Ursula Vernon's Digger is a fantasy built on one of the genre's most tried and tested structures. It's a quest: our heroine is lost, and her attempts to find her way home provide a narrative line on which any number of adventures can be strung.
Making that heroine a furry animal isn't unprecedented, either, though it is unexpected to discover that the chosen animal is a wombat. There's nothing cute or fluffy about "this grumpy, chunky, industrious beast" (as author Ursula Vernon describes it in her acknowledgements). The eponymous Digger (Digger-of-unnecessarily-convoluted-tunnels, if we're being formal, but Digger for everyday use) is neither a romantic maiden nor a noble hero, but an entirely practical engineer: confronted by a bunch of armed and hostile bandits, her dialogue, during a strictly off-stage battle, goes:
"You call that steel? It's not supposed to go 'plonk', you idiot! Any pressure and it's going to snap! Don't you people know anything about metal?"which is as good a way as any of dealing with an enemy.
Beneath her armoured hide (the reason why you should never stab a wombat in the rear is that "we've got like three inch hides down there. It's practically armour plate.") Digger has a heart of gold, which serves her well in the extremely various encounters which punctuate her progress. Unfazed and unfailingly courteous, she engages with a statue of Ganesh, with the nameless creature whose cave she has unwittingly invaded, with an unidentified shadow being and with an oracular slug.
The oracular slug is a fine demonstration of Ursula Vernon's approach. For one thing, as an artist, she clearly enjoys drawing slugs: exploration of her website unearths a habanero slug, an earth slug (first in a probably never to be completed set of the four Elemental Slugs) and a pink and lilac My Little Slug. As an artist, Ursula Vernon is also a fine story-teller: having visualised her slug - still identifiably a slug, but given adopting dramatic poses suited to the pronouncements of an oracle - she backs it up with an origin story. Moreover, she has a very distinctive voice: the slug's two oracular messages ("Bones of the sea" and "Beware the tail of the peacock") are followed by a piece of practical advice:
"A bunch of guys went by earlier, and insofar as all vertebrates look alike, they were some pretty tough customers. Salt in their veins, you know.This serves to back up the Delphic quality of the oracles; it also provides a slug's eye view of a universe in which all vertebrates look alike, and salt is one of the most dangerous substances around.
Might be nothing, but a little caution never hurt anybody."
This is the real joy of Digger, that Ursula Vernon is both a real artist and a real writer. The slug is a slug, the wombat is a wombat, the statue of the god Ganesh is... And so on. Even the ink-blot representing the mysterious Shadowchild is full of personality. The black and white artwork has the bold simplicity of a woodcut, emphasising the strong claws of the wombat, the dripping branches of the forest in the rain.
The verbal narrative is as distinctive as the visual: humane, quirkily humorous, but never losing the thread of a story that keeps the reader greedy to know more.
© Jean Rogers, 2006
© Jean Rogers, 2006