Last of the SandWalkers, by Jay Hosler – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Last of the SandWalkers, by Jay Hosler. Illustrated by the author.
NYC, First Second, April 2015, trade paperback $16.99 ([5 +] 312 pages), Kindle $9.99.
Biologist/entomologist/cartoonist Dr. Jay Hosler has been creating comic books and cartoon-art books since the 1990s. He may be best-known for his award-winning Clan Apis, a dramatic adventure featuring honeybees that was also (allowing for the anthropomorphization) entomologically accurate; first published as a five-issue comic book in 1998 and still in print as a graphic novel today. Now Hosler has written & drawn Last of the SandWalkers, a science-fiction comedy-drama for readers 10 and up, featuring beetles, for First Second, a subsidiary of publishing giant Macmillan.
The main characters are a scientific expedition of five beetles, all different: Lucy (shown on the cover), a sassy, rule-breaking junior member and a water-capturing tenebrionid beetle from the Southern African desert; Professor Bombardier, the motherly stable team member, a bombardier beetle; Mossy, a giant but unassuming Hercules rhinoceros beetle; Raef, a not-very-bright (mentally) firefly; and grumpy Professor Owen, a small but nasty Cape stag beetle. They are from New Coleopolis, a beetle city under a palm tree in an isolated desert oasis. New Coleopolis was founded a little over a thousand years ago, after old Coleopolis was destroyed by cocoanuts falling on it from the palm tree. It was assumed at the time by religious leaders that the god Scarabus had caused the falling cocoanuts due to displeasure at Coleopolis’ scientific community’s iconoclastic spirit, and since then the new theocratic city has outlawed research. This expedition is the first in a thousand years.
Full disclosure: I was terrified in my youth by a Scarab. I found it on a Los Angeles sidewalk. It was so large (almost bigger than my hand) and gaudy that I thought it was a lost plastic toy, but when I tried to pick it up, it came to life and crawled away. I was aghast that I had tried to hold it in my hand. I never found out what a Nile Valley beetle was doing in Los Angeles.
“Lucy’s journal. February 15th, 1002 PC (post-cocoanut). We left New Coleopolis this morning, with no fanfare.
“Leading the first mission to seek out life beyond our oasis should have been the greatest moment of my scientific career. Instead, we shuffled out of town like wraiths through the morning mists. It’s just as well, though, since most of our colleagues are convinced we will fail.” (pgs. 1-2)
The first few pages establish the characters’ personalities. They also make it clear that the always-complaining Professor Owen is hostile to them all, and to Lucy in particular. He is the head of New Coleopolis’ Science Ministry, and appointed himself as the head of the expedition. His goal is to make sure that it doesn’t discover anything that could disturb the safe scientific status quo; and that, if it does, he will get the credit. Hosler says in his Annotations that Owen is named after Sir Richard Owen, the 19th-century opponent of Charles Darwin and champion of the early Victorian scientific community’s status quo. (Check out the Wikipedia photograph of Owen: a perfect Ebenezer Scrooge.)
When Lucy finds something so large and shocking that it can’t be covered up (a human skeleton under the desert sands), Professor Owen tries to kill the others so his version of “his” discovery will not be challenged. The rest of the book tells about the others’ survival and eventual return to New Coleopolis — but only after they continue exploring:
“Like I said, I SHOULD be depressed. But I’m not. Back home all we have are beetles, a few domesticated moths, and a handful of other critters. But this place is overrun with bizarre new life-forms. I kinda feel like I just woke up from a really boring black-and-white dream to find a world full of crazy colors.
“Don’t get me wrong. No one wants to get home and wrap their fingers around Owen’s scrawny little neck more than me. I just want to go slowly. VERY slowly. I don’t want the wonder to stop. Each exotic new thing, adds to the mystery of this place. And I LOVE a good mystery.” (pgs. 98-99)
The four discover spiders, birds, snakes, bats, and more. They meet Ma’Dog, another beetle who joins them. Their defenses and survival tricks are natural to them; the bombardier beetle’s stinky projectiles, Lucy’s moisture-collecting ability, and so on. Their natural antennas are symbols of their exploring. Their handicaps, like beetles’ nightly chill-coma when they shut down until the next day’s warmth reactivates them, their pheromones, their helpless attraction at night to a bright light, are woven into their adventures.
Real beetles don’t have giant robots, though. And as Hosler points out in his Annotations, there are special treats for fans of Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby. After all, Tezuka got his start in his teens drawing incredibly detailed pictures of beetles. But it’s all entomologically justifiable! Last of the SandWalkers is a rousing adventure full of snappy dialogue and puns in which you’ll learn more than you want to know about beetles (did you know that ladybugs often travel at 100 kilometers an hour when they migrate?). Read it!