The dog with the backwards tongue..

After beginning the ASCENDER series at the end of December, I somehow managed to let months slip by before reaching for the second one. I don't know why I waited so long, but hopefully I will mix the next two in with other reads over the next couple of months. 

4/5 I continue to have a good time with this follow up series even though not every aspect of it has been working out perfectly. 

NOTE: While my goal is to avoid spoilers for ASCENDER VOL 2: THE DEAD SEA, I would advise not reading this review unless you have first finished the first volume in this series. 

Things kick off by immediately revealing that Andy isn't actually quite dead following the shocking events of VOLUME 1. This volume places a heavy focus on his story of survival while rotating over to follow his daughter Mila who travels with Telsa, and the mysterious "Mother" who attempts to foil the prophesy of the "dog with the backwards tongue." All three of these main character arcs worked quite well and I enjoyed some of the surprise appearances from DESCENDER characters. I won't spoil which ones or how they become part of the story, but I thought these appearances were really well done and in one case, quite tragic. Another particular highlight was getting more of Mother's backstory and understanding the role her coven of witches in converting this high-technology world into one that's decidedly more darkly magical. Through a series of flashbacks, we also get to find out more about what happened to Telsa during the time gap between the series which gives us a little more insight into what happened to Quon. She also gets a romance arc that was fine, but kind of fell into some typical tropes that I don't care much for, so it didn't ultimately add all that much for me. Even with that nitpick, I would still say that it's these characters that are really keeping me engaged in the story. I love seeing how the returning members of the cast have changed and I really appreciate what the newcomers bring to the table as well. 

In terms of character movements, we don't actually tread a ton of new ground. Most of the action takes place on the same planets as the previous volume, but we do get brief glimpses into other places through flashbacks as well as Mother's trek through a more spiritual dream-like realm. Where I think a lot of the world building comes in is in further defining the role of magic in this new iteration of the universe. We also get more information about the decline of technology and the fall of the UGC in addition to learning a lot more about the terrifying vampires that now prowl about. I think these advancements in lore really made up for the lack of interplanetary adventure, and I was fascinated by each of these tidbits, though I was definitely hoping to have gotten a little more information into the whereabouts of the Descenders by this point. 

Perhaps one of the things that holds this series back for me a bit is that there isn't quite as clear a sense of direction. Given that there are only four volumes in the entire series, I guess I would have expected things to be a little further along than they are since the end of THE DEAD SEA is effectively the halfway mark of the overall story. Whereas DESCENDER's plot did take a while to unravel, I felt like we were chasing down some really interesting mysteries and getting some crazy reveals dropping on a pretty regular basis. In ASCENDER's story so far, we've mostly just been seeing an effort to get Mila and Bandit off-world (which is still unresolved), we've been teased by the mystery of where Tim-21 got to (but haven't gotten any tangible hints as of yet), and Andy has mostly just been hanging on for dear life. The most interesting plot developments are the bits of exposition we get from the flashback scenes. While that might sound harsh, I do still feel invested in what's going on, I just think that a lot of that investment is coming from my attachment to the characters rather than the twists and turns of the story itself. I will admit though that the threads that Mother's story follows were genuinely interesting and had some fun twists along the way - some expected and some not. I'm also really curious to see how those narrative beats will end up playing into the future volumes. 

There's not a lot of new things I can really say about the visual presentation that I haven't stated already, but I will still recap some of my broader thoughts. The layouts and lettering are still fantastic even though speech bubbles continue to plunge much deeper into the spine than they really need to sometimes. The art style is still a main selling point for me, but I am now fully convinced that a greater number of the panels are a bit more rushed than they were in DESCENDER. There are definitely some shots that look just as good, if not better than what we got before, I just feel like there were more instances of having whitewashed backgrounds or faces rendered without much going on for lighting or shadows. I think part of this might just be that it's going for a brighter aesthetic overall, but I wish that would have been contrasted more with deeper shadows on characters or maybe just some more detailed backdrops since the characters are largely done with as much fidelity as before, it's just harder to see that. The main cover as well as splash art/covers for each of the issues continues to be absolutely stunning. I will also add that I love the creature design. It's always been good when it comes to alien designs and such, but the heavier lean into fantasy influences has really brought it all to new heights. 

From slightly less detailed art to a less compelling narrative structure, ASCENDER still isn't quite living up to DESCENDER's caliber, but I had a good time with this volume all the same. I also think that it sets up the potential for the final two volumes to deliver something awesome, so I hope that the back half of this series lives up to those possibilities. 

(+) Surprising returns from even more characters from DESCENDER
(+) Time spent with the already established members of the cast kept me engaged even in spots where the plot did not
(+) Some intriguing bits of world-building, particularly with the more magical elements and flashbacks 
(+) The replacement of technology with magic remains a fun concept which is explored further
(+) The limited plot developments we get seem to be potentially setting up something really spectacular in the next two volumes
(-) Even though we are halfway through the larger story, there's still not all that much which has actually "happened" 
(-) I am still not loving the art as much as I did in DESCENDER even though it's done by the same artist in largely the same style


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