I loved the first volume of the Carla Speed McNeil's Finder series, but that omnibus is remarkably different than Voice, the trim edition that won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize this past May for best graphic novel. The Finder Library: Volume 1 opens with "Sin-Eater" and ends in the revered "Talisman," offering a reading experience imbued with the unintuitive realism that comes from never fully understanding what you see in an expansive story. But, while it comes later in the chronology of the series, it is Voice that is sometimes proffered as the preferred entry point to the story.
Volume 1 is decidedly an ensemble narrative, and a sprawling one at that. But Voice focuses on a single character: Rachel Grosvenor, the eldest daughter in a mixed-clan family who we encounter as she is preparing for a sort of beauty pageant ritual that serves as the competitive initiation to the exclusive Llaverac clan. Rachel needs to win because, in the strange world of Finder, individuals without clans -- culls -- find it much more difficult to survive. They are essentially considered non-entities. Her little sister Marcie doesn't stand a chance to "conform" to any clan, and this is Rachel's best hope for securing a future for the both of them. Or at least, that's what Rachel believes. (Her brother, Lynne, appears quite capable of taking care of himself.)
But a particular heirloom that is critical for Rachel's chances of winning clan acceptance is stolen. That -- and Rachel's deeper search for, well, something that is embodied by Jaeger, the finder who has a ghostlike presence on these pages -- propels the young woman on a dreamlike venture through the underbelly of the domed city-state of Anvard, rich in both secrets and misfits. As Rachel negotiates the outskirts of Anvard, Voice becomes an immersive riot of contradictions and synchronicities: McNeil visually evokes Rachel's dissonant journey to both conformation and outsider-hood with an astonishing range of facial expressions. Rachel reacts; she provokes; she holds hands with the reader and guides her through a story that might feel aimless if she herself weren't such a disarming and fascinating character. Indeed, many of the panels in this book are, literally, obscured.
McNeil shifts between humor and the grotesque with unnerving dexterity. She plays with our expectations of gender. Class reigns heavily on the story. McNeil collects myth and futuristic technology, and collides them together in a way that dis-locates the reader. Actually, this technique reminded me of the film "Napoleon Dynamite," which communicates contradictory signals about what year, even what decade, it is set in. So too does Voice challenge the reader's instinct to "settle" herself in expectations of an ancient story, or a futuristic one. This dislocation amplifies each detail in the story -- the skull make-up of the dancing Ascian clan, the ball-gown and monocle worn by the Llaverac "queen", the Latin evocation circling the seal that hangs above the bed of a dying leader, the little flying cameras that halo Lynne and reveal what he is and isn't paying attention to, the symbol that eventually rings Rachel's neck. In this conflicting world, no thing goes unquestioned. The reader is wide-eyed and alert.
Rachel does a lot of narration in Voice. (So does McNeil: her famed endnotes give the feel of reading the book with her in the room, making clever jokes and clarifying commentary the whole way through.) Rachel tells stories to unseen characters over the phone line opened simply by holding her hand to her face, her fingers spread between ear and mouth.
But what is striking about Voice is that it doesn't merely carry us through a story where Rachel's empowerment and self-actualization comes through "finding her voice." That is there, but equally powerful for Rachel is the discovery of silence: what she knows and chooses not to say. As Rachel says late in the book, after explaining how, typically, "I talk and I talk and I talk" in a rambling attempt to be wholly honest, understood, and without artifice: "What I mean is that I got what I wanted by shutting up." The doubleness of speaking and silence is also evident in the juxtaposition on the cover: the gesture of hush set against the word "Voice."
Voice and silence become Rachel's two greatest spells. But they are never easy. Uncertainty does not vanish. But the act of seeking is its own power.