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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Book Review: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham (and Mark Buckingham)

Fantasies for young readers are almost always a joy to read.  I'm no sure what it is about such books.  Maybe it's to do with the whimsical style -- of which Down the Mysterly River has plenty -- or the adventures -- ditto.  Or maybe there's something else I haven't discovered yet.  In any case, Willingham's children's fantasy, Down the Mysterly River, is an exciting adventure story with a wonderful mixture of fairy tale and detective mystery.  Too bad I don't have kids to read this book to...

Expert boy scout Max "the Wolf" wakes up in a forest without any idea how he got there -- or any idea where "there" happens to be...  Soon Max discovers that this forest is part of a new world, inside of which a group of violent hunters known as the Blue Cutters seek out new lives to trim and prune into their "proper forms."  With his new (mysteriously talking) companions -- Banderbrock the warrior badger, Walden the less-than-spectacular-sheriff bear, and McTavish the monstrous
cat -- Max sets off on a journey to meet a mysterious wizard and discover why he and his companions have been whisked away to such dangerous world.
Down the Mysterly River channels a number of interesting genres.  The most obvious is fantasy, which is an unavoidable fact both for the reader and for Max, who has to come to grips with the reality of the world around him.  The second is the young detective story, which Willingham brings out through Max via a methodical set of steps of detection.  These detective elements are interesting, though I have to admit that they sometimes felt forced.  That is until you get to the big reveal, which immediately draws into focus Max as a character and the old-time-children's-story feel he evokes.  The same thing can be said about the dialogue, which sometimes seemed too advanced or perfect for a character as young as Max; but once you realize what has been happening throughout the book, you start to understand why Willingham writes dialogue in the way that he does.  To be perfectly honesty, young folks are probably not going to notice these issues.  With or without the ending, however, the mixture of elements works, in part because it gives Max an enhanced sense of agency in a story that could reduce him to the victim trying to escape an evil that wants to kill him.  Having Max attempt to discover "why" things are happening, to put it another way, makes for a story that does more for its reader than provide an extended chase.

That said, Willingham's plot and pacing is expertly crafted.  The story moves at a good clip and the twists in the story are sure to amuse or shock readers (there are two major twists or revelations, plus a fair deal of minor ones; the ending, however, will blow your mind).  Willingham makes a good effort to introduce the genre mixture and Max's character traits without damaging the flow of the adventure story; in many respects, he succeeds.  One issue I had with the plot's construction, however, was Willingham's use of non-central POVs to show things the main characters couldn't see.  These are fairly minor, and are perhaps more common in literature for young readers than I am I aware, but they can pull you out of the suspense.  Regardless, the journey of the main characters is rarely disrupted, moving forward with an even dose of revelation and action.

Willingham also succeeds at constructing a cast of sympathetic (or terrifying) characters.  Max is a clever young boy who refuses to let the situation get the best of him, but also a boy who has a strong sense of morality -- he's easy to sympathize with as a result.  Banderbrock is a warrior with a soft heart who serves as a wonderful companion, and the interactions between the badger and McTavish -- which translate roughly to an animal kingdom version of "I'm tougher than you" -- are amusing.  Walden, who is the only actual member of law enforcement in the group (though a bad one), is also lovable as a character, which seems perfect for a bear. And the more you learn about him and watch him try to adopt Max's detection skills, the more you love him.  How can you fault a big, hug-able bear for being a less-than-stellar sheriff?  Even the Blue Cutters, who are the story's villains, are interesting characters -- and it's because of them that I want to see more stories set in this world.  They are pure villains, but there is a hint of complexity in Down the Mysterly River that I think Willingham needs to explore -- either through additional Max stories or via some other character.  There's a lot left to be told about this world.

Overall, Down the Mysterly River is a fantastic book.  The characters are amusing, the young detective storyline is compelling, and the fantastic elements are enjoyable and exciting.  I had trouble putting this book down, in part because I wanted to know why Max ended up in the world and in part because the mixture of genres and the characters seemed to beckon me through the cover.  Hopefully others will feel the same way.

If you want to know more about Down the Mysterly River, check out the publisher's website.  You can find the book just about anywhere books are sold (except, perhaps, the Moon).

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