Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why You Should Read | Widdershins - Kate Ashwin

I've ventured into SFF-y music before, but today it's time to take a look at a webcomic, and one of my personal favourites at that: Widdershins, by Kate Ashwin. And as for why this isn't a review? Well, it's simply because I long ago decided that Widdershins is pretty wonderful indeed, so this'll be more in the nature of a recommendation. A very long recommendation.

Widdershins is a steampunk-flavoured fantasy webcomic set in the eponymous town - a city where the presence of an 'anchor' amplifies supernatural talents, allowing spirits to be summoned and imbued into various devices (impatience really does help the trains run on time - at least when the rails are imbued with it). And as expected, it's rather a hub for weirdness of all sorts. The webcomic tells its story in short arcs - and while there are only five so far, it's clear that the short stories are linked (and two have been direct sequels), with recurring characters. I was initially a little worried about whether this would occur - while I do love a short story from time to time, my preference is always for a longer term character investment, and we're definitely getting that here. A
nd what's more, the linked tales form a larger arc. I won't be spoiling anything, but according to the author, there'll be seven in the first main plotline. The stories so far have ranged from 59 to 106 pages in length, so don't worry, there's plenty of time for development within each. In fact, the structure's always been a positive addition for me, giving plenty of aspects of Widdershins (from a run-down hotel seeking out chefs through rather... arcane means, to a company exorcising botched summons) their own space, and providing your regular dose of plotline resolution (something that can easily slip in a webcomic).

So, why should you read Widdershins? Here's a run down:

A moment involving giraffes.
- Did you not hear 'steampunk'? I kid, but Kate Ashwin's art really brings the aesthetic to life. While it's more 'Victoriana-with-a-flourish' than full blown 'airships for all' steampunk (ie. the occasional clockwork contraption), it's a wonderful look (and I doubt many could deny that a number of characters are looking very... dapper). More importantly, it's diverse steampunk - something the subgenre has often failed at in the past. Her take on magical England includes several protagonists who are PoC (including the rather awesome Alexa King), and of course, a number of wonderful female characters (I always look forward to Harry's moments. Especially those including giraffes - and further, she's allowed to exist without apology while representing a character type that's sadly normally portrayed as male-only, which I rather love). As far as LGBTQIA+ goes, it's also promising, though not to the same extent: Mal is asexual (Word of God here), Nicola - though not as yet a main character - lesbian, and there's a gay couple in Piece of Cake, the fourth story. Altogether, it's a very welcome addition, and I can only cheer it on!
Sidney's introduction. It's not hopeful?

- A unique magic system. I know, I know - I'm always interested in the magic. But Widdershins' sorcery involves the conjuring of spirits and emotions, and it's a rather interesting one (especially when rather nastier emotions - greed and sloth for example - get involved). Mechanical insects? Imbue them and maybe they'll fly. A bracelet for the King of Thieves? A bit of greed, and it won't leave its owner until they're dead. But unusually, it also deals with what happens, and who has to deal with it (hint: lowly council employees) when it goes wrong. 'Malforms', or more commonly 'buggerups' are botched summonings, and a major storyline involves some protagonists being enlisted to take care of them. What's more, it's apparent there's more to the system, and we seem to be learning more fragments with every story - and I'm looking forward to every word of it.

- A truly wonderful array of characters, and interactions thereof. (Even I have to grab some shipping goggles for Sidney and Harry, or possibly Mal and Wolfe, I'm afraid :P - not that the latter is going to happen). But leaving that aside, there's a good selection here: from Harry, a terse 'hunter' following in her father's footsteps, complete with loyal hound, obligatory pipe, and the occasional moment of humour, to Alexa, a determined contender for a baking competition who's forced to rally the opposition to rather more... supernatural difficulties than expected! And while so far Sidney-and-Harry and Mal-and-Wolfe storylines have mainly been separate, there have been crossovers, and I can only hope they continue - it really does give the impression of an overarching setting, which is one of my favourite aspects of this particular webcomic. Further, it's these small interactions which really give the characters shape, from Harry's sister's perpetual meddling (and background expressions), to Alexa's befriending of her cowed maid Nora by essentially ambushing her with cake. (Okay, I may have occasionally cake-ambushed someone myself, but that's not why I like it, I swear!)

- Hints at a building larger arc. While obviously I won't spoil it, it's apparent what's going on at this point - and how the tales are starting to connect, both overtly and rather more subtly. Continuity and worldbuilding is a big draw for many (just think of how many fans like to puzzle out the tiny hints and connections in Brandon Sanderson's cosmere books, and it's no different here).

- The art. It's clean, expressive, and really conveys the characters (especially Voss) - and the different styles used (for example, to convey Mal's seeing of spirits) really work well. It's not one of those that'll make you gawp in wonder on a regular basis, but it does convey some spectacular moments in... spectacular fashion.
Mal's sight. I love the colours in these ones!

Altogether? I'd thoroughly recommend it. While its style of storytelling won't be for all, it's well worth a look for those seeking out a new webcomic read, and especially one in a steampunky genre. Particularly, its short story approach makes it suitable if you don't feel up to a long archive binge, or the arc fatigue that can set in with long-running plots - Widdershins deftly avoids both. It's wonderfully written, very inclusive, and represents a steampunk vision I can only look forward to seeing more of. You can find it here.


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