Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen
Helen Mullane, Dom Reardon, Matthew Dow Smith, Jock, Rob Jones, Lee Loughridge
Nicknevin Oswald, Nissy to her friends, is not having a great time. Not only is she excluded from school, but she has to spend the summer away from her home and away from her friends. Heading north to a holiday home in Northumberland with her Mum and little brother, it looks like hell for a teenage girl from London. Hell it proves to be indeed, but not boring. Certainly not boring.
Nissy is on holiday in the heart of the ancient lands of the Gododdin (welsh pronunciation, the dd is pronouced th) – the Iron Age British tribe that dominated all of the lands north of the Humber right up to the River Forth. The Gododdin, whom the Romans called the Votadini, were a bunch of survivors. A ‘friendly’ tribe who cooperated with the Romans to do in their rival tribes. Much of the action in this book happens around the ‘oppidum’ or fortified towns of Eildon and Traprain Law.
Now, I happen to also live in the lands of the Goddodin and it was wonderful to have these historical references used in a comic. Some of the distances travelled require some poetic license but concentrating on the Iron Age tribal boundaries rather than talking about the modern nations of Scotland and England, helped keep the story focused on its historical and legendary roots.
Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen is rooted in a strong tradition of folk horror/fantasy which in Britain has as often been aimed at children as young adults and adults. Authors like Alan Garner, who gave us the amazing Weirdstone of Brisingamen are lodged in the subconscious of a generation. So too were the likes of Worzel Gummidge (the recent remake was wonderfully otherworldly and subtly dark) and the Children of the Stones both of which provided TV nightmare fodder for kids in the 70s and 80s. King of them all was the movie The Wicker Man, certainly not for children. It is the dark sacrifices of that film, rooted in folk tradition, that are evoked in this book.
This area is a liminal space, a place on the edges where the fair folk still lurk. The fairies, themselves a diminished representation of the mighty Celtic gods of the past.
But another important literary source for the book lies with Border Ballads. Tales, poems and songs of the contested, wild spaces that lie between England and Scotland they told yarns of the border reivers, and the bloody battles fought between local clans but also often dealt with the perils of dealing with fairies and devils and the hard bargains they drive. This area is a liminal space, a place on the edges where the fair folk still lurk. The fairies, themselves a diminished representation of the mighty Celtic gods of the past.
This area is still contested (as I write Scottish nationalists are setting up protests on the border supposedly to discourage virus carrying visitors). It is also a place where past traditions linger in remote valleys – where shepherds count their sheep not in English but in the ancient Cumbric language and whose place names tell the tale of Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, Norse and Anglo-Saxon times. Indeed one slightly jarring sequence features an incantation in Gaelic, a language that would have come to this region in the Dark Ages – the Gododdin would have spoken Brythonic or Old Welsh. But to be fair judging by his lecture, Reggie doesn’t have the greatest grasp on ancient British history.
Helen Mullane’s writing is successful in conjuring up the spirit of this twilight world – animals are drawn to Nissy and her part in events is soon proved to be a central one. The contrast between the modern and urban world of Nissy and the world that she finds herself in is also an effective technique.
The illustrations from Dom Reardon and Matthew Dow Smith are accessible and conjure up the horrors not of the darkness but of the endless daytime of a Northern midsummer, and the colours of Lee Loughridge are central to this. Creatures of the otherworld are rendered with emphasis on the eerie and demonic rather than the cute. These are the wee folk that will steal your children away, not tinkerbell or Legolas. Sequences make great use of framing techniques such as using the car mirrors and aspect-to-aspect panels.
Jock provides a brilliant cover which evokes some of the bloody turmoil and transformation to be found within. Rob Jones has, as ever, wrought lettering sorcery with some especially nice speech from the denizens of otherworld.
There is a fair bit of bloody violence in the book but it will have a lot of appeal to young adults and adults alike (kids had probably best stick with Worzel for now.) So take a trip to the borderlands, the midsummer twilight place at the edge of our consciousness, but watch your step.
Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen is out now in the USA, and the UK release date is 20/8/20. The book is published by Humanoids and you can find more here.