story touched me like nothing else has in a long time, and it’s hard to breach my icy exterior.
If you can’t spring for the books, the entire story can be read here: http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/archive.php
I can’t recommend this story highly enough. This series is the only set of books to receive the coveted spot on the bookshelf next to my Harry Potter collection. And you can read it for free. You have no excuses not to. Go to it!