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06.04.2018

Let’s set the scene for The Snake and the Lotus, Appupen’s fourth book set in the fictional land of Halahala: Humans have destroyed their world, given up any semblance of a fulfilling life, and settled into a crashingly boring routine. All this to cater to the lotus milk-swilling needs of their mechanistic overlords. Our occupations seem irritatingly small-minded and futures unendingly bleak. Enter our intrepid heroine whose fortunes set off a chain of events that might change the course of this dreary world. Simple.

Impressively hand-drawn, Appupen’s stark black-and-white illustrations are anything but. Each page is a richly detailed panel that we wish were sometimes fully colourised, in order to better draw the eye to easter eggs that emerge only on a second reading. But we get it - this monochromatic version only emphasises the grim darkness of Halahala, the dystopian reality that we have come to know from Appupen’s three previous works.

But The Snake And The Lotus is not a novel meant only for long-time devotees and detail-oriented fangirls. First-time tourists of Halahala will find their footing easily. Any seasoned city dweller will immediately empathise: the smell of your neighbour’s pungent lunch and the world’s collective sweat practically steam up from pages that depict this post-apocalyptic cityscape.

For fans of Appupen’s previous work, meanwhile, it is a step closer to the darkness. Gone are the airy blues and sunny yellows of Aspyrus that pleasingly contrasted its monstrous characters. The Snake and the Lotus will be well thumbed by those who spent their adolescence staring up at the ceiling of the gloomy cave they called a bedroom, while something suitably melancholic (yes, we mean the mournful ponderings of Floyd) became the soundtrack to their depressingly routine existence.

A print of any of the full page illustrations from this 250+ page tome could slither right onto their walls unnoticed. They are too busy ignoring Amma and her calls for to clean the room and take a shower - entreaties that have no place in a world on the verge of ending. Thanks, olds!

Darkly gory and deliciously pulpy, this is all very complex and arresting. However. However. The narrative doesn’t match up. Fairly straightforward - even predictable at times - it has a very simplistic storyline, one that feels like penance paid for the sumptuousness of the details on every page. It might be the outcome of the choice to rely as little as possible on text (words are decidedly sparse in this book), but there is, we think, room for both a verbal and visual treat here.

A more imaginative use of layout would draw the eye more deftly to visual elements that would eliminate the need for a verbal explanation. This seems to have been sacrificed for inky black full-panels of bleak landscapes reminiscent of the treacherously icy wastes of Interstellar. You could say you’ve walked into a - heh - Mars bar.

Still, there’s something urgent and relevant about the darkening of Halahala, whose problems often seem like Appupen’s deft contributions to an ideas meeting for Black Mirror. From oppressive tech regimes to the Mad Max-like flight of the enlightened, The Snake and the Lotus is sort of the ultimate wish fulfilment fantasy for composters. For the rest of us trash humans, it might be what gets you to finally separate your daily waste. Start recycling already, fools.

Getting there: Get The Snake & The Lotus here.

Sushmita Sundaram enjoys writing about funny people and odd things. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.

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