Sometimes there’s nothing better than a purely engrossing epic fantasy, and Evan Dahm’s Vattu fits that bill. In the grassy expanse along a river, Dahm introduces the title character, Vattu, a young girl from a nomadic tribe who gets caught up in a dangerous game of imperial politics, religion, and revolution. Everything about Vattu’s birth is inauspicious—she’s born late in the season, just before her nomadic tribe’s migration; the priestess of her tribe is disappointed she’s not a boy, since they lack hunters; and herds of their prey are dwindling more than ever. In spite of the bad omens, however, Vattu grows up strong and determined, doing her best to become a hunter in spite of her gender, even when it renders her an outcast.
Those small hints of change on the horizon become a deluge when representatives from the Sahta people claim the lands Vattu’s people, whom the Sahta call Fluters, have been hunting for centuries. Now subjects of a distant emperor, the Fluters are required to give a tribute, but being a nomadic people they have nothing to give … except Vattu. Now owned by a Sahtan dignitary, who believes she’s a boy, Vattu begins the long journey to the city, beyond what she believed to be the edge of the world. Once there, she’s kept as a servant in the wealthy home of a Sahtan politician, and she’s not sure whether to abandon her identity, shun the tribe who sold her, and accept her fate—signified by removing her name painted in white on her forehead—or to resist Sahtan authority and strike out on her own, regardless of the consequences.
For Vattu, freedom is more important than safety, so she bolts from her master’s home one night, injuring him in the process, and lives on the street, darting between market stalls and alleyways to avoid capture. On her own in the city, she meets a dizzying array of people: the War-Men, silent, cyclopean behemoths enslaved as militia soldiers; the Surin, a holy people with blue, coral-like heads, sequestered in a convent enclave; and the Grish, salamander-like creatures who live in the rivers and are expert shipwrights. Together with other Fluters, most of whom are servants in wealthy Sahtan homes, these subjects of the Sahta exist together in a city that’s beginning to simmer with tension. And Vattu happens to be at the center of it all, not only because she served under one of Sahta’s more powerful politicians, but because she has formed an unlikely bond with the chieftain of the War-Men, who has begun training her to fight. As rumors spread about the “Fighting Fluter,” and Sahtans start to recognize the powerful potential of a people they heretofore thought were merely weak and simple, Vattu finds herself pursued by more than just the authorities.
Dahm’s immersive world is complex, involving multiple peoples with unique attributes and cultures clashing in an imperial city full of outsiders, and he makes great use of his artwork to distinguish them all. The Fluters, for instance, have no written language, instead communicating with music, which Dahm renders in easily recognizable brush-stroke patterns. And the backstory for the chieftain of the War-Men, who have no mouths, is completely wordless, but Dahm cleverly uses visual markers to indicate the chieftain’s victories. Meanwhile, the Surin in their enclave have an unearthly blue glow.As troubles simmer in the city and the subjugated War-Men, Fluters, Surin, and Grish come together, Dahm skillfully builds tension and heightens the stakes, but he never lets the action get muddled. At nearly 700 pages, this story is already a tome, and it’s clearly only going to get longer. But the characters, political strife, and unique fantasy setting are enthralling, especially as Dahm begins to peel back the layers of each character and people. That, along with his lush and lovely full-color artwork and deceptively cartoonish figures, full of expressive emotion and reminiscent of Jeff Smith’s Bone, make Dahm’s fantasy adventure easy to get lost in and totally worth the page count.