Comic books are an overlooked form of storytelling when it comes to literary discussions, with most of the conversation revolving around the books put out there by the large publishers. Comic books struggle with a reputation tied to superheroes in the United States, but it only takes looking at the indie art scene, or the books published in other parts of the world, to see the real potential of the comic book and graphic novel forms. Rather than reading exposition describing a city, a talented artist can show it to us through spreads and background art. Authors do not have to struggle with trying to accurately convey what emotion a character is feeling when it can be drawn on the page. A good artist can convey pages worth of narration in a single frame. There are so many good comic books out there, in a multitude of genres, and the subject of today’s review is here to prove just how impactful and engrossing a comic can be.
Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony is the latest graphic novel by the extremely talented artist and writer, Mira Ong Chua, whose work is mostly known for its unabashedly queer romance. I have been following Chua’s work for a few years, beginning with her graphic novel Roadqueen: Eternal Roadtrip to Love, which easily proved Chua was a creator worth paying attention to. Her other works include the excellent and sexy My Very First Vampire Blood Drive, its sequel Vampire Blood Drive 2, Anchor, Galaxy Ballerina, and the colossally cute and tremendously titled We Dragged Our Manager Into Out Girl Group: Rose/Briar; although, before Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony, Roadqueen was probably my personal favorite. And I am not alone in being impressed by Chua’s work! Chua launched a successful kickstarter project to fund Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony in order to print physical copies on her own, without having to go through a publisher. Her fans, me included, helped raise nearly four times the amount she was asking for, as the result was well worth it. Her next project in a physical addition of the two Vampire Blood Drives, which she says will also include a few additional chapters, expanding the story. But, if you are looking for an entry point into her work, Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony is an excellent starting point.
Much like her previous books, Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony takes place in a world where queerness is commonplace and just about everyone is a lesbian or bisexual. These are not worlds where bigotry based on gender or sexual orientation exists, providing a welcome respite from the real world. While her previous books already included a few tablespoons of fantasy, this one fully leans into it. Our main heroine, Peony, is a Battle Princess. Powered by incredible magics, and assisted by her Loyal Knight, Dianthus, she protects her world against the evil Divine Ladies in their attempts to conquer the universe. While we never meet them, the book makes it clear that there are other worlds with their own Battle Princesses, each tasked with defending their realms from the incursions of the Divine Ladies. For centuries, Battle Princesses have successfully help off the onslaught. Chua has taken worldbuilding to a new high, as she manages to use only two pages to bring us up to speed and hooked into the central premise. Very quickly, Peony and Dianthus are attacked by their Divine Lady, Silkrose. This early fight serves as something of a thesis into the action Chua is drawing, combining kinetic movement with verbal sparring and displays of magical prowess. But, just as Silkrose tries to retreat through a portal to the Dark Moon, the base of the Divine Ladies, Peony charges after her, setting the stage for the rest of the book.
Fans of Chua’s previous books will know right away that the main focus is not usually action, and the main plots do not get revolved by the heroine beating up the villain. Sometimes, the main villain is circumstance, or misunderstanding, or someone’s own lack of self-awareness. We have also been trained to not trust the state of the world as presented at the start of the book, and Chua is very good at peeling back the layers and exposing how things might not be how they at first seem. This lesson happens several times throughout Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony, with the first twist happening as soon as Peony has arrived in the Dark Moon. As she narrates to the reader, she had been taught that the Divine Ladies are evil incarnate, hell bent on destroying the worlds of the Battle Princesses. However, Dark Moon is not a fortress. It is a school. Divine Ladies-in-training attend classes in a variety of subjects and live in dorms, like normal students. Rather than trying to destroy the Battle Princess in their midst, they instead force her to enroll in the school, as the only way out is to graduate. Chua does an excellent job here of humanizing these characters who we have been told are villains. They are not angry at Peony, they are scared of her. And when Peony calls them all evil, Chua draws their reactions and expressions in a way that really conveys the pain and hurt they feel from Peony’s words. This is where the readers learn the central conceit of the story, even if it takes Peony a while to figure it out. Just like how she goes to bed looking out at the night sky, it is all about expanding your horizons.
Right away, the main romance of the book is set up between Peony and Silkrose. The tagline for the book is even “An eternal rivalry blossoms into forbidden love!” as printed on the back cover, so this friends-to-lovers set-up does not come as a surprise. It is a common trope for a reason, after all. At first, it seems like the romance is being set up between Peony and her knight, Dianthus, but as we learn more about the Divine Ladies and Silkrose never leaves Peony’s mind for long, the pieces begin to fall into place. However, the path to romance is not smooth. It is clear from the outset that Silkrose is carrying hurt and damage with her, as Chua’s expressive style displays. Paired with that is Peony’s training as a Battle Princess and the history Dianthus has taught her about their eternal rivalry. The early chapters of the comic show how Peony is more concerned with getting out of Dark Moon so she can go home to Flora, marshal her forces, and return to finally defeat all the Divine Ladies. But as she attends the school, cracks form in her perception of the Divine Ladies. Rather than learning about combat and conquest, their classes are about art, dancing, and putting on a good show for their Battle Princess. It is very interesting to watch how Peony change and softens around these characters, while never truly forgetting their history, all the while learning that the Divine Ladies are not simply monsters. All of this culminates in a personal favorite scene a little over halfway into the book, where Peony finally thinks to ask, why do the Divine Ladies keep attacking?
This question injects some additional conflict into the story, which is not to say Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony is devoid of conflict before this moment. There is the conflict between the Battle Princesses and the Divine Ladies, Peony and Silkrose, Peony’s feelings for her contrasting with her animosity, her desire to graduate quickly versus her enjoying her time in Dark Moon, and more. Chua has crafted a romance story that does not shy away from the messy parts of pursuing a romance, or getting out of a toxic one. Characters say some very hurtful things to each other, and there are references to lying and gaslighting to maintain a relationship. The book acknowledges that some people can become very controlling in their relationships, but that is not always easy for the person on the other side to recognize what is going on. Sometimes it takes some time away to realize, or explaining the dynamic to someone else, to put things into perspective. Beyond that, Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony allows its characters to feel grief for people and relationships lost before the start of the book, and uses those feelings to fuel both their character development and the plot.
Mira Ong Chua is just more proof that comic books can be an amazing medium for telling many different kinds of stories, and that readers are missing out on some excellent books by overlooking them. There are a ton of great indie artist and storytellers out there, and they deserve to be read just as much as, if not more then, the well-known creators. Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony is a fantastic example of what indie art is capable of, and further shows that there is a large audience looking for stories like this, stories that embrace queerness as it should be embraced, as something beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony, and even tried to stretch it out a bit to avoid finishing the book too quickly. I might just have to go read it again.
Goodbye, Battle Princess Peony can be found in the shop at miraonchua.com in both print and pdf format
Total Read Time: 3 Days
Next on the List: The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik