One of life’s great pleasures, especially after a lifetime spend taking in stories in all kinds of forms, whether it’s through books, TV shows, movies or graphic novels, is coming across a story so breathtakingly-original and imaginative that you are almost leaping out of your chair with the thrill of what you’re reading.
(To fully appreciate how deeply it affected me, and how excited I was, I read it at 1 a.m. after an exhausting night of pulling up carpet underlay and while I waited for my boyfriend to finish painting, a task that took him until about 2 a.m. to finish; to get me jumping u and down with the sheer vivacity and imagination of it all, speaks to how truly groundbreakingly one-of-a-kind it is.)
That’s is exactly what happened when I read the very highly-recommended Haphaven by writer Norm Harper and illustrator Louie Joyce, where 13-year-old Alex Mills, still reeling from a profound loss and committed to honouring the superstitions instilled in her by the person she has lost, finds herself on an extraordinary journey to a world from which all good and bad luck emanates.
In some ways, it is your typical reluctant hero is called on a life-changing quest with high stakes and deadly consequences in the offing should she fail, but Harper and Joyce do such clever things with this well-worn narrative premise, that you spend much of the time when you aren’t utterly and completely immersed in this engaging tale, marvelling at how wonderfully well-realised the story is and how impressively different it is to anything else out there at the moment.
Essentially Haphaven puts forward that every single superstition on planet earth, to which the steampunk meets Alice in Wonderland world is inextricably linked via prismatic gateways aka rainbows, has its roots in this magically-parallel world where four-leaf clovers are the main agricultural cash crop, where stepping on cracks may break backs and where picking up an actual leprechaun named Penny can actually influence how successful you’ll be.
The sense of extravagant world building is palpable, with fine detail at every point; Haphaven thus becomes far more than just a cute, clever idea – it feels intimately, incredibly real, and though Alex has her fair share of shocks and surprises, she also comes to appreciate that for all its magicality, and it’s there in spades, it also possesses a significant amount of raw humanity, both good and bad.
So even though it is nothing like home and she is in a place with its own curiously-different rules and logic, all of which she learns to use in some pretty powerful ways since the life of her mum rests entirely on her quest being successful, she is able to relate almost instantly to the humanity of it all, and that makes the tale a profoundly-affecting one as a result.
This ability to combine both fantasy and humanity gifts Haphaven with a richness that you will find empowering.
Its central message is actually pretty simple – while you may think your destiny is controlled by outside forces, and Alex is certainly beholden to the idea that rabbits feet (one of which she’s told will save her mum if she can retrieve it) and knocking wood grease the creaky wheels of life, in reality you are the one who makes things happen.
The power of superstition and belief isn’t ridiculed or belittled; rather, it is placed in a wholly healthy place where belief matters and has a powerful effect, but not to the detriment of free will and a willingness to sculpt the world around you on your terms.
That message is even more powerful when you consider that not only does Alex have a deeply-entrenched system of beliefs that revolve around honouring each and every possible superstition, but she is the heir to a family line going back to her great-great-grandfather, a man who reputedly took on Lady Luck, the ruler of Haphaven, herself, and won.
Or so the story goes; how true it is is thrown into doubt through the course of Alex’s thrilling, terrifying and empowering adventure through Haphaven on a quest that she takes to like a duck to water, quips at the ready and bravery, all fears taken into account, quite prepared to take on all comers that stand between her and her mum.
That includes, naturally enough, a black cat – we’re educated on the fact that “crossing” a black cat doesn’t mean you walk in front of them; rather that you piss them off royally, not something you should do if you can help it – a Jinx, a mouldy creature upon whom rain is always falling (and who are more capable and less terrifying than reputation would suggest) and a leprechaun by the name of Hubbub Caskside, who seems trustworthy enough but may be on the wrong side of history, all claims to be standing ready to assist in any way notwithstanding.
The mythology, storytelling, characterisation and dialogue are all superlatively good, and the artwork is gorgeously transportive, adding beautifully to the narrative which comes loaded with so elegantly-delivered exposition that you feel as if you know Haphaven as fully as its citizens and Alex herself.
Haphaven is brilliantly-good storytelling that carries a potent message but not one that’s even remotely preachy; rather it uses the power of imagination and richly-vibrant raw humanity to take us somewhere far away from everything we know while reminding us, in the most escapist way possible, that we hold the power in our hands to change our own reality, all appearances and belief systems to the contrary.