The giants are getting smaller. Once, they were titanic near-immortal beings, warriors and philanthropists. Now, each inbred generation is smaller than the last, and as they decline physically, they decline morally as well, becoming more brutish, more cannibalistic, and more obsessed with restoring their diminishing size. They rule swinishly over a half-ruined city where humans are food and servants.
Petit is the youngest and smallest of the giants, shunned by his own race and feared by the humans for his violent outbursts and occasional consumption of human flesh. The book follows his growth to adulthood in a decaying society, navigating the brutal ogre court and his own divided nature.
This is an odd and interesting graphic novel. It’s very French, and the art is always clear, in turns evocative and horrifying. The writing is simplistic and a little clumsy, letting down the art, but then the panels are occasionally broken up by short prose sections on the history of a particularly notable giant; when that happens, the narration becomes much more fluid and takes on a fairy-tale tone. Ostensibly, the story is about Petit himself, but really the main draw is the combination of humanity and monstrosity shown by the ogre court.
I really liked the concept of an imploding society that is structured along logical (albeit horrible and alien) lines, but that only comes through in flashes – Petit is very nearly human, and as such is definitely the least interesting character to ride along with. His aunt (the largest living giant by far, but shunned for her pro-human views), his mother (thoughtful, loving, scholarly, and trying hard to live up to the traditions of her brutish society), and even his furiously ignorant and impotent ogre sire would be better viewpoint characters with which you could really explore how the court consumes itself. Petit is essentially Tom Thumb with a bit more rage, and so the most compelling parts of the narrative come through only in flashes and with him as an observer.
Petit is extremely violent and explicitly sexual in all sorts of ways. Lots of headless corpses get lowered past colossal teeth, lots of incestuous and debatably-consensual scenes play out on centre-stage. On one level this is well done, as the constant sense of horror and revulsion you feel reading shows the rot in ogre society. However, the scenes only contribute to that overall mood, as each little plotline appears only long enough to disturb before being wiped away again as the court resets to its base state; there’s no sense of the narrative driving forwards from many of the violent/sexual scenes which makes them feel gratuitous.
When the plot does advance, it does so jerkily, moved by coincidence and accident rather than the machinations of the characters; with a very little tweaking, those machinations could have driven the plot themselves, making the whole thing feel more cohesive and justifying the excesses and grotesqueries shown so far. You can see the overall shape of the narrative, and it works on that large scale, interweaving the main plot with the small histories that expand on it and show how it came to this point. However, individual events let the overall work down, weakening the key ideas and lacking the connective tissue to let the narrative properly flow. You can see what the author is trying to do, but it doesn’t quite come off.
The art is the strongest thing about Petit, and really ties the book together – it captures the mood, and it illustrates the society really clearly. I found images popping into my head at odd moments even after the book had finished, still evoking that half-sick fascination. At certain points, when the art meets a particularly well-judged moment in the story, it all clicks together and provides some very, very strong moments. The book is at its best when focused on Petit’s mother and her own internal conflicts, exploring the softness alongside the savagery.
Petit is dark and grotesque and not fun to read, but it is interesting. I found my mind returning to its ideas and setting much more often than I initially expected to. There are significant structure/focus issues which do weaken it, but the art and the setting and the grinding horror of it all make something well worth reading. That is, of course, if you’re interested (as I am) in works that explore the worst bits of human nature; I know a lot of people absolutely don’t want that kind of thing in fiction. If you’re someone who finds value in disquieting and disturbing reading, then Petit is worth a look.