Kariba by Daniel Clarke, James Clarke, and Daniel Snaddon, published by Catalyst Press, presents a riveting coming-of-age story that intertwines magic and history. Siku is an 11-year-old girl like any other, working and playing alongside her family. She has a deep connection to the Zambezi River, the vein of life for the entire region of Africa where she lives. Set against the backdrop of the Kariba Dam construction in the 1950s, Siku embarks on an adventure that reveals great truths about herself and the world around us.
When Siku’s father does not return from what should have been, or so he said, a regular work trip, Siku ventures out to find him. Her quest takes her to meet the many people who are affected by the dam project, a massive construct nearly half a mile long that will change the lives of everyone.
She meets the European engineers, some of whom are hopeful to bring good to the world with electricity while others merely seek power over nature. She also falls in with members of the Tonga, whose tribes have been forced to move as the completed dam will flood the entire valley. Siku even crosses paths with river pirates, willing to do anything to get ahead, including kidnapping Siku, who holds more significance and power than she ever realized.
As Siku learns through her adventures in Kariba, magic is a major theme in each of our lives. Everyone has a perspective on magic, even the science-minded engineer who refuses to acknowledge it, which has driven her to a lonely material life following her husband’s death. Even if we choose to ignore it, we will find that our lives are not whole without paying attention to magic. Some magic is used for good, such as healing. Other magic is used for selfish gain, as in the case of the pirate leader who seeks to sever Siku’s mystical connection to Nyaminyami, the Great River Spirit, which will bring an end to the river-protector’s cycle of rebirth, all for money from the dam-builder whose efforts have been slowed by Nyaminyami’s attacks. The shape-shifting mystic Maalila at times seems a villain or an aide, yet magic is a force, and it is up to the humans to understand it and use it properly.
The art throughout Kariba is gorgeous, especially the bold use of colors and bright lighting to show the warm natural world of the Zambezi. The finesse of the line work balances well with the paintbrush feel of the colors, where strokes are often shown as if they had just been laid down.
Even the layout builds the world, with narrow, crisp gutters dividing the straight lines of the panels until Siku begins to explore the magical world of dreams and visions. There, the panels become much less rigid, with lines ebbing and flowing like water to present the reader with the unsteady sensations of prophecies.
Kariba shows Siku, her allies, her enemies, and the reader that magic and the material world are not a dichotomy with one needing to die for the other to grow. Instead, they are both parts of the whole, and we need both to live our best.