Friday, October 30, 2009

Peter & Max (Bill Willingham)

I've had a hectic week, but it involved lots of flying, so I was luckily able to finish a book in time for today's review anyway. If you're not familiar with Bill Willingham, that's understandable, since Peter & Max is his first actual novel. He's probably most famous as being the writer/creator of the multiple-award-winning Fables, which I would say is one of the greatest comic book series of all time (and is allegedly being turned into a TV show by ABC eventually? maybe? so they say?). Fables is based around the idea that the characters in fairy tales are real, and are forced to move to our world after an evil emperor invades their Homelands. They try to live their lives in peace among us mundane humans—or "mundys"—but due to their near-immortality and magical nature, find it hard to fit in, and so set up their own secret neighborhood in New York City: Fabletown. Peter & Max takes place in the Fables universe, but introduces many new characters and doesn't require the reader to be familiar with the comics.


The story opens in the present, when a man named Peter and his paraplegic wife, Bo, receive news that Peter's brother Max has resurfaced. Peter is shaken by this, but is determined to hunt his brother down, despite the warnings from Bo and the Fabletown officials who first pass along the news. Flashback a few centuries to one of the old Fable Homelands: Max and Peter Piper are two young brothers traveling with their mother and father as part of a family minstrel act. On their way to a large festival, the family stops to spend a night with their friends the Peeps at their country estate. After an evening of feasting and beautiful music, the two families settle in for the night. While everyone else is asleep, Johannes Piper passes down his most prized possession, a flute named Frost, to his younger son, Peter. Peter doesn't understand why Max shouldn't be the one inheriting the heirloom, but Johannes explains that Peter is the better musician, and therefore would make better use of this magical instrument.

The next morning, Max awakes to find two startling sights. The first is the presence of a column of invading soldiers claiming the estate for their emperor. As terrible as this is, however, the second is much worse to Max. While huddled together with the Pipers, the Peeps, and the Peeps' servants in the great hall of the estate, Max notices that Peter is holding Frost. Thinking it stolen, Max tries to retrieve what he thinks is still Johannes' flute, citing his maturity and seniority as oldest brother. When Peter claims that Frost was actually given to him, Max flies into a jealous rage. His tantrum is cut short, though. The adults plan an escape from the estate to a nearby city that they believe can withstand the siege of the invaders. Max sees this as his opportunity to get even with his brother, and as the group sets off into the haunted depths of the Black Forest, he comes up with a plan of his own.

That's only about the first quarter of the book. The narrative goes back and forth between the Piper brothers' past and Peter's present as he sets off to find and kill Max. Willingham uses the tricky dual narrative structure very well, and keeps the foreshadowing simple. Questions are raised early on in the present timeline that are gradually answered in the past timeline, but never in such a way as to make you think the writer is trying too hard to be clever. The reader knows from very early on that Peter and Bo are married, that Bo was somehow crippled, and that Max is some kind of extremely powerful evil sorcerer, as well as some other bits of pertinent information. The rest of the book becomes about discovering how those events and others came to pass, and witnessing the final confrontation between the two brothers.

I was pleasantly surprised by Peter & Max. The very first chapter breaks the "show, don't tell" rule fairly often, so I was initially worried that the rest of the book would continue the same way. I guess it was necessary to explain how the Fables universe works, but I thought that it could have been explained more subtly. As the story progresses, however, it definitely picks up a lot. Having read all of the Fables comics, I can't really know if this is true, but I'm pretty sure that the novel stands on its own really well. Willingham works in the real stories behind the nursery rhymes and fairy tales that made Peter Piper and Bo Peep famous—something that he's exceptionally talented at, having the last eight years of writing Fables as practice. The story isn't overly complicated, but fun to follow along. You can tell that Willingham has the entire history and universe of Peter & Max worked out behind the scenes, but he doesn't write in more than is necessary to tell this story. On the whole it's rather accessible. It's also got some nice illustrations by comic book artist Steve Leialoha to reinforce the already visual writing. If you're into comic books, fantasy, fairy tales, or simple stories you can probably finish in an afternoon, I suggest picking this one up. It just came out a couple weeks ago, so it should be pretty easy to find, either at comic book shops or bookstores.


Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
by Bill Willingham

Although it takes place in the Fables universe, this is a self-contained story. Willingham does a great job writing a compelling book set apart from the comic series in a way that makes it interesting for fans and newcomers alike.

It's a great book, and, as I said, fans of Fables will probably like it just as much as the people who've never read a comic book in their life, but I'm not going to pat him on the back for doing the same thing in a different format. Congrats on the first novel, but next time try something new.

It's a quick, fun read. I really had a good time with it. Even if you're not someone who's likely to stop into a comic shop, if you enjoy books like Wicked or Ella Enchanted, anything with that kind of "fairy tale reimagining" style, you'll probably enjoy this, too.


What are you reading? What have you heard about recently that you'd like to see reviewed? Drop a comment and let me know what's going on in your literary world!

Keep reading, Genoshans!

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