Though M. T. Anderson couldn't possibly have planned it, his new book The Daughters of Ys feels like it was created for just this moment. The story's driving force and key image — a torrential flood of natural and unnatural origin that sweeps away a city — is the perfect symbol for our era. If you've felt your brimming anxiety about the coronavirus overflow as you've tried to keep up with the never-ending tide of news about it, you'll sympathize with Anderson's characters.
This book is an excellent read right now for other reasons, too. Trying to keep abreast of your daily news feed may have made you impatient of any pleasure reading that isn't perfectly absorbing (OK, that's the last flood pun, I swear). A graphic novel, The Daughters of Ys is fun and easy to read. Anderson's story, a reinterpretation of a Breton folktale, is effortlessly page-turning and actually feels a bit like a young adult title — not surprisingly, considering YA is Anderson's preferred genre. But like Anderson's National Book Award-winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, this book is both accessible to a wide age range and rich with ideas that will intrigue adults. (Note, however, that due to dark themes, some gore and the fact that the characters have sex, it may be best kept away from immature readers.)
Best of all, Daughters of Ys is a terrific respite for eyes weary of scanning headlines. Artist Jo Rioux isn't as well-known as her coauthor — as is often the fate of illustrators who focus on children's books — but she should be. Her drawings here aren't just beautiful, with their deep, layered colors and elegant compositions; they're also smart. Nodding to the original tale's 5th-century setting, Rioux uses the style and motifs of Anglo-Saxon art (think of the Bayeux Tapestry and the metalwork of Sutton Hoo). But she doesn't just replicate the style, she uses it to explore the evocative possibilities of minimalist cartooning. The characters' faces have flat-looking eyes and minimal features, but they express intense, ambiguous emotions. Rioux also borrows the glowing lights and velvety shadows of Maxfield Parrish's work for certain scenes, including a wonderful interlude set inside a circle of standing stones. The reader is encouraged to recall Parrish's turn-of-the-20th-century America, when astonishing and alarming technological advances triggered a yearning for the romantic past, and to compare it with our own time.
Rioux's style also reinforces the parallels Anderson seeks to draw between our world and the Ys legend. The original folk tale is (surprise, surprise) primarily an exercise in woman-hating. Ys, a fabulous city built on land reclaimed from the sea, is ruled by King Gradlon, holder of the only key to the massive gates that keep the ocean at bay. His daughter Dahut — a half-fairy, sometime sorceress and nasty piece by all accounts — steals the key, opens the gates and dooms the city. Gradlon tries to flee the rising waters on horseback with Dahut riding behind him. They're about to drown when a voice calls out to Gradlon to throw Dahut into the sea if he wants to be saved. From there, different versions of the legend vary — some said Gradlon throws Dahut off the horse, others that she simply falls off. Either way, Gradlon is saved, and the evil woman gets what she deserves.
Anderson tweaks the story considerably. In his hands it becomes a fable about climate change and capitalism, with the city (which exists only thanks to the magic of Gradlon's fairy wife) exemplifying humans' arrogance and short-sightedness about the dangers of technology. Anderson's Dahut isn't a nice girl by any means, but she has a nuanced character and understandable motives for her actions. Though she's somewhat responsible for the city's destruction, there's plenty of blame to go around. Gradlon closes his eyes to the city's underlying problems until it's too late, and the unlocking of the sea gates is just the final step towards catastrophe.
Anderson also takes the opportunity to rebuke the original myth's misogyny, elevating Dahut's sister Rozenn to a major character so as to introduce a wider range of female experience. Rozenn may seem at first like a saintly anti-Dahut: She appreciates nature, bonds with a hermit and loves a humble fisherman, while Dahut parties into the night and sleeps with visiting princes. But while her intentions may be purer than Dahut's, Rozenn is as much to blame as her sister and father for the city's disastrous end.
For all its beauty and delight, this book has at its heart a warning as grim as the dark truths in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. That book's protagonist reflected that "all that seeks to rise burn[s] itself to nothing," while here King Gradlon intones, "one can do nothing against God and the sea." It remains to be seen whether Anderson's warning, added to so many others we've heard, can somehow move us to disprove Gradlon's words.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.