Jonathan Walker (writer) and Dan Hallett (illustrator)

Allen & Unwin (2010)

ISBN: 978-1-74237-013-2

Reviewed by Ross Murray

The first thing you notice about Five Wounds is that the book itself is a lovingly designed and executed object, almost a piece of art in itself reminding of a time before mass market paperbacks. The book immediately sets itself apart as something special with its deep red cover and gold embossed illustration of a hand with symbols marked upon it. There’s even has an in-built bookmark like you’d find in an old-style Bible. The ‘Illuminated Novel’ of the title refers to the fact that like manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, the text of Five Wounds is supplemented by decorations in the form of marginalia and illustrations. There’s also a set of glossy plates in the middle of the book providing accompanying illustrations to selected passages of the story.

Five Wounds tells the story of the intertwining lives of Gabriella, Crow, Cuckoo, Magpie, and Cur. These are strange and enigmatic characters. Gabriella is an earth-bound angel with clipped wings receiving garbled dream-messages from God; Cur was stolen as a baby by the Black Dog to be raised as an assassin; Cuckoo has a waxen face which he intends to use to improve his place in society; Magpie is a photographer after the perfect subject; and Crow is a leper trying to find the essence of death and therefore a cure for himself in dead things … and people. Crow’s plans to take over the government will throw the city onto chaos; Cuckoo’s desire to live the life of another has life threatening ramifications, as do Cur’s ambitions to leave the assassin’s life behind. Gabriella’s prophetic dreams infuse each character’s life while she seeks to decipher a coded message which appeared before her father’s death. As the story progresses it looks as if the characters are being manipulated, but by whom? And to what end?

Dan Hallet’s illustrations are varied, stylistically distinctive, and suit the story down to the ground, adding further elements and meaning to Walker’s elegant
prose. You’ll find yourself scanning the eighteen plates in the middle of the book for every intricate detail, and there is detail to be found. These are almost worth the price of admission alone.

Throughout there are also ‘copy edits’ – handwritten (actually printed) annotations to the text where words or sentences are scribbled out or added. On the accompanying Five Wounds website Walker describes these written annotations as ‘another level of commentary’, yet commentary on what? As writers will often say, a story is never finished. Sci-fi/fantasy author Charles Stross (Accelerando, Saturn’s Children) wrote in his ‘Common Misconceptions About Publishing’ series on his Charlie’s Diary blog that, “There is no such things as a clean page proof”. In Five Wounds, the annotations add little to the overall story except to indicate that the story is perhaps not finished.

And that’s the feeling I can’t help getting. It’s hard to criticise something that has obviously had so much effort put into its production. But a book, however lovely it looks, stands or falls on the strength of its story. While everything wraps up nicely, the story picking up pace in the final third, there are threads that are left open and I was left feeling the characters had further to go in their journeys and much more to do. I wanted the abilities of these characters really tested under pressure to see what they could do. I expected them to band together to work toward a common goal, but this didn’t eventuate. While not having my expectations met doesn’t deem the book a failure, for me it just didn’t fully reach the heights that it promised.

That said, there’s enough here to keep the reader occupied and as an overall piece of art it’s brilliant. Five Wounds is a book you can enjoy on a number of levels – production, art, characters, story. I applaud Allen and Unwin for producing this beautiful book and seeing the value of having this in the marketplace without the promise of any real return on investment because you can be sure it would have been terribly expensive to produce. For example throughout the text each main character’s name is printed in red every time it appears and the inclusion of heraldic shields in colour on every facing page would’ve meant a full colour printing.

Five Wounds is a hybrid. Described as a novel, I’m not sure whether it actually makes the length. Coming in at 175 pages, the count is pushed out by the illustrations. Allen and Unwin have this categorised under ‘Graphic Novels’ on their website, but it’s not that. At a glance the illustrations might suggest to many that this is a children’s book and it’s clearly not that either. But will adults buy this book? I guess the market is readers like myself who are interested in graphic novels and offbeat types of stories, but again at $40 (okay $39.99) it’s a fair whack of cash, though entirely worth the money.

Five Wounds is a unique, high quality, and highly individual book that is rarely produced these days. Despite any flaws, I’m sure it will find a small but dedicated following and has the makings of a cult classic.

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