Ink & Paint XVII: Unsounded, by Ashley Cope

Sette Frummagem is the daughter of Nary Frummagem, King of Thieves and perhaps the most powerful man in the disorderly land of Sharteshane. Sette has designs on her father’s throne, but to solidify her position as his heir, she’ll have to prove herself worthy. Nary sends her on an errand to collect outstanding debts from a rival cousin in a distant country, accompanied by Duane Adelier, a magic-wielding undead galit ordered to serve as her supervisor and bodyguard. Taking the direct route to her cousin’s stronghold isn’t Sette’s style, though (actually, it is…see Nestor’s comment below), and she drags her protector over hill and dale in search of adventure—and maybe a little extra plunder along the way. What she finds is trouble, and lots of it. Sette and Duane run afoul of the authorities and uncover a horrific secret that has them on the run from forces on both sides of the law. Even worse, Sette’s circuitous route is taking them into the middle of an impending war, with no friends in sight.

Fortunately, there’s more to Sette than meets the eye. It might have something to do with her ability to smell out magic, or her knack for operating arcane devices she’s never seen before. There’s also the small matter of that tail…

In her webcomic (soon to be a graphic novel) Unsounded, Ashley Cope has created a lavish realm bursting with wonders, horrors, and memorable characters. Sette Frummagem, the star of this tale, is a thoroughly unlikable, rude, profane, thieving, cutthroat, reckless, loudmouthed, annoying, self-absorbed little tick—and somehow also the most charming fantasy heroine I’ve encountered in a very long time. She’s utterly confident, determined, gutsy, nimble, clever, and not to be underestimated in a knife fight. As for her personal code of ethics…that’s under construction. Her brooding companion Duane, something more than a zombie but less than alive, endures his charge’s verbal abuse and wrongheadedness with the patience of Job while he tries doggedly to drill some faint glimmer of morality and compassion for others into her thick skull. At the same time, he’s wrestling with the deeper implications of his own condition and haunted by the shadows of past misdeeds and lost opportunities in his life before undeath. A host of colorful supporting characters gradually roll in, including a slave boy with a talent for magical technology fighting to escape the nightmare world he’s trapped in; a stalwart guardsman and his smart, sassy lieutenant; and a platinum-haired mercenary spellwright with a sightless, but very insightful, little boy.

Click to enlarge

Ms. Cope’s art is a feast of vivid color and dynamic action. Battle scenes magical and mundane leap between panels and across pages. Her imagined world is a mélange of Middle-Ages rusticity and mystic artifice mingled with clockwork technology, where titanic elemental monsters and automatons large and small share the stage with swords-and-daggers brawling. Sprawling stone temples and broken-down shrines of half-forgotten religions dot a landscape lush with verdant forests, jagged mountains, and winding rivers. It’s a treat for the eyes in both scope and attention to detail, at times bordering on sensory overload.

And there’s the story. What begins as a simple, lighthearted quest quickly evolves into something much deeper and darker. Sette and Duane blunder into a gang of slavers with a horrifying secret, which leads to further complications and sets Duane onto a personal vendetta of vigilante justice. It offers a tantalizing morsel of redemption for the sins of his past life—but the boundary between justice and vengeance blurs quickly. As the mystery of Sette’s origins begin to emerge, from the questionable circumstances of her birth and heritage to her unusual abilities, the two bickering companions are inexorably drawn into the maelstrom of war forming around them.

As charming and adventurous a romp as Unsounded is, it’s not for kids. There’s a fair measure of blood, mayhem, coarse language, and skullduggery, though that’s not unexpected in a story revolving around thieves and rogues. It deals frankly and unflinchingly with a subculture of slavery. There are a couple of scenes of gruesome horror, one occurring at a pivotal point in the story that was particularly disturbing and left me wondering whether it was necessary to so graphically portray an evil that might as convincingly be communicated via an indirect approach. I can understand the artist’s choice, but, well…I just don’t know. Sensitive readers might consider skipping over Chapter 2, Pages 56-58. The preceding and following pages will tell you everything you need to know. Overall, Ms. Cope rates her webcomic at a PG-13. I’d go two or three years older than that, but your mileage may differ.

Anyhow, this is an imaginative, engaging story accompanied by sharp, lovingly-detailed artwork. You can read the webcomic for free at http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/, and Ms. Cope is currently collecting contributions for a Kickstarter project to release Unsounded as a graphic novel (and she’s shattered her initial goal almost three times over). I have no doubt it will be very successful in that format. The Kickstarter ad was what induced me to take a look at Unsounded in the first place.

“The world ain’t ready,” indeed.

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3 thoughts on “Ink & Paint XVII: Unsounded, by Ashley Cope

  1. Good review, though a note: Sette’s route isn’t circuitous at all, she’s actually driving in a straight line towards Cresce using the fact that Duane is insensate by night to keep walking – this is why he’s always so confused as to their location, because she is deceiving him to go further west than he would want to go.

    1. Ah, you’re right…thanks for the correction, Nestor. Good eye! I suppose the fact that I was as confused as Duane says something about me. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  2. It’s not spelled out in the story, but you can piece it together looking at the chapter break art and during the fight they have at the rest stop Duane shows that he’s pretty much figured it out by himself, but the reveal in the story proper is still to come, now that they’re in Cresce, land of infinite heebie jeebies for Duane…

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