Domino: Strays is the first in the new Marvel Heroines series from Aconyte books, written by Tristan Palmgren.
Up until now, Aconyte has been putting out titles that are set in worlds that started out as board/card games, where the only previous story content has been similar tie-in fiction. Moving to an IP which is known to millions globally as a comic series stretching back to the middle of the last century and probably the most successful film franchise in the world is a bold move. Did it work? Let’s find out!
Strays is a dark tale from the life of Mutant mercenary Neena Thurman, aka Domino. The book explores Domino’s origins (often unknown to even her), as well as a present-day run-in with a sinister cult. Domino’s comic-book story lines have often been at the gritty and disturbing end of the spectrum (last time I saw was in X-Force 2019 where she had been captured by a sinister organisation who had flayed half of her skin to use for cloning), and Palmgren really leans in to the darkness in their story. Anyone expecting the action-comedy vibe of the MCU is in for a shock when they encounter a thriller with some deeply psychological elements and, aside from the various mentions of Mutants, the overall vibe would feel a lot more at home alongside the Netflix Punisher or Jessica Jones series. Without wanting to go too far into spoilers, anyone who has had traumatic experiences with abusive, controlling relationships might want to go a little bit carefully as they decide to read this, as there’s definitely potential for being triggered here.
In terms of the wider Marvel continuity, the Aconyte Marvel titles seem to exist in their own universe but, for Strays at any rate, the starting point seems to be fairly close to the main 616 Universe. A lot of the supporting cast and themes share a lot with the 2018 Domino series, and 2019’s Domino: Hotshots, whilst the encounters with Project Armageddon and Domino’s family hark bark to the 2003 Domino series.Despite starting with so much familiar ground, Palmgren has produced a story that stands well on its own, taking the best of both worlds: there’s certainly no need to read the comics in order to enjoy Strays.
The story in Strays is carefully woven through three strands: the first narrating Domino’s childhood, the second recalling a botched mission six years ago, and the last one detailing a present-day rescue operation. Domino speaks directly to the reader, which can feel a bit confused at first, but gradually settles into a rhythm that gives you a nice insight into her frame of mind as well as her actions.
The story kicks off with Domino talking about her mother – an imperfectly remembered figure, clearly someone who was absent for much of Domino’s life. Domino tells you right at the start that her mother was a woman of anger and rage: a fanatic and a killer. With an opening like this, it’s no big surprise when, a bare chapter or two into the novel, Domino casually mentions that she had to kill her own mother! However, whilst Palmgren shows you the ending of that one little strand of the plot early on, the book is far more about the journey than the destination.
Whilst the middle strand of the story focuses around Domino’s search for her mother, it is preceded and followed by accounts of other sections of her life: the story of a miserable childhood in a research facility, followed by a slightly-less-miserable time as a teenager in a Chicago orphanage, under the care of over-worked Priest Father Boschelli. The third, “present day” strand involves Domino’s attempt to rescue a client’s grown-up children from a cult who have convinced them to lock themselves away from family and all other outsiders in the compound set up by the ‘father’ of the church. It’s no accident that each of the 3 time-lines has a “mother” or “father” figure in a key role, and Strays has a lot to say on the subjects of family and friendship, forcing Domino to really consider who she can trust, who she can rely on, and who is going to be able to forgive her for doing the things that need to be done.
It’s also worth thinking about the unique mutant power that makes Domino who she is: in layman’s terms, she can manipulate “luck” and alter probability, which has historically been used in a fairly vague way to do whatever the plot requires at that moment. Palmgrem does a good job with the unenviable task of trying to define these slippery qualities into something a little less nebulous. The end result is not only understandable for the reader, but it also enables an engaging narrative that undercuts the “it’ll be fine, somehow” vibe that can often creep into a Domino story.
Domino direct address to the reader provides a running commentary on how her luck is – or isn’t – able to help her in any given situation. One point she makes multiple times is that her luck might generally save her – at least in a life-or-death situation – but it certainly doesn’t care about anyone who isn’t Domino, a responsibility that falls entirely on Domino herself.
Whilst the characterisation of Domino herself is very well done, the supporting cast are a bit more variable. Father Boschelli, head of the orphanage where she lived as a teenager, provides some insightful moments (and is a lot more developed than his comic-book counterpart who only ever featured on a single page of a 2003 comic), but Inez Temple (Outlaw) and Rachel Leighton (Diamondback) feel a little underused, reduced to little more than Muscle and Tech-Support for a major mission.
The main saving grace as far as the supporting cast go, is the lack of knowledge that you need to have of all things Marvel to make sense of the plot in Strays. There’s a brief Black Widow Cameo, and Wolverine, Cable, Deadpool, and the Avengers are all name-checked, but provided you can grasp the basic concepts of Mutants (they exist, they have all sorts of powers, lots of people fear and/or hate them), then you aren’t going to be feeling too lost just because you didn’t have time to memorise a hundred or so back-issues of X-Force. Domino is primarily telling her own story and, to a lesser-extent those of her sisters-in-arms, and she tells you all you need to know about who they are to her, without burdening you with their place in the overall Marvel canon.
As the three strands of Domino’s story weave together, the result is something that is interesting, often compelling, a story that carefully keeps you on the hook whilst it segues off to another time-period, forcing you to read on, but fully knowing that by the time you return you’ll be just as reluctant to leave that plot-thread as you were in this.
My biggest relief when reading Strays, was that we get a satisfying ending. Domino is not Captain America, she is not here to be a paragon of selflessness and virtue, she is a mercenary with a traumatised past. In embracing that reality, Palmgren is able to really dig into the question of what it means to be a hero – not just making physical sacrifices, but showing Domino willing to sacrifice how she appears in the eyes of others, if that’s what it takes to finish the job.
Ultimately, the ending for Strays is a bittersweet one, and it feels fitting for the characters we’ve seen, and the stories we’ve watched unfold. Domino’s life as a sometimes mercenary, sometimes hero doesn’t allow for “happily ever afters,” but it shows a group of women making a difference, able to sleep at night, and move on to the next job.
Domino: Strays is out now, and you can order your copy via my Bookshop page, supporting local book shops and even this blog in the process.
This review was based on an advance digital copy of the book, given to me by Aconyte for the purposes of reviewing.
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