Well over a decade in the making, to call Garen Ewing’s The Rainbow Orchid a labour of love would be an understatement of the most epic proportions.
It’s 1920s Britain and the young historical research assistant Julius Chancer and his employer Sir Alfred Catesby-Grey have just concluded their latest escapade recovering a lost opera by Henry Purcell. No sooner has one adventure ended, though, than another one begins when Lord Reginald Lawrence and his actress daughter Lily approach the duo under the misapprehension that they possess the mysterious Rainbow Orchid; a rare plant that could save the Lawrence name and estate from the villainous businessman Urkaz Grope.
Accepting the obligation to discover the legendary orchid for the Lawrences, young Julius and his fellow explorers begin a global quest that will take them from London to France through to the Hindu Kush, all the while pursued by Grope’s malevolent agents Evelyn Crow and Box. On the way their paths will cross with the ambitions of a centuries-old secret society, the machinations of clandestine governmental departments, and the customs of an ancient lost civilisation. All before learning the true secrets of the Rainbow Orchid and why it is so eagerly sought by so many conflicting factions…
The original covers for the single releases of the trilogy
Well over a decade in the making, to call Garen Ewing’s The Rainbow Orchid – the first story arc in his The Adventures of Julius Chancer series – a labour of love would be an understatement of the most epic proportions. Drawn in the elegant ligne claire style of the European bandes dessinées tradition, it evokes obvious comparisons with Hergé’s Tintin or the Blake & Mortimer series currently being reprinted for an English-speaking audience by Cinebook. Originally published in three European-style albums over a several year space, The Complete Rainbow Orchid collects the trilogy with the added incentive of a number of bonus feature sketch pages and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
What Ewing has fashioned here is a rare example of that seldom seen breed: the genuinely all-ages title. Julius Chancer’s exploits will appeal to their wide potential audience on a number of levels. For the younger fan it’s a good, wholesome, rollicking adventure story full of thrills, spills, and non-stop action that rarely gives the reader a chance to draw breath. For the adult enthusiast there are echoes of the storytelling conventions of some of the greats of a certain strand of classic literature with a touch of the pulp thrown in and, dare I say it, a smidgeon of nostalgia added for good measure. I doubt I’m the only forty-something to have finished The Rainbow Orchid and been taken back to coming home from childhood visits to the public library ready to dig into the misadventures of that aforementioned boy reporter, his canine pal, and their roughhousing sea dog chum…
Underlining this cross-demographic appeal is Ewing’s complex but always engaging plot. There’s no patronising the younger reader here and the many threads of the tale require constant consideration to keep track of but, at the same time, the pacing of the book moves along at such a heady tempo that it’s impossible to imagine anyone immersing themselves in The Rainbow Orchid with anything but the most rapt attention.
Around forty characters, major and minor, moving through the book’s 117 pages would be a very difficult juggling trick for a lesser writer but Ewing has the knack of making each and every one of them count. It goes without saying that the feature characters like the intrepid but fallible Julius, the determined and resourceful Lily, and Lily’s agent-cum-comic relief Nat Crumpole are all wonderful creations. But even the most bit part player in The Rainbow Orchid is a fully rounded creation in and of him/herself with a fundamental narrative role to play and a distinct back story of their own. There’s something very Harry Potter about the approach to the sprawling but always vital cast here!
As for Ewing’s visuals, you are going to come back to this book again and again just to engross yourself in the gorgeous clarity of the interiors. The backgrounds are rendered with stunning realism combined with a striking period charm. From the familiarity of the Natural History Museum or the British countryside, to the exotic worlds of hidden valleys and lost ancient cities, each and every panel of Ewing’s artwork is meticulous in its construction and detail; his characterisation accentuated by that recognisable trick of setting a slightly caricatured cast against a more lifelike backdrop.
The Complete Rainbow Orchid is a collection that respects its source inspirations but without ever being beholden to them. An absolute humdinger of an adventure story that will appeal to the child in all of us, its absence on the bookshelves of anyone who calls themselves a true aficionado of the medium would be a conspicuous and telling one indeed.