The War at Ellsmere

Written by Faith Erin Hicks
Illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks

I took advantage of a sale that Slave Labor had awhile back to pickup both of Faith Erin Hicks's books and used a business trip as a time to read them. I'd heard good things about her work, liked the preview pages I'd read, and found the work on her website appealing.

So it's no surprise that I liked The War at Ellsmere, even if I did find the theme a rather familiar one by this point. Jun is a smart young woman who gets accepted to prestigious private school, complete with the usual set of snobs, smears, and secrets.

Jun does fine for awhile, even befriending a rich outsider (Cassie) who has talent but no one to encourage her. There are enemies of course, but nothing Jun can't handle--or so she thinks. But the main clique has their way after a series of misdeeds, and soon Jun is on her way out, accused of the worst crime possible--plagiarism. Can Cassie return Jun's support by proving Jun's innocence in time to save the day? Or will the "war" at Ellsmere be over without a fight? Plus, how does the rumor of the haunted woods fit into all of this?

The plot of War at Ellsmere is extremely familiar. You could probably name any number of movies and books that have the same idea, where a set of losers, picked on by rich snobs, end up saving the day or proving themselves somehow. However, I do not read stories for their plots, I read them for how the writer uses the plot, and Ms. Hicks does a good job at creating likable (or not-so-likable) characters who play their parts in the plot really well.

Jun and Cassie's relationship uses the classic idea of opposites complimenting each other. One is smart and cynical, good with books and a verbal quip, but unable to have imagination. The other is sweet and caring, ready to believe in legends and able to express herself artistically. They clash initially, but soon find they need each other in a school that cherishes prestigious conformity.

Emily and her crew have the rich bully role, and so it's harder for them to have good characterization. After all, with rare exceptions, the point of a bully is to be the reader/viewer's object of hatred. Emily does that well, and it's fun when she hits the typical cliches, because Hicks makes fun of her for doing so. (Jun compares her to Lex Luthor at one point, for a great comic moment.) Her henchwomen mostly lurk, but they get a few good self-referential lines in as well.

We don't really get to see anyone else, which is a bit of a shame. Teachers and mothers play their parts but without being distinctive in anyway. I would not have minded a few middle-ground characters who could give us perspective on the private war between Jun and Emily. Everything is pretty clearly from the side of the underdog "project" who must prove herself. But maybe adding another layer would take away from the basic idea of outsider vs insider that frames the whole story.

Ms. Hicks is friends with Bryan Lee O'Malley, and their artistic styles are similar. We have the large eyes and pupils of Scott Pilgrim, thick inky outlines of all the characters, and a lot of use of black for contrast. At a casual glance, it would be easy to mistake the two of them. This is not a knock on her art. All of her main characters get their own look and feel, whether by hairstyle or dress. The pacing of the art fits the story, as Hicks uses a variety of panel layouts to portray the action. She's not really all that big on backgrounds, but we get enough to understand the setting. The overall feel is a bit blocky, but I like it.

War at Ellsmere is not an original concept, nor does it take a familiar concept in a new direction. If you're looking for innovation, it's probably best to read a different title. However, if you want a good read that plays on familiar themes with likable characters, this will be a big hit for you. I'd also say it would be perfect for any young women who want to read about people they can relate to. This is a fun story with some really good character interplay, and there's nothing wrong with that.