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Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling
by Tony Cliff
First Second, $17.99. 272pp
Published: March 2016

If the 'Olympians' book from First Second that I reviewed last month (or a couple of days ago, as I write) was a skimpy book, this one certainly isn't. It's a smaller format but it runs over 260 pages on quality paper with a neatly embossed cover. It felt substantial in my hand without feeling too heavy.

Not that I actually held it for long, because once you pick this book up, you're not likely to put it down until you're done and you'll blitz through it like lightning because it's a fast-paced romp that makes you turn, turn, turn until the story is done and you can start breathing again.

This is book two in a series and I haven't read the first volume, 'Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant,' an oversight I will have to address as soon as is humanly possible. It's a little shorter than this one but it sounds like it's just as good, given that Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews included it in their best of the year lists for 2013. It was also a New York Times bestseller and was nominated for Eisner, Shuster and Harvey Awards. Not bad for the author's first published book, huh?

I'm glad to hear that it's so popular because this book feels a lot more European in its outlook than I would have expected for a North American author.

It has a female lead in Delilah Dirk, for a start, who's a lot more substantial than just the usual strong female character who kicks ass. Most of those characters are exactly the same as their male equivalents, but Delilah is very much a girl, not least because this is the very early 19th-century so she's stuck in voluminous dresses, whatever she happens to be doing. And while she's capable with a pair of swords, she's just as capable with her wits, when she isn't leaping into trouble because she's a little headstrong. Indiana Jones is the obvious comparison, if he was a young lady roaming around Europe in 1809 and hadn't heard of archaeology.

An Englishwoman traipsing around the continent, beginning this book in Portugal but soon ending up back in England, obviously counts as European, but the artwork backs that up. Tony Cliff's art is most reminiscent of Hergé's 'Adventures of Tintin,' which can't hurt sales back home, especially as the story backs that feeling up well. The lines are simple but very effective, most of the book beginning as pencil art that's enhanced digitally, and characters like Delilah's companion, Erdemoglu Selim, the Turkish lieutenant from the first book's title, could easily have walked straight off Hergé's pages and onto Cliff's.

The plot is relatively straightforward, if you're as single-minded as Delilah Dirk. She and Selim kick off the book with a rescue mission, to retrieve a young boy from his father, who wants the boy to accompany him to war, and return him safely to his mother and grandparents. It's a success, but Delilah does get shot in the arm, which doesn't slow her down but does make her annoyed, less for the pain and more for her reputation, as she really doesn't want that to include stories about her taking a bullet but not killing the shooter because she had a kid to get out of the way first.

That reputation takes another beating when the pair run into a British major, Jason Merrick, who arrests them on suspicion of being spies for the French, the British army lately suffering from a great number of leaks. Of course, it won't be too much of a surprise to discover that Major Merrick is the real spy and he just wants to deflect suspicion onto our heroes. Delilah doesn't take that well; and when she realises the truth, takes it upon herself to take him down, so revenging herself, saving England and repairing her tarnished reputation all in one swell foop.

And so we follow our heroes back to England, which is the last place that Delilah wants to go for reasons she won't tell Selim but soon become apparent. That adds another level to the story and sets us up for more adventures to come.

Usually, I try to avoid coming into series partway through, but this works well as a standalone volume, even though anyone who reads it will immediately want to buy the first book. I had an absolute blast with this second one and already have its predecessor in my online cart. For readers strapped for cash, the first two chapters are available to read online for free at delilahdirk.com and that counts for half the book.

It's hard to say what I liked most, because it's something of a combined onslaught. The characters are well-drawn, figuratively and literally, and I appreciated Delilah's flaws as much as I did her strengths. Selim is a great companion, full of hidden depths, who perhaps will grow into something else down the road, but perhaps not. Delilah has metaphorical tunnel vision that prevents her from seeing much of anything that isn't directly in her sights.

The tone is magnificent, with our heroes leaping from adventure to adventure without much of a chance to breathe. The feel is very much like the Tintin books, Indiana Jones films and old pulp serials. There's a little historical background, but that only really exists for our heroes to ride through. Tony Cliff isn't digging deep and we're not going to learn much.

And the art, for this is a graphic novel, after all, is joyous. I can't say I'm a fan of Cliff's tendency to add sound effects to his action in the manner of the old 'Batman' TV show, but he does it stylishly enough. I am a fan of pretty much everything else: the way he draws people and places and the way he moves us through the frames. The larger images that take over a couple of pages every once in a while are easily worth framing and putting on the wall.

If there's a weak spot, it's in the story which takes us where we need to go but doesn't do much else. Delilah Dirk is a serial heroine, Selim is a serial companion and Major Merrick is a serial villain. Those roles are established early and stuck to throughout, the story little more than a framework to carry the fight through the requisite pagecount. I do like the choices of location for fights and other action-oriented events, but they all play second fiddle to the tone.

While it's not technically steampunk at all, it'll play very well to the steampunk audience and I recommend it emphatically. Hal C F Astell

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