Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala

Book Review - The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambala

As with many books thick enough to serve as masonry units, The Explorer’s Guild is slow to start and all too easy to set aside for more appealing distractions – and this despite the fact that the book is part graphic novel. Where there’s a case to stick with for the first few hundred pages or so, it lies in Rick Ross’ clean artwork and, most of all, Jon Baird’s beautifully crafted writing mannered after the style of Victorian/early 20th Century. Unlike Susanna Clarke’s clever but twee pastiche of English literature in her Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Baird’s prose succeeds as a charming recreation because it emphasizes the earnest rather than the ironic. It succeeds perhaps a little too well, however. The narration, set as a personal relationship between the narrator and the gentle reader, casts us along the lines of a guest of the Explorer’s Guild. All that’s missing is the brandy and cigar as the narrator regales us with the tale of adventurers in pursuit of a mysterious city alternately known throughout history as Shambala, El Dorado, Atlantis, and so on. But this approach creates a distance between us and the characters, precisely because the narrative is explicitly narrated, which means it is also interpreted. And when characters are filtered through the narrator before reaching us, there is less room for one of reading’s best delights: interacting with the characters through our own perspective and imagination. The result is that even by the time we reach the book’s end, it’s hard to feel all that vested in the characters’ welfare and purposes except in the most general, abstracted sense.

Still, when the going finally gets adventurous, the adventure gets going with increasing gusto. Alas, where it leads is straight to an anticlimax. As we follow John Ogden, a British major and force of nature during World War I, along with his rough band of dragoons on a global hunt for the fabled Shambhala at the behest of his brother Arthur, we are treated to an artful catalog of perilous classics: airships, underground cities, strange machines, hidden castles, and nostalgic parties inhabited by the closest approximation to zombies Old Europe could muster, namely, displaced and obsolete Aristocrats. Along the way, Baird treats us to innumerable details of this and that, many of which only serve to create a mood rather than develop characters or kick the plot forward. Yet none of that changes the fact that the narrative is resolved, not by the protagonists whose journey we followed, but by a quasi-antagonist who essentially shares the same goal yet operates on information the narrator purposefully withholds from the reader. In other words, our protagonists are sent on a wild goose chase only for their rival to swoop in and complete their task – for obscure reasons. It’s a sleight-of-hand, which isn’t at all like the charming deception of a stage magician but rather that of the con artist playing a shell game in a dingy back alley.

Baird’s, and fellow co-creator Kevin Costner’s, muddled conception of Shambhala does little to salvage an enduring sense of satisfaction from the ending. Never defined or described concretely, we are given oblique references that present the mystical city as surprisingly unappealing despite its supposed heavenly character. The city, which only appears at specific times in various places around the world, comes across as an elitist by-invitation-only paradise that offers amnesia, or death, to interlopers. Baird attempts to relate the city to the course of history, with Arthur’s early foray to the city serving as a violation of metaphysical etiquette that has to be redressed at the risk of some kind of cataclysm. Yet the final panel, which implies the restoration of world order brought about by our protagonists’ rival, rings false given what we know of the 20th Century after World War I: a century of horrors that Alan Moore grasped more keenly in From Hell than Baird and Costner do in this book.

Also unfortunate is how Shambhala is presented as a rebuke to science’s ability to know the world. For a book that celebrates adventure, it misses the point: science isn’t a dogmatic collection of facts, but an active pursuit of the unknown infused with a sense of awe.

Even if we were to be charitable and apply Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria, assigning science and spirituality their own territories, the book succeeds even less as a spiritual journey. Where the exploratory scientific aspect is given some weight thanks to the Explorer’s Guild concept – despite Shambhala looming over the narrative as the universe’s way of spanking materialists – none of the characters approach their quest as a spiritual one. And by the end, they certainly don’t achieve any sort of enlightenment. The mystical might as well be called by its real, if not entirely accurate, name: MacGuffin.

Finally, and this is a minor grievance, the book isn’t even really about the secretive yet globe-spanning Explorer’s Guild, that august club of adventurers (or perhaps genteel drunkards with a talent for fanciful storytelling). Other than launching the narrative when one of its members, Arthur Ogden, sets out to deliver a comeuppance to a hated social rival by setting out for adventure in the North Pole, the Guild puts in but cameo appearances. For the most part, the book’s major characters really have little to do with the Guild except for sporadic encounters.

Altogether, The Explorer’s Guild Volume 1: A Passage to Shambhala is a handsomely printed book with more potential than is realized and little incentive to look forward to further volumes.

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Melisa said...

Sorry to hear that it wasn't good enough - after all those pages - to want to read another installment.

Frederik Sisa said...

You win some, you lose some. Fortunately, there's no shortage of books! :)