After A Hero for WondLa, I was excited to see how everything in this series crashed together. The alien storylines, the clone storylines, the personal storylines; the stage was set for the final volume in the trilogy to pay off, big time. Yes, The Battle for WondLa concludes in a satisfying and epic fashion…but the single element that made me happiest about the finale of the WondLa series is the staggered series of codas, moving briskly through the centuries. It’s a fake out at first and it pays off; author Tony DiTerlizzi starts a chapter titled “Several Years Later” and I found myself thinking “alright, that’s a bit of a rough jump cut, but I’ve enjoyed the book so far, so I don’t mind.” Ah, but then! The next chapter is “100 Years Later,” then “200,” then “300”! The 80s montage “where are they now” was a false tell, lulling the reader into complacency, into thinking they know how this is all going to play out, and then suddenly hitting the zoom button till the fame is widened to the scope of history. It gives the series a sense of scope, of real impact, and I had to pause for a moment to give it a mental Orson Welles slow clap.
One of the things that can most easily turn me off of a book for young readers—heck, or any novel, for that matter—is the cheap and ham-fisted insertion of a moral. DiTerlizzi is too clever by half to fall into that trap; in fact, he takes the far more interesting route of asking questions about ethics, and then not having the authorial voice answer them. He relies on the characters to tell the story and he relies on the dialogue—dialogue, not dialectic—to lay out the questions, and then let’s the characters actions ultimately speak for themselves. Conundrums that are universal like, do you trust someone who has betrayed you before? Can you forgive someone for doing terrible things while they themselves were under false pretenses? Who is responsible for war? If you can speak to animals, can you ethically be a carnivore? Well, alright, perhaps that is a little out there, but then again, isn’t that one of the things science fiction does best? Address seemingly absurd premises that actually speak to a more subversive perspective on reality? Above all, I can’t stress enough how dealing with real ethical questions without being preachy or trite is the opposite of a heavy-handed moral; one asks the reader a complex question with no easy answer while the other just spoon-feeds you the answer to straw man argument.
The art in this final volume of the WondLa saga seems very “next level.” I was just comparing it to the illustrations in the first two novels and I can’t quite put my finger on it; they each use black and another kind of ink, green for the first, blue for the second and now orange for this volume. I thought at first there might be three colours but nope, somehow the art just seems even more vivid. It could be a production change, or maybe it is a more anatomical approach? The details here seem more fully fleshed out—an unintended pun, if you can believe it—and more mindful. We get a really good look at turnfins, the six-limbed flying pelican xenofauna, and then a chapter later we get a clear view of a knifejack, a sharp-beaked creature that is half mantis shrimp and half giant dragonfly. The thing is, I can’t see the juxtaposition as accidental; as different from each other as they are, they seem to be part of a single evolutionary context, a pinhole peak at a flourishing alien ecology. Like Evolution, but for another planet…and not just bones.
I can’t help but want to give some of the credit for WondLa’s success to DiTerlizzi’s past connections to roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. If you are a gamer, you probably know what I mean; sometimes when you read a book you encounter enough circumstantial evidence to make you go “hm.” As in “hm, I wonder if Tony DiTerlizzi developed his skill in creating diverse creatures that remain visually linked goes back to his work illustrating Monster Manuals.” Or “hm, I wonder if creating otherworldly dimensions in Planescape—from the odd to the mechanical to the infernal or fae—is what sharpened DiTerlizzi’s ability to evoke the uncanny while staying plausible?” I don’t mean to imply that it is just limited to the visual art, either; the writing feels much the same. Notable NPCs turn up and offer Eva Nine choices; it feels like she could have chosen differently at any number of branching pathways.
I want a Middle Grade RPG spin-off. Doesn’t it seem like it demands one? Between the ethical questions, the coda-nestled-in-coda ending, the zoological illustration and speculative biology, the alien cultures and technology, the various MacGuffins like the cloning labs or the sentient terraforming machine? The layers of history, from our world to the future, to the apocalypse…and beyond, to the alien re-colonization and the re-introduction of the human species? DiTerlizzi has given us history; he’s given us Eva Nina as the hero of a new world, a world built by hand…and then after the last domino in the plot finishes falling, he hits fast forward to let it evolve into something new.
Players could choose to play a reboot, a human clone, or one of the native humans that have found a place in the new world, or any one of the numerous aliens DiTerlizzi introduced, or heck, they could make their own alien up. If you want to have classes, anything from Retriever to Airship Pilot could work. Magic items like clothes that heal your wounds, or a boomrod weapon, or even the a coveted ancient omnipod. Orbona is a perfect pitch for a campaign setting, even more so if it is generations removed from the WondLa series, and I think the hobby is hungry for more all-ages material.
Mordicai Knodewould probably want to play a Dorcean Vitae Virus Shaman, because he likes cheesy accents and turning people into toads. Or toadoids, as the case may be. You can follow him on Tumblr or Twitter.