In my last review, I lamented not having stumbled across a good book in a while. At this point I’m more or less randomly grabbing books off the library shelves, based on cover art and a quick flip through the pages. This can obviously yield mixed results. Well, I’m happy to report that in Bourbon Island 1730, the streak of mediocrity has finally come to an end. Yes dear readers, pleasant surprises still await, and your sense of wonder may courageously live on. Allow me to elaborate…
Bourbon Island 1730 is a fictionalized (but based on historical account) tale taking place on the island of Réunion; a French outpost off the coast of Madagascar, which in 1730 is witnessing the bittersweet end of classic high-seas piracy, and the nascent beginnings of classic European colonialism. At that time, Réunion was known as Bourbon Island, a burgeoning home to amnestied pirates, coffee-growing European settlers, and escaped maroon slaves. Our book follows the the island explorations of a Parisian ornithologist searching out the last of the dying Dodos, and his young pirate-obsessed assistant Raphael.
In Bourbon Island 1730, author Lewis Trondheim has done a beautiful job of melding historical fact and colorful fiction. The characters are charming and funny, which would be enough to make this an enjoyable read. But the fact that the story’s events are based on actual history – which is further detailed in the book’s end-notes – makes this book all the more fascinating. As a fan of these pseudo-histories, I really appreciate those end-notes, which reference actual period texts and first-hand accounts. They actually inspired me to seek out more information on the island of Réunion, such as where it is and what it’s like today.
Interestingly, when I first cracked the cover of Bourbon Island, I was a little surprised to learn that this was yet another translated French comic! Perhaps I should take this opportunity to explain how I happen to be reading so many French comics lately. A few months ago, I read a very good book published by First Second press. It may have been Laika – but I can’t really remember. At any rate, in the back leaf of this very engaging book, a number of other First Second comics were advertised. Having had several prior good experiences with First Second, I proceded to add (basically) all of those advertised comics to my library request list. Consequently, I am now in possession of a big pile of First Second books, and apparently First Second publishes a lot of French comic book artists stateside.
I’m starting to suspect that the sequential art medium might be kind of a big deal in France. Our author Lewis Trondheim is actually a co-founder of L’Association, which is a French alternative publishing house. L’Association author David B. did Epileptic, which is an incredible book and on my list of favorite comics ever. I plan on dedicating a post to L’Association some day, once I’ve had time to do a little research.
Bourbon Island 1730’s art is expertly handled by Apollo, a.k.a. Olivier Appollodorus, who’s anthropomorphic characters borrow a page from Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame), in that he uses different animal species to depict the different nationalities and races of the island. Apollo’s illustrations are charming, and his characters are engaging and emotive. It also surprised me how well he captures the overgrown and mountainous interior of the island itself. If you’ve ever been to a tropical island, you know that there’s a distinct wildness and verticality to the landscape that you don’t get in … well, Minnesota at least.
Like most of the comics I’ve read lately, I had no idea what awaited me in this book. Unlike most of the comics I’ve read lately, it wasn’t little disappointments that I found, but rather pleasant surprises. I’m giving Bourbon Island 1730 an 8 out of 10 for a delightful and interesting story, and charming art.
Pick this up, and happy reading!