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The Daughters of Ys

by M.T. Anderson and Jo Rioux (ill.)

A tale as old as time gets a female-centric update in National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson’s third graphic novel. Anderson recounts the ancient Breton legend of Ys, a lavish city swallowed by the ocean. The myth has been frequently retold, often placing the blame for the disaster on a princess who opened the city’s gate to her lover, letting the water rush in. Anderson aims to rectify that instance of 16th-century slut-shaming.

This retelling focuses on the relationship between two royal sisters. Rozenn is an unwilling heir to the throne, who spends so much time with the creatures of the forest that she has sticks in her hair when she attends royal functions. Her younger sister Dahut channels her rage over their sorceress mother’s death into a secretive devil’s bargain to harness the power of the sea. Dahut also makes a sport of seducing the visiting gentry; tensions rise when she turns her attentions to the handsome young fisherman that Rozenn has fallen for.

The illustrations by Ottawa’s Jo Rioux match the tale’s epic scope. The eerie forest meadows that make up Rozenn’s stomping grounds contrast with the opulently rendered scenes of Dahut holding court, framed by curtains and draped pillars. The energetic pencil work conveys movement in the way the moor winds whip the sisters’ hair or their gowns billow as they race down castle steps.

Those guided by the book’s recommended 14–18 age range might be surprised at the amount of flesh to be found in the panels. Strategically placed bedposts and lightly draped sheets preserve the characters’ (and teenage readers’) modesty.

The sweeping narrative encompasses the first encounter between the king and his future queen, the daughters’ childhood and estrangement, and their ultimate ascent into royal life. The saga is ultimately too ambitious, with key details too lightly sketched, both textually and visually – and the reader risks losing the plot.

The female protagonists are afforded a refreshing degree of agency in this retelling, but that independence alone doesn’t distinguish the story, given the rich array of female heroines in contemporary fantasy. Fans of myth and magic will be drawn to the gates of Ys, but the casual graphic novel reader may find a lot more legend and lore than they were expecting.