On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

SciFi Month 2022 1 to 30 November - Ten Years of Exploring All Things SF
Artwork by Simon Fetscher


Oh wow …


On a Sunbeam is my new favourite thing. There’s not one aspect of this story (originally a webcomic, before the dead-tree edition was published) that I don’t love with all my crumpled little heart. It’s a love-story and a story about families found and made; it’s science-fiction in that it has spaceships and fantasy in that it has giant buildings bobbing about in space; it’s a coming-of-age tale and a slice-of-life with a thrilling ‘rescue’-and-escape ending. I am a little (massively) in love with Tillie Walden’s work thanks to this book and I want to live inside her pictures, please and thank you.

So, a totally balanced review coming right up.

On a Sunbeam follows the story of Mia at two different points in her life. In the first, she has just left school and taken her first job with the small crew of the Aktis who repair old space buildings. In the second, five years earlier, she is still at school, where she meets and falls in love with Grace, a new student who comes from a dangerous region of space called The Staircase. The two storylines eventually come together in a number of ways and ultimately result in Mia’s acceptance of who she was, is and could be.

Walden doesn’t walk her readers through the universe she’s created here, pointing out all the important bits. We are left instead to discover as we go, enjoy the view and not worry too much about the rest. Buildings float about in space like small planets and spaceships look like goldfish swimming between the stars. We know, from some of Mia’s lessons, that humanity have moved out beyond the solar system into deep space, and we know, from the evidence of our eyes, that technology has progressed so far that it looks like magic to us (and I want to know the very minute we develop the computer game Jules, Ell and Mia play after work because it looks sooo cool). It has only just now occurred to me that we do not know how gravity and breathable air are produced in the space buildings, but I also don’t care. It is absolutely of no importance.

A page from the comic in which the crew of the Aktis are playing a 'board' game around a low table in a cosy room

What does matter, is relationships. How Mia and Grace met and became friends/girlfriends in the past and how Mia integrates into her new Aktis crew/family in the present are the meat of the story. Bullies, exams and school dances have as much weight as accidents in crumbling old space buildings, games night, and a journey into a dangerous, off-limits region of space. Alma and Char’s story, Ell’s, and Jules’ are all important and given page-time. Underlying secrets and small sadnesses are as beautifully portrayed as moments of contentment and joy. Nothing is too small, but just as crucially, nothing is too dramatic either. Mia regrets how she and Grace were separated, but that doesn’t mean that her life ended or she never felt happy again. There is a fundamental reality to the feelings and relationships here.

3 colour images from the comic, showing the fish-like Aktis in space, nebula-like clouds, and a train pulling into a futuristic-looking station

And of course I want to talk about just how pretty Walden’s artwork is. This is a visually stunning piece of work in composition, detail and candy-coloured palate. I am particularly in love with all the incredible space vistas, sometimes stormy swirls of red and blue, sometimes tranquil stretches of star-studded black. There are some lovely nods to Studio Ghibli to be found too, from the opening panel showing Mia looking out of a spaceship window, to a train journey, to a washing line, and often just in the way that Walden draws her characters, capturing so much without the need for dialogue.

I can honestly say that I got lost inside this story. I took it up to bed with me one evening to carry on reading and was confused, when I looked up later, to find that I was in our own bed and not in the comforting mess of Jules’ and Mia’s room on the Aktis. I loved every minute I spent in Walden’s world and I hope you do too, if you choose to visit. On a Sunbeam can be read in its entirety and for free here.

An image from the comic showing Grace's room, which is empty except for a bed tucked up by a large window




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