Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened once a month to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes’ graphic novel, available now from Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

Required Reading: 'A Thief Among the Trees'

by Arpad Okay. Children conscripted against their will to fight and die for their country. A uniform, some weapons, a mission, some friends. And the blood is yours to let, your enemies or your own. A Thief Among the Trees is a solemn and sensitive read for being about shield-bearing child soldiers raiding poison-processing-plant island to advance at murder academy. It’s complicated.

The novel series An Ember in the Ashes is the setting, before the books—a hyper-violent, hyper-militant society that treats its youth as disposable. To be fair, death is the norm for everybody, not just kids. The story was written by the books’ author, Sabaa Tahir, and scripted as a comic by Nicole Andelfinger and Sonia Liao, the artist. Their collective perspective has developed a graphic novel with the feels of a manga series, the aesthetic of Young Adult dystopia, and it reads—as someone who hasn’t read the books—like picking up a European genre-busting art and comics magazine to a random page and getting utterly besotted by the obviously structured but highly mysterious world these young people are forced to navigate.

If you are getting dropped in at the deep end, it’s still worth swimming through. The details are alien but the struggle and the relationships are human.

Obviously fans of the books are going to be delighted to experience stories from Tahir’s world, though the experience may prove just as different for them. The Ember books are told from first-person perspective, but I would say that Thief is strongest in silence. I found myself feeling for these characters in spite of the distance I felt from them. It’s less intimate than being privy to their thoughts, but sharing silence with someone you care about is not a moment without power.

That’s what Thief Among the Trees is really about. In a world where dominating the will of others is compulsory and murdering them is encouraged, let’s get close to a few survivors. Observe prisoner and captor spending an evening trading gossip about mutuals. You can see: they’re kids. They’ve responded to constant trauma by becoming more sophisticated, yet they also struggle the way that the inexperienced all struggle. A story of stumbling towards wisdom knows no age.

Liao’s characters are androgynous, stylish, simultaneously strong and delicate. The military outfit falls somewhere between Metal Gear Solid and the Gap catalog. The total lack of guns sets a tone for the book that I think is phenomenal. The martial weapons and fighting with them is thrilling, but they aren’t as lethal. The threat of death looms, but no one’s dying—life isn’t valued, but it isn’t taken easily. There’s room for how to hold a bow, or how to tie a sail, or to set a fire to talk over during the night.

The foliage in Thief Among the Trees are a constant envelopment of delicately controlled characters humming with personality resting in a total freedom of lines. Our straight-out-of-the-salon officers in uniform may keep a tight fit, but all around them are textures of growth and life in abundance drawn just as naturally, a contrast to their austerity. Trees and bushes, leaves and cross-hatched shadows of roots making shallow caves in the dirt.

The richness of the page, the depth of the woods, of the night sky, and most everything else to do with the book’s beautiful look wouldn’t exist without colorist Kieran Quigley. The olive drab pants of the uniform accentuate the danger of the solid black anti-camouflage of their shirts. The book is ruled by earth tones. Brown, black, green, a hint of blue or a touch of orange, but mostly Thief is, yes, the color of tree. The book is a forest, a palette where each tree has its colors, a cornucopia presented within strict confines.

So look. Seeing it and choosing for yourself what was said, what was thought, how things really happened, that’s the real point. Maybe this is a lesson worth the pain. Maybe not. There are some serious prices paid in this story, whether the cost was just is something that is settled beyond the Thief Among the Trees, in the people its survivors grow to be in the novels.

Archaia / BOOM! Studios / $19.99

Written by Sabaa Tahir and Nicole Andelfinger.

Illustrated by Sonia Liao.

Colored by Kieran Quigley.

Lettered by Mike Fiorentino.

‘A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes’ is available now. Contact your LCS to order a copy of your own.

Enjoy this 3-page preview of ‘A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes’, courtesy of Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios:

More Required Reading…

‘We Served the People’ a stirring account of perseverance, tragedy, liberation

Crime ain’t pretty and neither is ‘Bog Bodies’, an essential bit of comics from Image

‘Sláine: The Horned God’ a surrealist pulp saga that never fails to shred

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