REVIEW: Bloodlust and Bonnets – Emily McGovern

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Author: Emily McGovern (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Genre: Graphic novel, satirical historical fantasy

The year is 1820, and bored young debutante Lucy knows there must be more to life than embroidery and engagements – no matter how eligible the bachelor might be. Some bachelors, she has discovered, are less ‘eligible’ than they are ‘bloodthirsty,’ however… literally. It turns out that there are a lot of vampires in late-Regency England, and Lucy has an eye for spotting them and the desire to rid the world of them.

It’s not long before Lady Violet Travesty, leader of a mysterious vampire cult, spots Lucy’s talents and offers her a place amongst her vampire acolytes. Unfortunately, Lady Violent is most horribly slain by the famous Lord Byron before Lucy can accept. Lucy instead joins Lord Byron and his enormous, psychic eagle Napoleon in their ongoing fight against evils such as bloodsucking ghouls and bad taste. Before long they’re joined by the mysterious Sham, an androgynous bounty hunter, who catches Lucy’s eye. The trio lie, flirt, fight and manipulate each other as they make their way across Britain, disrupting society balls, slaying vampires, and making every effort not to betray their feelings to each other as their personal and romantic lives become increasingly entangled.

You may not necessarily know the name Emily McGovern, but you might recognise the art style. That’s because she’s the artist of one of my favourite webcomics, My Life As a Background Slytherin. What I love about her art is how expressive it is while still remaining relatively simple. She keeps her lines bold and her designs uncomplicated, and in doing so manages to cut right to the humour of any scene. The expression she can portray with just body language and a thick eyebrow is frankly astonishing. She also has this delightful way of playing with spelling and text weighting to really make sure you hear the joke the way she intends it to be heard. The majority of the characters don’t even have mouths, it’s all through body language and scene staging that the humour comes across.

You might be aware that I love the Regency period as a setting for novels. You might not be aware that I also really love it when memes go round absolutely roasting Lord Byron for being overly dramatic (such as this absolute classic roast from his friend Keats). So the idea that McGovern was going to apply her comedic stylings to the ultimately lampoonable Lord Byron was enough to get me very interested. This book went on my Wishlist basically as soon as it was announced, and I finally got it for my birthday last week.

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Bloodlust and Bonnets is slightly different tonally than My Life As a Background Slytherin, but I think a lot of that is because in B&B (excuse the abbreviation) actually has a plot it has to move along instead of being able to satirically observe ridiculous plot elements in someone else’s source text. This means that it can feel a bit less energetic in places, a bit more controlled, as she has to build characters and a world to fit her jokes into. This doesn’t mean the humour is lost entirely though, and I have been cackling about this panel for approximately a week now:

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Lucy is quite a delightful character in that she immediately defies all the tropes of a regency heroine. She’s self-interested and impulsive, concerned with being seen as cool by the people around her, but also she’s mostly motivated but what will work out best for her. Her initial encounter with the vampire Lady Travesty is such that Lucy thinks being a vampire might be pretty neat for her, and so she joins Byron’s vampire hunt to try to get closer to her own immortality. She’s not evil though, or particularly selfish. She’s just a normal person who makes assessment about what will be the most interesting for her.

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Byron is an utter delight. Byron is one of those historical figures who adds humour to basically anything he is added to if he’s used correctly, and McGovern uses him perfectly. He’s the ID of all the characters. Flamboyant, self-important, with extremely poor impulse control. He either wants everything to be about him all the time, or he just wants to spend his time in bed eating sweets. There is something very relatable about Byron in his lows, and something delightfully aspirational about the fact that he is so uninhibited when he is experiencing his highs. He’s oblivious to the judgement of others, and does precisely what he wants in the bulletproof certainty that he’s right and it’s all about him.

Sham, on the other hand, is all about the mission and the job. They don’t care about anyone else, they just work with what’s convenient to getting their end goals met. Lucy acts as the foil between the two extremes of Sham and Byron, and her frustration about this is delightfully exploited for comic effect through the whole book.

McGovern has this brilliant way of building relationships between people and letting their characters shine through. While the plot may not be the most involved or complex, it doesn’t need to be because this book isn’t really about the plot. The plot and the setting are just vehicles for her characters and humour, in the same way Hogwarts is in Background Slytherin. McGovern’s comedy derives from applying logic and grounded reasoning to extreme situations, and a vampire hunt with Lord Byron absolutely meets the standards for ‘extreme situation’. She runs with it and then skewers it with perfect precision. Usually with just a repeated panel of silence to give a beat for the joke to drop. Her art and structure gives perfect pacing to ensure that every joke lands exactly as it should.

I can’t wait to see what she has to offer next, but in the mean time I will probably end up re-reading this and Background Slytherin several times.

Briefly:

  • This book isn’t plot-heavy but it uses an identifiable setting and a simple storyline to instead have a lot of chaotic fun with outrageous characters needling each other and indulging in rapidly escalating ridiculous behaviour.
  • The art style is brilliantly understated and yet so wonderfully expressive. McGovern knows exactly how to land her lines to make them say the most about any scene. And she’s clearly had a lot of fun drawing huge and ridiculous hats.
  • Her use of text weighting, spelling, and blank-panel beats means that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where there’s less doubt as to how a line and joke is delivered. It’s really very impressive.

Rating: 5/5 – If you love historical satire, if you love farce, if you love slightly silly graphic novels, you’ll love this.

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