Sette Frummagem and Duane Adelier are an unlikely pair of traveling companions. She is the young daughter of the head of a criminal family, quick with a lie or a boast, eager to liberate money from its rightful owner, and oddly gifted with a lion's tail and a nose that can sniff out things that no one else can smell. He's an undead wizard, forced from his quiet afterlife to serve as Sette's bodyguard, though he's easily frustrated by her sharp tongue and constant treachery.
Every now and then I come across a webcomic, read it, and find myself slightly embarrassed that I hadn't read it earlier. Ashley Cope's Unsounded is one of those webcomics. From the opening pages, which find Sette and Duane bickering, it's clear that Cope is both an accomplished visual artist and a wonderful writer of dialogue, and as the story progresses the world and the larger epic prove just as rich.
Sette and Duane are our first protagonists, but they are by no means the only ones. Sette has been sent far from home to find her cousin Stockyard, ostensibly to convince him to pay the tithe owed to her father. Duane, meanwhile, is an unusually skilled spellwright and a far cry from the undead plods that populate the continent of Kasslyne. It would be enough to follow just the two of them as they travel from Sette's home to the city where Stockyard has planted himself, brushing against the various conflicts of Kasslyne's nations and exploring Sette and Duane's backstories while uncovering whatever the truth is behind Sette's quest.
Instead, Cope introduces us to a host of characters who cross paths with this mismatched pair and follows their stories as well. Quickly, we are caught up in the stories of Jivi, a boy who has been snatched by slavers who are engaged in something even more nefarious than selling children into servitude, Quigley, a mercenary spellwright whose tragic backstory inspires operas, and Toma and Elka, a pair of soldiers who are far from home, enforcing the laws of their nation, including those against slavery. Cope recognizes that many people are the heroes of their own stories, and even as her characters come into conflict with one another, we can recognize each one's point of view, seeing their better qualities as well as their often profound flaws. And these conflicting, but legitimate, viewpoints reflect the richness of the world Cope has created.
While reading Unsounded, I often find myself clicking over to the wiki Cope has created, not for clarification, but to learn more about this world. Kasslyne is a place of national and religious conflict, where the beliefs of the two major faiths stand in direct opposition to one another. It features one nation that is either a paradise or a tyranny depending on your point of view, and two characters who feel very differently about their own caste-based nation due to their own personal experiences. Cope has imagined politics, economies, dogmas, her own readily understanable system of magic, and various fashions. Plus, there are neat visual tweaks to the conventional high fantasy setting, like giant dogs used as mounts in lieu of horses and floating smoke eels that tend to hang about. And it's always refreshing to see a high fantasy comic that models its characters on black folks as well as white.
Unsounded is a thoroughly engrossing comic, one that has immense affection for its characters but also makes them work for their emotional connections to one another and the small joys of a troubled continent. It's a comic that can make you root for a bratty thief and a pretentious zombie, and then make you root for half the people who stand in their way.