A few novels in recent days are taking a different approach to storytelling. Perhaps the most high-profile example is S. — a project conceived by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst which takes the form of a library book filled with handwritten notes of two people who pass the book back and forth, talking to each other in the margins. In effect it becomes an artifact from a story rather than the story itself.
The Explorers Guild (subtitled A Passage To Shambhala and teasingly numbered “Volume One”) isn’t quite as experimental, but it does manage to forge its own path. In the process it seems as adventurous and bold as the characters it describes. The story is told in a mixture of prose and comics, with the occasional full-colour plate evocative of the work by famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth.
I went into the book knowing very little about the plot or the people inside, and I feel that maybe this is the best way for anyone to experience it. I could name some of the main characters or at least tell you what they start to get up to and then cut off at the most cliffhanging moment to engage your interest. But even the briefest review summary or premise somewhat takes away the mystery. And there is a strong flavour of mystery throughout the story, so much so that even at the end you wonder if all the questions were really answered. I choose to say no more except what’s evident from the publisher’s blurb. This story is a heavy nostalgia trip for fans of turn of the century Boy’s Own Adventures. The recipe of H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a touch of Jules Verne should give you the general idea. It’s set during World War I and involves a quest to find the city of Shambhala from Buddhist mythology.
I’m firmly in this novel’s target audience. I grew up on a steady diet of Tintin, Tolkien, and Star Trek. Words like “adventure”, “exploration”, and “mystery” stir my imagination like almost nothing else. This means that I’m far from able to give a purely objective analysis. Any book like this starts out with my five-star rating, and that only goes down if it makes serious missteps. If you’re anything like me and you share that love of pulp then I can assure you The Explorers Guild delivers on all it promises in spades.
That being said, not everything was perfect. If the novel has a main flaw it might be in its labyrinthine complexity. There’s a wide cast of characters, most of whom are crucial threads in the tapestry. But it’s a lot to keep track of and once or twice I found my memory of events was a little muddled. Fortunately the writers (and to judge from the Acknowledgments it was a team effort) seem aware of this and do provide a helping hand when necessary. The complexity of character relationships and plot also makes the book feel a tad long at times, but the variety of pace is welcome; without pauses to breathe the action would be wearisome and meaningless. Overall the novel’s strengths — atmosphere, suspense, and rounded characters — outweighed its weaknesses, at least for me.
The unique format was as exciting as the story itself. Switching from prose to comics to prose is done without any apparent effort or loss of momentum. The writing will comment on action in the panels while panels will sometimes illustrate the writing. Each does its part to carry the story forward and they seamlessly feed into one another. This fluidity results in a kind of symbiosis so that if you were to remove either medium the whole would fall apart. To my knowledge nothing like this has been tried before on this scale, so there’s an equal sense of experimentation here as well. On one page the text tells one part of the story, while running along the bottom are four comic panels with a scene from a different plotline. Maybe none of this makes sense to you, and indeed it’s difficult to describe; it has to be experienced to be understood.
The Explorers Guild is a voyage into the unknown, a strange quest to fill in the blank spaces of the map. It charts new territory in the way you tell and read a story. And for that boldness if nothing else it deserves respect. I had a rollicking good time between its covers and by now you’ll know whether or not you will too.