Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review
    — Peter & Max (Fables)

Here is the final review of the movies and books I dealt with on my trip to New Zealand this February.

First, some background on the comic book Fables:
Imagine a world where all the stories and characters we think of as “fairy tales” — Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Aladdin — existed, each in their own universe/dimension/whatever.  In this universe of fairy tale worlds, there are linkages between the worlds, and as is inevitable, someone from one world built an army and attacked another world, and another one after that, and another one, creating a vast empire.  In the wake of this empire building, many characters we know from stories (dubbed “Fables”) fled from their homeworlds to our mudane, largely magic-free world (and many others died along the way).  Here, those characters and their stories live on, nearly immortal, and a few hundred years later, there are a couple enclaves of Fables and a scattering of individuals around the world.  Leadership of the Fables has fallen to the likes of Snow White, Prince Charming, Old King Cole, Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf, now reformed), and Beauty and the Beast.

Fables is a comic book series written by Bill Willingham, running now for almost 100 issues, about 8 years, with a host of collected volumes, spin-off series, and a TV show in the works, plus now the prose novel, Peter & Max.
Now for the novel itself.

One of the conceits of Fables — and any fiction that pulls together threads from many other sources — is that any characters which could be connected or related, are.  And thus since fairy tales contain two “piper” characters — Peter Piper, who picked a peck of pickled peppers, and the Pier Piper of Hamelin — those characters must either be the same or related.  In this case, brothers.  (The conceit also draws together noted Peters: Peter Piper is also Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and might be the one from “Peter and the Wolf”.)

Peter & Max follows two storylines.  The first is long ago in the Homelands, with the boyhood of brothers Peter and Max Piper, the conquering of that world, the bestowal of magic flutes and their associated curses, and Max’s turn away from being a good boy.  (You’ll recall the story of the Pied Piper: he cleared the town of rats, but when the city wouldn’t pay, he led the children away as well, never to be seen again.)  Along the way, we encounter other characters familiar to Fables readers and fairy tale/nursery rhyme fans: the Big Bad Wolf, the Black Forest Witch (of gingerbread house infamy), and Little Bo Peep.  The second storyline involves the return of Max to the modern world, and Peter’s journey to meet him and hopefully stop him from killing all the other Fables and generally wreaking havoc on the world.

Half of the fun in a book like this is seeing the author pull together the threads of familiar stories, especially ones that were less obvious, and adding new stuff into the mix to create something both familiar and new at the same time.  Willingham has been doing this with Fables for years (and projects like Pantheon and Coventry/Ironwood before that), so there’s no question he knows how to do this task successfully.  The real question, then, is how accessible is this to people who have no connection to the Fables comics, and that I can’t answer since I’m way to close to the comics (having read them all as singles and again as collections).  But I can answer two reverse-side questions: this novel is largely independent from the comics storylines, so there’s little in the way of “I know this must refer to something, but what?” moments (so this isn’t a “crossover” where you have to buy all the pieces to figure out the story), and for readers of the comics, there are some new insights into the secondary characters here who are primaries in the comics (so comics readers benefit from reading the novel).

Definitely recommended for fans of the comics.  For fans of this sort of story, moderately recommended: others like Neil Gaiman have done it better, but this is just fine and serves as a gateway into some truly excellent comics, a much broader world than seen in just the book.

I would be happy to get another Fables novel like this every couple years.

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