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posted March 8, 2010


Creators: Jane Yolen, Mike Cavallaro
Publishing Information: First Second, softcover, 160 pages, April 2010, $15.99
Ordering Numbers: 1596432799 (ISBN10), 9781596432796 (ISBN13)

I thought Foiled a very dull and disappointing book. I didn't think it a book to match the reputation of its creators: the well-regarded young adult, fantasy and science fiction prose veteran Jane Yolen and the promising Parade With Fireworks cartoonist Mike Cavallaro. It's the kind of book that I once thought publisher First Second was created to push against, the kind of book they'd turn down in order to facilitate more idiosyncratic, ultimately more satisfying efforts. I wish I had read something, almost anything else.

Foiled is the story of a girl fencer whose success in her chosen sport eventually bleeds into a fantasy situation of the elves and trolls and nebulously-titled champions variety. At the top of the book we get to experience a pretty typical young-girl-in-the-city story: Aliera Carstairs doesn't have any friends at school, she has a healthy-beyond-her-years relationship to her sports skill, she doesn't know how to handle the attention of the cute boy that starts paying attention to her. None of this seems original even to my limited knowledge of such books, but it's effectively done. I was constantly aware of the artifice involved in such a story, yet also reminded why that kind of artifice remains popular with many readers.

imageWhat little goodwill I had for the comic left the room entirely when the magic-related plotlines came to fruition. What a disappointment. That whole aspect to the book was sloppily conceived and perfunctorily executed. There's a foil with magical elements... but also a mask with same. Maybe. A monster has nefarious designs on the foil... but is locked into a crushingly inefficient mission strategy that practically guarantees failure. There are creatures dancing in and out of the individuals in the crowded train station... but some of the people have monstrous aspects, too. Maybe. The characters are led to make some active decisions... that never feel risky or even invested with a lot of emotional turmoil. Not really. It never once felt to me like we were being shown an exciting way to re-imagine our world, something inspirational or personal to the creators. It felt like the authors consciously decided they wanted the rich metaphorical potential and narrative juice of magic-related events but didn't want to bother with the work of sitting down and making something coherent and rigorously specific out of those story elements. It felt contractually obligated; pre-planned. Even sadder, I immediately set my mind to not getting much of an explanation for what I was seeing, because the book now also felt exactly like the kind of book where they save details for the sequel for the sake of saving details for the sequel. I struggled to finish Foiled.

imageMike Cavallaro would have been more than able to draw an effective story about a girl fencer opening herself up to a wider life in New York City, but he's only okay when it comes to depicting such a story that includes fantasy visuals. They seemed fine in the reading of the story; I don't remember a single one now. One design I do recall I thought hampered the book. The boy interested in Aliera, Avery, we're told over and over again is so handsome it discombobulates Aliera and sends the female half of her school into paroxysms of desire. The visual simply doesn't communicate that. You can look at it after you know it's supposed to be a good-looking kid and see that in there, but by itself it suggests a rather runty, funny and cute friend character just as much if not more than it does the kid that turns the school upside down. I'm not an 11-year-old girl (not even deep down inside) and I might not automatically latch onto the same design elements that the intended audience might, but what I'm talking about is more of a clear signal, a way of drawing where this kind of thing gets easily communicated no matter how you personally feel. You see it in a ton of manga, and in a lot of the better alt-comics out there. You even see it in movies through careful casting. It's something that can be asked for in the editing process. If the prose hadn't told me the kid was great-looking, I wouldn't have figured out why Aliera was acting oddly. Because it was made so clear in the prose and so not clear visually, for a while I thought it was Aliera projecting. It's more difficult to share in Aliera's feelings and confusion than if we could more directly and universally identify Avery as good-looking. That character also has an emotional moment keyed into those looks that loses a lot of potential impact because it has to be explained to us once again.

A lot of kids will likely enjoy Foiled, and I think younger children looking for comfort in fiction when some out-of-school success they enjoy doesn't match up with an experience of in-school popularity might even feel deeply for the problems presented here. It's just that instead of a special work by two talented creators and a publishing house with a number of resources that can be mustered on such a work's behalf, it feels like another work by that pair and this publisher.