by Chris Wooding
400 pages, Scholastic
Review by SF Winser
Malice is a novel with some graphic-novel bits. It's the typical 'kids get lost in a computer game/book/movie' kind of plot, with the added bonus that since the kids get lost in a comic book, and the novel has graphic novel bits, writing it in this form means that the reader gets to see the comic itself, helping to make the premise that much more involving.
It also has a gimmicky raised/embossed cover that is annoying to read and annoying to put on a shelf but looks really cool.
The comic book itself is called 'Malice'. It's a secret, forbidden comic that adults rarely hear about and most kids think is an urban legend. It's a comic book that has no real plot and no main characters. It simply shows vignettes of the lives of children who have supposedly been trapped in a world, also called 'Malice'. Malice is not a nice place and these snapshots are rarely happy.
However, Malice the book (and not Malice the comic. Or Malice the world) is a fun book. The main characters are well-drawn. The main male protag is interestingly gung-ho. He's an extreme sport, take all risks kind of kid, which works well within the plot. Only people who are stupid, or curious, or brave and motivated would get into Malice and the first two options make for less-than-convincing narratives. 'Just because I was curious' doesn't fly as a plot-turn and 'Der... I'z dumb' is kind of annoying. Having a kid addicted to risk-taking who also has a friend missing in Malice is a good base for the plot. The reader doesn't ask, at any time: 'Why'd he do something so obviously dumb and dangerous like heading to Malice on purpose?'. We know his reasons and they're character-true.
There's a twist or two - at least one involving memory loss - that are really well handled. The clues are dropped really deliberately and obviously in front of the reader and then Wooding, like a consummate magician, diverts attention elsewhere, so you forget them until the big reveal. There's a proper sense of danger, too. The evil antagonists are at times two-dimensional but that's because they're almost 90's comic-book style attempts at emotion-provoking caricatures. And they are very creepy. Creepy guy with a van, creepy old house style creepy.
The use of the graphical sections is spare. At times I wanted just a bit more. They are well used in action scenes and in showing new creatures. Wooding doesn't have to try to explain what a 'strange monkey robot thing' looks like if you first see it in the context of the comic: the reader already knows what it looks like when we get back to the text. They are used in just the right way, in just the right spots.
The execution, though, is sometimes more cluttered than is really good for storytelling. The idea behind the comics is that they are being drawn by a mysterious, magical artist as he sees the action. So the rushed nature of the (actual) art is fitting. This makes some of the panels and artwork feel almost undernourished, though. There isn't enough art or enough panels for packed action, so we lose track at times of what is happening in certain scenes. I don't know if this was because of space requirements, deadline requirements or inept/inexperienced execution. The internal panel-design and staging veers between brilliant and terrible. As does the artwork. The shading/lighting is similarly sometimes excellent, sometimes heavy-handed. Yes, Malice is a dark world with a dark tone, but sometimes a black form, in shadows, in an already dark room... just becomes a polar bear in a snowstorm, to use an exactly inapposite metaphor.
Anyhoo, if it were a stand-alone comic this would get a B-, at best, if I were feeling generous and the Gods were smiling. The creature design is often excellent but the character design of human beings is only okay-ish. And I've already gone into the structural issues. It feels like the artist commissioned to pull this off (Dan Chernett) has never really attempted a comic before and has simultaneously been restricted in learning the art by deadlines and space allowances. A quick internet search suggests this hunch is correct – Chernett turns up as an illustrator but not a graphic-novel artist.
But this is all my adult, graphic-novel nerddom showing through. If I weren't being a picky, elitist Scott-McCloud-reading prat, the comic works just fine and does its job quite well. I wouldn't be surprised to see Chernett's work becoming more accomplished as further novels in the series are released.
Tonally, 'Malice' is a dark book – almost horror fantasy. But it's also pitch-perfect darkness for YA readers. Kids graduating from R.L. Stine and not yet up to Steven King would have a ball with this. I'm not usually a big horror reader and I enjoyed this a lot. Yes, even the graphic bits I've just been whinging about. I especially enjoyed the way Wooding used the fact that this was going to be a graphic-heavy book to play a bit with textual lay-outs, fonts and paging. This book is designed to suck kids in, keep 'em interested and keep 'em reading with any trick necessary. As a by-product it did the same to me.