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Any Empire (Top Shelf) Nate Powell’s follow-up to 2008’s well-received Swallow Me Whole is similar in tone and subject matter. The former is a palpable sadness borne of masterfully communicated verisimilitude is the former, and the latter is troubled lives of young people.
The effects of various forms of militarism on young boys, and the lives that can result, accounts for much of Powell’s focus, as two of the three principal characters grew up with real soldiers in their families, and the boys devote much of their imaginative lives to war fantasies inspired by G.I. Joe comics and toys and Hollywood movies like Platoon.
A third character, a young girl, is similarly affected by her fantasy life, although she plays at girl detective thanks to Nancy Drew novels, rather than dealing with the anxieties the boys suffer trying to live up to their society’s narrow notion of manliness.
All three share a school and exposure to a weird neighborhood mystery—turtles are being found badly wounded, their shells smashed intentionally—but they drift into radically different directions as they reach adulthood and, eventually, they reunite.
It’s pretty heartbreaking stuff, but it’s never hard to read, as Powell infuses the narrative with occasionally quite startling fantasy sequences that seem to ebb and flow from the lives of the characters; initially these sequences seem summoned by them in order to deal with boredom or escape stressful situations, but later they seemingly have a life of their own, coming unbidden.