Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power!

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! was written by Mariko Tamaki and first published in 2017. It’s a middle grade fantasy story based around the excellent comic series of the same name. The book forms the first part of a planned series, though at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types is the most epic summer camp that you can imagine. Its purpose is to teach the young Lumberjanes that go there every important survival skill they will ever need – from sailing to fondue making. But the most vital lesson that it teaches the girls who stay there is the importance of friendship, which is something that the six members of Roanoke house understand all too well.

While trying to earn their Living the Plant Life badge, April, Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley make an exciting discovery. There are unicorns in the forest, and they smell like armpits and anchovies. When the girls follow a unicorn back to its herd, they make a second discovery: an immense mountain made of purple crystal that does not show up on any map.

The discovery gives April an opportunity that she can’t ignore. As an avid badge collector, she would love to earn the Extraordinary Explorers medal, and climbing an uncharted peak seems to be the perfect way to do it. Yet, in her excitement, she blinds herself to the dangers. It’s not long before the Lumberjanes find themselves trapped and injured, with no one knowing where they are. Has April’s ambition spelled the end of the Lumberjanes, or will the girls be able to work together to find a way back to camp?

I mentioned the Lumberjanes back in my post about young adult comics a few months ago, but I think I should probably recap again. The comic series was originally created by Noelle Stevenson in 2014 and has presently run for 41 issues. While the series is supernatural, the girls largely take their encounters with strange creatures in their stride as the focus is on their friendship and attempts to earn various merit badges. The series is, frankly, excellent and I would definitely recommend checking it out. It will especially appeal to you if you’re a fan of things like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe.

Anyhow, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at this story. As a fan of the comics, I was really excited when I heard that they were releasing a novel and hoped that it would be on par with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World. Unfortunately, it left me feeling a little underwhelmed.

Firstly, this book does not really stand alone. While it does spend a little time introducing the girls in the first chapter, it makes frequent references back to the events of the comics. Newcomers won’t have any clue why Seafarin’ Karen is “the best” or what the Grootslang is. Some of the other things that make the comic charming – such as the way that the girls frequently exclaim the names of famous female pioneers – also doesn’t really work so well on page. Take for example, the first time this occurs in the story:

Jo spotted the herd first, although everybody smelled something before they hit the edge of the forest, where the trees gave way to a lush meadow of green. “Ursula K. Le Guin! We found it!”

If you haven’t already read the comics, you may find Jo’s exclamation to be a bit confusing. I admit, even I had to read that sentence through twice to be sure that they hadn’t discovered Ursula Le Guin in the forest…

I also found the prose to be a bit clunky. I know that this is a middle grade novel and so simplicity is important, but just compare the book to some of the fantastic novels of this type that I’ve reviewed so far. This is certainly no Perijee and Me or A Series of Unfortunate Events. The style of this novel often took the form of “Jo did this…April thought that…” which felt very ponderous and childish. The story was also light on descriptions, which became problematic during faster sequences as it sometimes made it difficult to tell exactly what was going on.

However, despite my gripes, the story did capture the feel of a Lumberjanes comic quite nicely. While it was perhaps targeted at slightly younger readers, it had the same wholesome focus on friendship, loyalty and adventure. The tone was always light and its humour was very endearing, especially April’s terrible puns and Ripley’s general joy of life. While the story seemed to lose its drive at the halfway point, the first half of it (which introduced the flatulent unicorns and featured the girls’ attempt to scale the crystalline mountain) was enthralling and I devoured the book in two sittings.

Part of the story’s charm can be found in its lovely illustrations and so I would definitely recommend buying it in hardback. The book is great quality with a lovely glossy cover and art by Brook Allen, who is one of the regular illustrators of the comic. Her style is quite simple, but really captures the personalities of the characters.

The ending of this volume is okay. It sounds overly critical to say that that, but I really can’t think of another way to express it. I was disappointed to find that we never do discover the secret of the mountain but the girls finish their quest and April learns a valuable lesson about friendship. However, there is still a lot left open for a sequel. In the last couple of pages, Jo witnesses something quite unexpected and so it’s clear exactly where the story will head next.

In terms of characterisation, the novel is also a bit mixed. While the main cast are all very distinct, I did feel that the group was a bit too large. While this works fine in the comic, the focus was constantly flitting between the six of them as the group was rarely separated. This was a little distracting as it meant that only a few sentences at a time were ever spent focusing on each character. Yet my biggest issue with this novel was its representation of minority groups.

One of the best things about the Lumberjanes comics are that they contain a massively diverse cast. The group of protagonists alone includes a character of Mexican descent, a lesbian couple and a transgender girl. Disappointingly, all of this escapes any kind of mention in the novel. Similarly Barney – a non-binary secondary character – gets a brief cameo which includes a brief discussion about their preferred pro-nouns, but then they disappear from the story. For me, this was a huge disappointment and one that I hope is rectified in future instalments.

Anyhow, that’s about all I have to say. Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! is a fun story for fans but it just didn’t hook me in the way that the comics did. While it’s enjoyable, it’s also clear that there is a lot of room for improvement in future volumes. Yet I did enjoy reading it on the whole and will certainly be picking up the next volume in this series.

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! can be purchased as a Hardback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Runaways: An Original Novel | Arkham Reviews
  2. Trackback: Lumberjanes: The Moon Is Up | Arkham Reviews

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