Since Thorgal’s departure from his family three years earlier in an effort to keep them safe from the misfortune that continually dogs him, his wife Aaricia, son Jolan and daughter Wolf Cub have found relative safety and acceptance in the Viking village of her birth. That all changes when the dreaded pirate Shaigan the Merciless captures a raiding party with only one man left to tell the tale. There are revelations that result in Aaricia and her children being exiled, chased out into the wilderness. Alone without land or clan to protect them, they are vulnerable to slavers and bandits. Little do they know that someone has carefully orchestrated their misfortune and isn’t content with just their exile. Their lives are in danger, but they are a family with unique talents and this crucible of fire will only make them stronger… if they survive.

The Brand of the Exiles is a compelling and well-paced suspense tale that doesn’t flinch from portraying the brutal aspects of Viking culture. Writer Jean Van Hamme handles the gritty unsettling reality Aaricia and her children face with incredible sensitivity without watering it down. He’s been developing his cast since 1977, and they now have very authentic personalities, so when Van Hamme applies the golden rule of drama, putting your heroes through the wringer, his characters have been believably shaped by their trials and tribulations. Despite being the title character, Thorgal himself appears only once in flashback, but that has no negative effect on the story, further proof of just how much time Van Hamme has put into character development. Thorgal’s son Jolan is coming into his own and features far more, while there is an admirable iron determination to Aaricia. Thorgal’s daughter Wolf Cub is still a little girl here and thus developing, but would eventually get her own spin-off series Louve (her French name). Plot wise Exiles is thrilling, with twist after twist keeping you engaged.

Artist Grzegorz Rosinski has come on as much as Van Hamme has since they first created Thorgal and has developed an extraordinary skill for rendering little gestures perfectly. A tilt of the head, a flick of the hand- it’s all displayed from many perspectives and able to portray so many different emotions. His action sequences are fluid, each movement captivating. Compared to some earlier Thorgal books, these are on a relatively small scale and confined to a few people per panel since this is about one man and his family’s struggles. However, Rosinski is capable of much more too and to see just how good take a look at the phenomenal battle scenes between whole armies in the Lament of the Lost Moors series. Every little detail of his art here is incredible, precise but full of energy and capturing every harrowing aspect of the exiles’ experience. Colourist Graza’s palette is first rate and she is able to capture a wide spectrum of colours from light blinking on the snow to hues of red and blue arresting the sky at sunrise/twilight.

The Brand of the Exiles is a beautifully illustrated and well told drama. It ranks high among the best Thorgal stories to date and can stand independently, though it is best enjoyed in sequence. For connoisseurs of epic fantasy, Thorgal is a must with its blend of historical fact, human drama, fantasy and exquisite art. The trials of Aaricia, Jolan and Wolf Cub continue in Ogotai’s Crown.