I have been working on this review of the Sea Lion Books’ Carnal for some time. Created by artist John Connell, my review of this book has been nearly as slow as the eight years it took for John and Jason Bergenstock to publish the series. This is not the first time we have told you about Carnal. Emmet O’Cuana gave you a preview, and he and I also interviewed John Connell, but let me again tell you how the story came to pass. John Connell had a dream about a battle between a rhino and a group of hyenas. After the dream Connell began to draw fantastic pieces of art and that art slowly became a story. He found Jason Bergenstock and the art became a series of illustrated novels. The first, which admittedly I have not read, was released privately by Connell via the site Lulu, and it has since become a series that is now being published by Sea Lion.
The story itself is about an African girl that becomes the embodiment of evil and assists in the breaking of the world. The blood of slain witches turn the animals of Africa into humanoids, while the young girl becomes the witch Kuma. As a result, humans are nearly non existent, and the animal tribes have evolved and war amongst each other. The first book in the new series tells of the Lion tribes, the most warlike of the tribes. Joining them are the Hyenas and the Water Buffalo, who will each get their own books.
So why has it taken me so long to review the book? Well because for a long time I just did not know how to describe it. When you read Carnal, it is somewhere between reading a thought and being told a campfire story. The book, which mimics African culture, talks of tales told to lion cubs by the fire, and could easily be one of those tales. Bergenstock’s chapters are episodic in nature, often acting more like captions to Connell’s beautiful art, than telling a well thought out story. While the story is titled Carnal, and their is certainly a savage nature to the beasts’ existence, the story itself is almost ethereal. The plot is cohesive and easy to follow, but the chapters themselves seem to be unfocused and shifty. I just kept thinking to myself I feel like a child being told a long told story by a tribal elder.
The story is actually one that, in itself, is very enjoyable. It tells of a particular lion tribe and their slow downfall. Of course they have some help from Kuma and the hyenas. In addition we meet some very cool characters including one that the other lions consider god like, Oron. My favorite character, however, is actually Omi the lioness. You do not often get to see a strong female character and her rescue mission to save Oron highlights her intelligence and strength. Moreover she serves to do a couple of very clever things. While the book itself does not chronicle Kuma’s rise, if you read the back story on Nightmare Rhino or presumably the first book, you can see that Omi’s story and Kuma’s in many ways mimic one another. In addition she is an outsider and readers will identify with her struggles. I just found myself pulling for her to succeed the way any good hero should motivate the reader.
The book is a rescue mission both for Oron and for the tribe itself; however, it is not a happy one. Much like a good elder story would, this story serves as a set of warnings, as a gateway into the pain and strife that the rest of the books most likely will chronicle. Again the chapters themselves will seem jerky and disjointed, but once the reader finishes the story, and sees it in its entirety, they are hit with the moral or intent with a wave of emotion. It becomes very powerful much like those campfire tales.
The art is truly the star of this book. It builds the foundation for the experience. While Connell started the art long before there were words to page, it serves the story so well in this first story. The images for each chapter are the faces and voice changes that a storyteller would use to draw the scene in your mind. They are fantastic and brilliantly detailed, and yet still limited enough that your imagination is allowed to run rampant. And while the writing may not be the best at times, the art is consistently powerful and intriguing. Moreover, as if to enforce that sense of gloom and foreboding the images in the book seem to grow steadily darker and more menacing, and by the time we meet Skourj, the hyena warrior, we understand that this is not a happy story.
In his preview, Emmet mentioned how this could become the next big thing. I would say that this book is not going to be for everyone, but that it has limitless potential and I for one enjoyed it. I do think there is room for improvement in the writing going forward, to make it more inviting to readers, but regardless the images are more than enough to carry the story. The short preview of the next book also gives you the feel that each story will have its own feel and flow and that is exciting. Either way Sea Lion has found itself a gem and you should pick it up!