By Danièle Cybulskie
Assassin’s Creed: Trial by Fire, a compilation of the first five comic books in the new Assassin’s Creed series, comes from the same writers that brought us the immensely popular Kill Shakespeare, a comic series that playfully wreaked havoc with Shakespeare’s canon, while drawing in a whole new audience to his plays. Written by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, illustrated by Neil Edwards, and coloured by Ivan Nunes, Trial by Fire plays with history this time, following the example of the blockbusting Assassin’s Creed video games by Ubisoft.
In Trial by Fire, Charlotte De La Cruz is a video game prodigy, successfully beating unbeatable missions in her favourite online world. Her unparalleled online success brings her to the attention of both the mysterious Brotherhood of Assassins (of titular fame), as well as the nefarious Templar Order. The Templars immediately try to kill Charlotte because (she later learns) she is the only one who can stop them from obtaining a powerful relic – a Piece of Eden – that would help them bring humanity under their control. With the help of the Brotherhood, Charlotte accesses the memories of her ancestor, Tom Stoddard, an assassin of the Brotherhood who arrives in Salem during the witchcraft hysteria of 1692 on his own quest to find the Piece of Eden. Through Tom, Charlotte attempts to locate the relic, while the Brotherhood tries to figure out whether one of their most trusted members has betrayed them.
There’s a whole lot to love about Trial by Fire. The plot moves quickly and Del Col and McCreery deftly explain the world of Assassin’s Creed without being clunky or leaving the newbie behind. There is plenty of action in each chapter, built to satisfy both comic book fans and video game fans alike. The characters are diverse in both race and sexuality, and the female characters are strong and fully clothed: all things that aren’t necessarily a given in either comic books or video games. Because Charlotte is living both her own reality as well as that of 17th-century Tom, there is the opportunity for readers to relate to either or both characters as the story moves along, as well as space for the writers to comment on a dark chapter of the past from a modern perspective.
As for the art, Edwards’ panels show his love for classic comic book art and poses, as well as his study of the Assassin’s Creed video game art. Close-ups of expressive faces are interspersed with wide, artistic landscapes, and loads of action poses. There are panels of acrobatic assassins falling gracefully through space, and of course, there’s a satisfying amount of Assassin’s Creed hooded silhouettes (both male and female). Nunes’ colours are evocative, and help to keep present and past clear for the reader.
Medievalists will not find much of the historic Templars in this particular series, but rather a broad strokes view of them as overconfident, relic-hunting men with strong ties to both political and religious power. Having the Templars positioned as instigators in the Salem witch trials isn’t too big of a stretch, if you think of them as an order who believed in their religious ideology being superior to all others. But you do have to let go of the knowledge that the Templars were both non-existent at that time and decidedly not Puritans, and embrace their vast post-medieval mythology, as you would with all branches of the Assassin’s Creed world. (Hardcore medievalists may be mollified, however, by frequent references to Dante’s Inferno.)
The creative team behind Trial by Fire is well aware that they’re taking artistic license with history, and they prove that it’s a love of history that informs their work by having a handy, factual account of the real Salem witch trials in the back of the book for those whose curiosity has been piqued by the story. Their work with Kill Shakespeare has given them an acute awareness of how comic books can be fun as well as a gateway to knowledge, something that should warm every historian’s heart.
Assassin’s Creed: Trial by Fire is a satisfying read, well-crafted in both its writing and its art. There’s something for everyone in it, from its gamer-turned-real-assassin fantasy, to its dual-consciousness narrative, to its handy historical lesson in the back. For people who are intrigued by the action-packed, pseudo-historical world of Assassin’s Creed, but prefer reading over playing, this graphic novel will hit the spot. Trial by Fire is available now at bookstores or from Titan Comics.