My daughter, who's seven, has been 'doing space' at school this term. It's something she's already a little obsessed by thanks to the Tintin story Explorers on the Moon. So we went out to look for some other space themed books for younger readers. It was a pretty depressing experience, particularly for her age group who are served up endless serials about the likes of Tom Power, Space Cadet or the kerrazy antics of Captain Phart on the Planet of the Toilets. But she wanted something adventurous like Tintin, not silly or machine written for boys.
I did come home with something for me though, a book that I think she'll love in a few years: SF Said's Phoenix. This is a sprawling, big hearted space opera written with the ambition of Star Wars, imbued with the emotion of E.T., shot through with the grit of Alien and the downbeat mood of Moon.
But Phoenix is a book that doesn't need a film, it's got one built in. I've been growing more and more in love with Dave McKean's illustrations lately – something that's been a long time coming, as I've been looking at his stuff since the 80s. In Phoenix, McKean's art is integral to the action, taking us with the character Lucky as he explores new found powers that allow him to surf through lines of light in space without the need for a space ship.
These startling images are a fusion of computer generated vectors and the graphic style of 60s TV series Time Tunnel. SF Said has likened their effect to taking the reader into space with Lucky. He's not wrong. These recurring trips lead us beyond the edge of the universe and into the stars. What more could you want from a sci-fi adventure?
Totally cool aliens, who look like devils for one thing. The cloven-hoofed Axxa are, thankfully not insurance salesmen, but a feared and detested alien race locked in a battle with the humans that is pushing the universe close to destruction. They are also far more than they appear to be, revealed in a skin shedding scene that (despite what I said earlier) is just crying out to be made into a film.
While the humans are obsessed with technology, the Axxa are more spiritual, worshiping star gods called the Astreus who give the book a pleasing classical feel. McKean introduces us to the entire pantheon of astral gods who are being stalked by an apocalyptic wolf. My favourite is the Astreus of Union, who reclines in all her glory, like a Jenny Saville made out of stars.
Epic space quests are often populated by emotionally 'cold' characters (as if everyone's freezing in space), or stock heroes and villains who could just as easily be squabbling in the wild west. Phoenix has a cast of highly emotional characters, sometimes bordering on the melodramatic (a good thing). The unlikely hero Lucky is a tortured teen searching for his lost dad and the young Axxa, including fierce love interest Bixa, are teenagers scared of growing up.
Phoenix is currently only available in Hardback. It's a thing of beauty, a masterclass of how text and image can work together for a slightly older audience. The e-book won't be available till December – and I'm hoping it's in some way enhanced, or made available as an touchy feely app. I'd love to be able to follow Lucky's journeys through the stars, creating vector swirls, igniting sparks and making painterly ripples with my finger tips.