Niobe Ayutami is an orphaned, elven, teenaged girl shrouded in mystery and filled with promise. As the daughter of the corrupt elven king Andrek VII of Isinatarre and the Galemren wild elf queen Nadami of Ugoma, Niobe has been hunted by her father and other adversaries all throughout the world of Asunda. While on the run from her father, Niobe finds herself among a sanctuary for elves, dwarfs, and half-blood people like herself. When a young boy is murdered and a half-orc young man is blamed, Niobe finds her respite threatened as the murder sets off an unprecedented chain of events that lead her to battle.
Niobe: She Is Life, written by Amandla Stenberg and Sebastian A. Jones and illustrated by Ashley A. Woods, begins with Niobe’s flight from Essessa, a female vampire warrior knight trying to bring Niobe back to her father. As Niobe runs through, she hears the voice of Arnumiel, the goddess of healing that Niobe worships which, thanks to the letterer known as A Larger World choice to make the goddess’ words bright white with a delicate font, sounds like a mother trying to reach out to her child. Ignoring the voice and following a dragonfly looking creature called an esufly, Niobe flees to the river, only to be wounded by an arrow from one of Essessa’s bowmen as he rebukes her blunt wish for her father’s death. After promising Essessa that she will kill her father, Niobe falls down a brilliant blue-white waterfall, arms spread like an angel. Despite her wound, she is mysteriously rescued and led to the sanctuary that gives her temporary reprieve.
With this introduction, the art and words show how Niobe is physically and spiritually lost due to opposing desires and a skewed concept of her identity. She wants to kill her father, but also doesn’t want the burden of bloodshed and destiny. While her mother was said to have an angelic, graceful disposition, her father has a presence in Asunda so evil that he and his forces are known as The Untamed. Her half-blood heritage and the wicked deeds of her father cause Niobe to be called cursed, but she wants to be good, to be better than her father. It is this conflict that results in a compelling hero’s journey for Niobe.
Through the sanctuary, Niobe meets several people who will play a key role in her personal growth. This includes the tough but fair dwarven leader Bragnar Steelnose, the hardened elven young man Temshen and his equally torpid elven brother Pryn, and the mysterious half-orc boy Sin Grachukk. Each of them views Niobe differently and impacts how Niobe sees herself. Of all the characters, Temshen and Sin Grachukk are the most notable because they embody Niobe’s internal conflict. While Temshen views Niobe as a sin due to her mixed race heritage and the target on her back, Sin Grachukk is friendly and empathetic due to their shared half-blood status. These characters suggest that part of Niobe’s story will involve her coming to terms with her heritage and being half-blooded in order to feel whole again.
In fact, it is worth examining what being half-blooded means in the fictional world of Asunda. Unless they are bestowed a different name, those who are half-blooded have the word “Sin” in front of their respective race. For example, Sin Grachukk literally means that the young man is a sin because he is of mixed race, half-orc and half-human. Although Niobe isn’t shown to have the word “sin” in front of her name, the words “half-blood” are still said to her like a slur. By becoming friends and developing feelings for each other, both Niobe and Sin Grachukk give each other the resolve to become something more than the words they are labeled as.
For Niobe, the notion of becoming something more opens up new possibilities and questions. Can she have a moment to be a young, carefree teenager reveling in romantic love? Is the sanctuary finally the place where Niobe feels she truly belongs? As the story progresses, the answers to these questions are revealed to be complicated by prejudice, spiritual faith, and an adversary that threatens the peace that Niobe desires. It is here that Niobe realizes that in order to keep the peace she wants, she must stop running and start fighting. This allows Niobe to literally charge forward and take the first courageous steps towards being a hero.
In addition to the lettering and the artwork, Darrell May’s layout makes Niobe’s battles quite dynamic. Some particularly notable pages involve Niobe fighting a large black horned beast, each panel showing the progression of the fight from Niobe entering battle to the final blow that she delivers. It slows the action down like a slow-mo moment in a film, allowing the reader to fully appreciate Niobe’s fighting ability. It is Niobe’s hard-won newfound resolve that eventually moves Temshen, Bragnar Steelnose, and other characters to action.
Despite their conflicts with each other, Niobe’s courage helps others band together to face the threat to their sanctuary, earning Niobe respect. Not only does this show Niobe that she is not alone, but it also shows Niobe that she isn’t truly a “half-blood” person. She is one whole person made by the sum of her chaotic experiences, her steadfast willpower, and the heritage that she chooses to claim for herself. This is best demonstrated in a rallying speech she gives to female Galemren refugees that she is introduced to. She states, “For there is nothing more beautiful and dangerous than a wild woman. She is life. She is death. She is spirit. She is God.”
All in all, Niobe: She Is Life is a visceral, gorgeous coming of age fantasy comic. Filled with wonder, action, and introspection, Niobe: She Is Life is a terrific start to the story of Niobe, a teen-aged girl with both angels and demons on her shoulders.