‘Stonebreaker’ reveals the messiness and beauty of memories
When I first opened my copy “Stonebreaker” by Peter Wartman last week, I pursued it as I would any other graphic novel. I flipped through to admire the artwork, marvel at the color scheme, take in the very mid-’10s style animation. I read it cover to cover, fully engrossed in its dystopian sci-fi appeal. Then I took to Google to gain more insight on what exactly makes Wartman and his “Stonebreaker” protagonist Anya tick.
A skim at the second link brought my attention to the glossy black “Book 2” label across both front and back covers and the spine. I sighed as I immediately took to hunting down its predecessor “Over the Wall,” a graphic novel that, conveniently for me, was initially published serially online on Shipwrecked Planet. Although I initially found the task of going back and forth between the two novels tedious, this provided me better insight into how “Stonebreaker” came to be and what it represents, independent of its predecessor.
Set four years apart, “Over the Wall” and “Stonebreaker” detail the adventures of Anya, a heroine living in a fictional, post-apocalyptic metropolis called Noridun, forbidden to women and separated from the countryside by a wall. Whereas “Over the Wall” warms us up to the dystopian backdrop and Anya’s aim to find her missing brother she can’t remember, “Stonebreaker” jumps headfirst into Anya’s desire to recover both his and her missing memories — her brother doesn’t even remember his own name.
Rather than embarking on this adventure out of sheer familial commitment, we realize early on that she’s older (16, to be exact) and more assured of herself this time around. The threat of deadly demons looms over a careless Anya, who aspires to defy the concerns and expectations of those around her. Despite the arduous task of saving her brother in the last novel, everyone from her father to the friendly demon Toris doubts her ability to make it through another adventure. She nonetheless perseveres through the doubt cast on her and strives to defy the odds. This inevitably places her in the same dilemmas she faced years ago as she wrestles with the tension of memories and reality, hoping to find answers she suspects and believes to be true without any formal indicators.
The magic of “Stonebreaker” presents itself in the way it evolves from its predecessor. Thematically speaking, Anya finds herself in the same predicaments she faced in the last book, from the grand desire to help her brother to the more abstract question of what she’ll move on to in her future. Wartman, however, is able to wrap these ideas into more mature packaging as we follow an older Anya in her ever-evolving town with some new characters — it’s not just Anya’s story this time around. Intersecting her narrative is the orange-paneled adventures of Kohjen and Baradei, two outsiders from Tatchan seeking mysterious focus stones.
They too are familiar with the “Stonebreaker” myth as told in the beginning of the text through Anya’s flashbacks to memories of her grandmother. The myth itself circles around the ancient beginnings of Noridun as a civilization and its cruel demon leader, Stonebreaker, and what became of him. Intersecting with this plot is the backstory of Toris in the form of flashbacks from a past life that scatter his memories sporadically throughout the pages in pale blue paneling.
More than any other character, this story is Anya’s. From beginning to end, it’s her journey that we follow and root for in the original lavender and black and white paneling we discovered and fell in love with in “Over the Wall.” Different stories scatter the overall plot, but this only contributes to the richness of Anya’s character development; it not only conveys the role other people and their stories play in shaping our lives, but also how all-encompassing the narrative of a place is in shaping its people.
Though we find ourselves circling back to the original themes we encountered in “Over the Wall,” there’s never a moment where it feels redundant or trite, given the more complex plot line and the entanglements of other characters. If anything, the novel strives to put its readers on edge as it attempts to tie the loose ends of its predecessor by laying out the foundation for the next installment in just as many cliffhangers as the last.
It might seem difficult to follow on the surface, but the narrative itself goes to show the messiness and beauty of memories and recovering them; it not only showcases the power and emotion they provoke in the present, but also how their significance changes with time, never leaving them as stagnant as we assume them to be in our minds.
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July 8, 2019