Something is wrong with Thorgal. He goes off hunting with his son Jolan and comes back a very different man. Always seeking a quiet life before, now he craves the limelight and the role of Viking Chief. He spends his days wenching and drinking. His demeanour has changed too, broody and violent, estranging even his beloved Aaricia. Jolan suspects something but can’t prove it. It all has the whiff of sorcery. What has happened to the real Thorgal? This man from the stars has made enemies, even among the mystical creatures and gods of the Second Realm. A man who does not acquiesce to their whimsies and meddling with the affairs of mortals is an annoyance, but Thorgal and his family have made many friends too who owe him a debt of gratitude. Hope remains that the real Thorgal will emerge, but will it be before his reputation and marriage are ruined?

After the high quality Thorgal creators Jean Van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosiński have produced prior to this, The Guardian of the Keys sticks out. It’s not terrible but it doesn’t work as well as you’d expect though there is a simple reason for that. For the first six volumes of Thorgal, Cinebook published the equivalent of two albums per book. While those books as an entirety are good, poorer stories were always juxtaposed against better ones. With Cinebook printing only one story per album, it’s harder to ignore even small flaws. There isn’t a much better story to fall back on anymore.

Guardians does have good points. For one the plot runs smoothly and at a brisk pace. There are some dark mature themes (implied rape, sexual harassment, etc.) here and they aren’t for the sensitive but they are handled very well by both scripter and artist. It’s still disturbing, which demonstrates how well those scenes are illustrated. Even the now overused doppelganger trope is cleverly scripted. There’s good tension, and the characters are strong and believable despite the fantasy theme. What hinders the narrative is that the story requires knowledge of the earliest tales. Volsung of Nichor was introduced in The Three Elders of Aran, as was the titular Guardian. Nidhogg and Tjhazi were similarly introduced in Child of the Stars. That is at least seven books prior to this. It’s one of those continuity problems lovers of all sagas will understand. Van Hamme is simply tying events together.

Rosinski packs oodles of great detail into every available frame no matter the size. His characters look fantastic and his mystical creatures spectacular, brimming with personality. There’s plenty of emotion in a dramatic story, but what’s dissapointing is how bland alternate dimension the Second Realm looks. About half the story occurs there and when it featured in Child of the Stars, the colours were vivid and bright. The colour remains, but the detailed scenery is absent. There are a lot of frames to fill, a technique that cranks up the tension, and it results in some details being sacrificed for others. Until Master of the Mountains Rosinski was always the stronger of the creators, yet here he’s overshadowed by Van Hamme’s skilled scripting.

Regardless, The Guardian of the Keys remains entertaining and breeds greater appreciation on a second reading. It’s all to easy to dismiss it out of hand at this stage in their run but it’s not a bad story at all, it just has the bad lack to be the first book after a lengthy run of brilliant Thorgal stories. Another old foe returns in The Sun Sword.