By Peter Milligan, Juan Jose Ryp, Frankie D’Armata
It doesn’t get much better than this for fans of suspense with a whiff of the supernatural. We Who Are About To Die #2 has all the makings of a blockbuster movie: murder, assassins, beautiful women, and political intrigue. Tack on the historical setting, unpredictable magic, and the world’s first “detectioner” as the protagonist, and you end up with one of the most unique titles on the shelves.
This is the most thrilling book in both of the Britannia mini-series as of yet. Major happenings and breakthroughs in this Peter Milligan-helmed tale propels the plot forward and manages to surprise the reader. Tie your togas and get ready to play a deadly game of master and servant.
This is a spoiler-free review, but here’s a recap of where we stand in the story up to this point: At the behest of Emperor Nero, Antonius Axia is investigating the murder of high-born sons and daughters in Rome. Adding to the pressure is Rubria, the head of the Vestal Virgins, whose own life is at stake. Rome is a city of power – and the Vestals are the only women with any political power, making them both a threat and the perfect pawn in the eyes of the emperor.
Tensions in Rome are high with the murders of nobles seemingly done by the hands of the gods. Many are placing the blame on the doorstep of the Vestals, believing that they are failing in their duty to appease the gods. In the meantime, the success of Achillia, a female slave fighting for her freedom as a gladiator in the colosseums, is straining relationships between men and women. Women, long treated as property, see Achillia as a symbol of strength and rebellion to their subjugation.
Milligan’s topic of women’s equality is relevant, but not heavy-handed. Set against this ancient backdrop, the distance makes the concepts easier for some to digest even if the perceptions remain true today. A secondary theme in the series is slavery. Milligan parallels the plight of Rome’s women with that of Rome’s slaves. Even noble-born women had lesser standing than men. It makes sense that they would rally around a woman who was besting the men in their arena. Rome’s high-born nobles are depicted as treating slaves as property, with some being denied common decency. Here again, too, we are shown how the reality of the female slave differs from that of the male. Servitude included sex – consensual or otherwise. As seen in the first book, that was the impetus behind Achillia’s crime – she murdered her “master” while trying to escape from being raped.
It’s important to note that while the theme of subjugation is present, none of the women in Milligan’s story are damsels in distress. Achillia is a proven warrior, and Rubria hides her formidable powers behind the guise of the ingénue. That brings us to another key player who seems to be at the heart of the mystery. If you didn’t blink, you’ll remember her brief appearance in the first book. Without giving away anything else, her presence heightens the drama. This book brings tensions to a fever pitch as Axia finds his investigation turn deadly in unexpected ways.
If you’re a suspense fan, one of the best things about this book is that the reader is working alongside Axia to unravel the mystery. We are privy to some information that Axia has yet to discover, but for the most part, we are just as in the dark as he about how these crimes are being done. There’s a thrill in picking up clues and crafting theories, and Milligan does a good job of playing to this.
The team of artist Juan Jose Ryp and colorist Frankie D’Armata bring the Roman setting to life. Ryp’s work is fantastic. His depictions have teeth, giving the reader the capability to feel and smell the setting. His panel layout makes for easy understanding, allowing the story to flow naturally and accommodate readers who wish to linger on details while still encouraging progression. His action and fighting scenes are well choreographed and visually exciting. D’Armata’s colors are warm and earthy. There’s a good contrast between the clean scenes of nobles and the dank of the dungeons and underground.
Milligan and company knocked it out of the park with this one. The story is absorbing and is a visual treat. The biggest disappointment is having to wait until the next issue to find out what happens next.