This is a pretty big book - longer than Sinister Dexter: Gun Lovin' Criminals yet seeming to cover about as much story. Not that this is in any way a bad thing, as this is a top-notch book with great artwork.
The story begins with some intro text printed over a cityscape that shows Mr Fraser's artistic ability off in a fine way - it's breathtaking the way he's managed to put in such a sense of distance. On the opposite page we have a composite image of one of the building's from the previous page with Dante and a few others superimposed. We see Dante with his trademark cocky grin and the artist's ability to draw people is shown well.
The story itself begins on the next page, where we find Dante in bed with an Imperial seductress, something that gets him into trouble right away and the ensuing fight sets the scene for the strip nicely - Dante is a cocky git in the style of the 'loveably rogue'. He's rash and gets himself into a lot of trouble, something which is used to great effect as a counterpoint to the Romanovs, whom he later discovers are his family after he becomes bonded to a Romanov weapons crest.
This bonding looks, at first, to be accidental. However, we soon discover it is, in fact, a Tzarist plot to capture a crest and discover how it works. As the crests are heavily guarded until they become bonded to someone the Tzar's forces cannot capture one. That's where Dante comes in - the Tzar knows he's a Romanov and uses this knowledge to have Dante bonded to a crest which is being delivered to a Romanov who was captured by a renegade noble house. However, all does not go to plan and Dante ends up joining the ranks of the house of Romanov, where he meets his family and finds they're not really all that nice.
This is where the fun begins. Right from the start we're repelled by the bloodthirsty lack of respect for anyone but themeselves which the Romanovs have, yet we're no more attracted to the Macharovs (the Tzar's house). Dante is the only one we're able to emphathise with because he's the only one who shows compassion or any humanity at all. On more than one occasion he's the one who puts down his older siblings and shows them nobility; yet they see this as a sign he is weak and are prepared to watch him die at the hands of Lazarev, whom he eventually kills to win the leadership of Rudenshtein.
The story keeps its pace throughout the book, urging the reader on through its unrelenting anti-nobility stance and its development of the main character. Dante begins the story as a cocky rogue who has few redeeming qualities yet we like him anyway and ends with him becoming the only nobleman in the story who is trully noble, yet still he has a cockyness which makes him endearing to the reader. It's a very well written story.
The artwork isn't as good as the story in a few places, I'm sorry to say. Although overall it's great there are a few points where the linework is too think. On the whole it's thin linework with good use of shading and high detail (the frames where Dante is lying almost dead on the floor after beating Lazarev are good examples of this) just 5 pages later Dimitri Romanov is drawn in a thicker pen with less detail. However, this soon gets glossed over by the fantastic close-ups on Dante and his father, which really do make up for the few points where the artwork isn't quite right. Overleaf we're treated to some incredible shots which are just bursting with life, showing just what Simon Fraser's best at - close-up work and buildings/crowd scenes. The shot of outside the Hotel Yalta on the first page of 'The Gentleman Thief' is fantastic and only overshadowed by the breathtaking detail put into its inside on the following page - I'm not even going to try to count how many people he's drawn in this one frame alone. It's fantastic.
If you haven't experienced the first few stories in the Nikolai Dante series then I'd recommend you track down this book. It's a well thought out story with brilliant, detailed artwork to match.
Nob T Mouse
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