Shanti Rai’s Sennen is a project that I have admittedly been anticipating eagerly given that Rai was one of my choices for our annual Broken Frontier ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch’ initiative back in 2018. Her self-published comics like Persephone and KO blended very human drama with the mythological and the magical, carefully utilising the full structural potential of the page and employing a richly resonant application of colour. With Sennen Rai gets to expand that approach to a full-length narrative that both revisits and repositions some of the themes of her previous work, and the results do not disappoint.
In her home in the valley Sennen and her fellow villagers live a simple but fulfilling life. The one shadow on their near idyllic existence is the presence of the Gods who demand tributes of crops from them on a regular basis. Living with her parents, her adoptive father and her biological father Baba, Sennen’s world is turned upside down when the Gods’ demands of human sacrifices impact her family on a very personal basis. Determined to stop the worst happening Sennen pursues the Gods, only to discover the world outside the valley is not what she imagined…
Sennen is a difficult book to review in some respects in that narratively it pulls the rug out from under the reader on more than one occasion, subverting their expectations with an enviable storytelling sleight-of-hand. For that reason a degree of caution is to be applied when giving plot specifics but, suffice to say, Sennen’s plotlines take a number of radical shifts as the book progresses that are together both unforeseen and yet entirely logical in their execution.
These revelatory moments are ably served by Rai’s artistic style which, as ever, is an intriguingly appealing mix of the uncomplicated and the sophisticated. Like her previous comics she displays an assured understanding of how to play with panel layouts to reflect mood and theme in key sequences. Sennen’s sense of disorientation when discovering the realities of the world outside the valley, for example, or pages that juxtapose her perspective with the readers’ observations. Colour and lettering, too, play vital roles in communicating the emotional tone of key sequences.
Thematically Rai presents a story that works on multiple layers. It’s a coming-of-age tale at its most obvious but it’s also a testament to the importance of family, and an indictment on society’s hierarchical divisions and the exploitation that ensues from that. Its finale is both open-ended and a fitting coda in itself meaning that Sennen feels like a complete, discrete work but at the same time replete with possibilities for future visitations to this world and its mysteries.
For most readers this will be a first exposure to Shanti Rai’s comics but in publishing Rai’s first major project Avery Hill will be taking the promise first shown in her small press comics to the broader readership it so richly deserves. Sennen is published this October but can be pre-ordered from the Avery Hill site here.
Shanti Rai (W/A) • Avery Hill Publishing, £11.99
Review by Andy Oliver