Valerian and Laureline has been improving with every book, and Birds of the Master from 1973 is the best to date, seeing its first English language edition with this translation.

As the book opens our favourite Spacio-Temporal agents have crash-landed on a planet, have had to desert their craft and are on an inflatable raft in very rough waters. Unable to control the dinghy, the pair eventually head over a waterfall, and they’re fished out of the sea to arrive on an old fashioned wooden sailing ship crewed by aliens from a dozen different races. Their task is to harvest algae for a master, then deliver it to them. They’re just one of several crews slaving equally hard at land and sea to provide food for this mysterious master, while surviving on a starvation diet themselves. Any individual or crew that becomes mutinous or idle is paid a visit from the birds of the title, a fearsome flock of savage, leathery beasts who claw and bite, injecting a poison whose effect is to gradually drive the victim insane.

This is heady stuff from writer Pierre Christin, and Jean-Claude Mézières creates a suitably imposing backdrop dwarfing the assorted aliens at work. He accentuates the distances they have to travel and the hardships endured to deliver the fruits of their labour. While he’s not short-changing on detailed environments, Mézières has now all-but lost the messy look common to the previous Valerian and Laureline books.

Christin stretches his imagination to provide something beyond a standard science fiction adventure, and while there are elements dating the book, it should also be noted that it’s Laureline who provides the ultimate solution. Christin also has a few digs at the traditional hero figure and their inspirational monologues, and adds both an astute coda and whimsical ending. Will it have future consequences? The next book is Ambassador of the Shadows.