Fantasy, science, and adventure collide (sometimes literally) in Book One of Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869. This first installment of the series gives readers everything needed to set up a classic adventure for kids: a missing parent, an accidental beginning to a journey from home, life and death danger, mystery, and brooding royalty within a castle. Author and illustrator Alex Alice (translated to English by Anne and Owen Smith) creates an ethereal world where Seraphin, the main character, becomes an eager adventurer and would-be hero despite the efforts of adults around him.
The story opens in France, where we witness a terrifying accident involving “The Aethernaut,” a balloon able to soar to 12 thousand meters in search of the mysterious and powerful substance aether. Claire, the pilot of the Aethernaut, seems to be gone, leaving her husband and son behind. A year later, the son, Seraphin, holds out hope that while his mother is missing, she is still alive. Reminiscent of the premise behind A Wrinkle in Time, Seraphin defies teasing at school and reminders that his mother is gone and gets a chance to search for her after receiving a clue as to her whereabouts from a mysterious sender. Together with his scientist father, Seraphim adventures to Bavaria where the danger, mystery, and possible live interest continue. This first book of Castle in the Stars introduces many characters, both heroes and villains, and ensures that both our hero and the reader have doubts about whom to trust.
The illustration style is different from many graphic novels. The watercolor look with myriad shades of pastels contrasts with occasional cartoon-style illustration and manga-influenced characters. The intense detail in some panels highlights the dream-like quality of others. The wide spectrum of colors and illustration styles allows the characters additional layers of characterization and mood.
The storyline can be confusing because it abruptly alternates between intimate, sometimes sassy, conversations and detailed, frenetic descriptions of the science and technology used to fuel the plot. Some readers have compared the story to a Jules Verne/Hayao Miyazaki mash-up, and while I don’t completely agree, it’s clear there is some influence from both.
In addition, the steampunk slant against a comedic-romantic-historical backdrop feels a bit forced at times. Even so, as the story develops and the mysteries deepen, readers will become invested in the characters and curious to know what comes next. The ending of Volume One is certainly an intense cliffhanger!
Book One of the English-translated Castle in the Stars came out in 2017, and Book Two, The Moon-King, comes out September 4th, 2018. Recommended for ages 10-14.