It can be tough to pull off a good “world you thought you knew is actually walled off from the ‘real world'” story, and even tougher to make it feel fresh and new and thought-provoking. Sennen, the debut graphic novel by illustrator Shanti Rai, does all this alongside nailing a strong coming-of-age story in an alarming post-cataclysmic world.
Sennen lives in a farming community that would be idyllic if it weren’t for the strong culture of compulsory worship of the gods that Sennen cannot bring herself to take as seriously as everyone says she needs to. She dreams of leaving the valley, just as she dreams of not having to send the better half of the harvest as a divine tribute. Her attitude is nothing new, but she’s old enough now that people are starting to talk about her blasphemy. And she needs to be careful, her father reminds her, because their family has been marked as potential dissidents ever since he fought a god to keep her after her mother was taken to the underworld after a difficult childbirth.
Though Sennen’s father’s punishment is long over, he is still chosen as a tribute when the gods demand a human sacrifice. As the tributes are taken by boat to the underworld, though, Sennen slips into the water and swims after them. What she finds when the boat docks, though, is far stranger than the underworld she was taught about. There are trucks, for one thing, and trees being turned into lumber, and forklifts and pallets carrying her village’s offerings. Before she can rescue her father, though, she is spotted and flees. She finds a group of young dissidents, including the son of the mayor of this extremely normal-looking post-industrial world, who have just learned the truth about where their food comes from: Sennen’s village, which is essentially a community of people enslaved to support the upper world.
As Sennen and her newfound friends try again to rescue Sennen’s father, they all learn they’ve been duped for generations. Perhaps even worse is realizing how precarious both the city and Sennen’s village are in a climate change-ravaged world kept at bay only by the system currently in place—and the high walls surrounding the city.
This is a slender graphic novel, and though it does scoot quickly through its story, it never feels rushed. Neither does Hill give Sennen easy answers. It’s a tricky balance, letting Sennen be brash while still scared; blasphemous while still struggling to accept the faith she never fit into was false. It’s not about crops or songs or offerings anymore, but the scaffolding of everything she thought was true crumbling in an instant.
This struggle is contrasted sharply with her father’s insistence on holding onto his own beliefs—even the blasphemous one he’s been holding close for Sennen’s whole life. Sennen’s new friends struggle to accept the newfound truth, too, and the ramifications it holds for their world, too.
There’s a real sense, especially toward the end of the book, of wanting to go back to the simplicity of ignorance while also knowing the truth cannot simply be ignored now that it’s out. In comparatively few pictures and fewer words, Rai deftly communicates the grief that comes with hard knowledge, and responsibility hefted upon shoulders too young for such a weight. It is the turning point between what was and what could be, if you try hard enough to make it so, which is a timely lesson for today’s young people. And old people; I won’t discriminate.
I loved every page of Sennen, and am only sad I discovered it so close to its publishing, because that means I’ll have to wait that much longer for its sequel.