REVIEW: Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
|Title:||Down the Mysterly River|
|Pub Date:||September 13th, 2011|
|Chris’ Rating (5 possible):|
|An Attempt at Categorization||If You Like… / You Might Like…|
I’ve been a fan of Bill Willingham’s writing for years. His work on Vertigo’s Fables? Hands-down the best comic book writing out there. I’ve particularly appreciated the structure he brings to his sequential storytelling: sweeping, complex plots that more closely resemble epic fantasy than standard super-hero fare (most of which I can no longer stomach). Several months ago at BEA, I managed to snag a review copy of his new middle-grade fantasy novel Down the Mysterly River, which Tor Teen/Starscape just released a couple of weeks ago.
Down the Mysterly River follows the adventures of a young boy named Max who wakes up in the woods one day with no recollection of how he got there. Thankfully, Max is a Boy Scout and so is better prepared for such situations than I ever could be. As he tries to figure out where he is and how he got there, he makes friends with a talking badger, a tyrannical tom cat, and a friendly bear. All four of them are in the same situation, and together they must figure out what brought them to this place. But they must do so while fleeing from the Blue Cutters, a band of sword-swinging fanatics who want to re-create our heroes according to their own ideas of what makes people good. Obviously, Max and his friends are not particularly interested in being forcibly molded.
The book is generally structured as an adventure story, and blended with mystery. Our plucky band of heroes must sneak and fight their way free of the Blue Cutters while piecing together the mystery surrounding their appearance in this unfamiliar world. The book is written in omniscient third, but with a relatively narrow focus on Max. With his self-professed experience at detection, Max eagerly goes about solving the mystery and we are drawn into it in his wake. While Max may proceed with little fear, Willingham expertly uses ominous suggestions to raise tension for the reader. Within minutes of meeting Branderbrock the Badger, for example, we learn that he remembers his own death, suggesting that both he and Max are already dead.
I found the contrasts between positive and negative to be the book’s strongest aspects, and such contrasts show up repeatedly in Willingham’s character development. While our four heroes are drawn sympathetically, three out of the four have darker (or at least more negative) sides: McTavish the Monster (the tom cat) self-identifies as evil and selfish, but evidences unswerving loyalty when put to the test. In many ways, he reminds me of Doli from The Book of Three: on the surface, brash and self-centered, but heroic nonetheless. Walden the Bear is portrayed as dull-witted and lazy, but is giving and capable of great violence when roused. Max, with his capacity for introspection, teeters on the edge of making certain choices that may align him with the Blue Cutters’ morality. His struggles with his own conscience and justification lend the book its moral depth. Of the four heroes, Branderbrock is the only one who does not have a dual nature or conflicting desires. Together, our adventurers are offset by the Blue Cutters, who are depicted with haughty brutality. They are vicious and cruel, and their implacability in particular makes them frightening villains.
Willingham concretizes these contrasts in his battle scenes, where he does not shy away from violence. While I don’t think this weakens the book at all, I think it is particularly notable for its genre and intended audience. Most MG fiction – and even most YA – tends to steer clear of blood-in-the-mud battle scenes. And middle-grade heroes almost never kill human villains. Even in The Hunger Games, which is targeted towards a YA audience and is considered by many to be a particularly violent novel, Katniss Everdeen only directly kills one of the other twenty three tributes. But in Down the Mysterly River, intended for a younger audience, we not only watch our heroes become grievously wounded on several occasions, but we see the Blue Cutters torturing innocent animals, and watch Max actually kill one of the Blue Cutters.
This violence is depicted in a matter-of-fact fashion, and though I was surprised to see a MG novel with this degree of it, I found that it did not draw away from the story. In some ways, the violence lends a visual dynamism to the book: reading along, I imagined sequential panels visualizing the action as if I were reading a comic. This kind of stylized violence brings excitement to a graphic medium, but in prose I found that its implausibility diminished its realism. Yes, the book is violent. But it is no more violent Adams’ Watership Down, the story of Robin Hood, or Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.
Thematically, the violence was also treated seriously. Throughout, our heroes engage in violence defensively. They do not take the attack to the Blue Cutters: they are just trying to get away from people who are intent on torturing and killing them. And Willingham justifies our heroes’ violent response by showing us exactly how vile the Blue Cutters really are, and by making it clear that our heroes are significantly outnumbered. And, perhaps most significantly, he does not let our heroes off the hook: their actions have consequences, and Max is shown to struggle with his choices. That his actions to defend himself and his loved ones are justified in no way diminishes the poignancy of his guilty conscience. And, interestingly, the book seems to suggest that offensive action against the Blue Cutters is an adult right: one that twelve year-old Max is not ready to either understand or undertake.
The world-building is well-executed. Willingham’s cosmology – which lies at the heart of the mystery – is particularly interesting and appealing, though to explain why would unravel the mystery Willingham painstakingly sets up. Readers of Fables will no doubt recognize certain archetypes that show up in his world-building, but they are put to a very different use in Down the Mysterly River. The characterization and how it ties into the world-building is also particularly well done, with non-human heroes who we can understand and believe in despite their fantastic natures.
The writing itself is competent, but I found a number of areas where it could have been tightened. The first quarter of the book tends towards stilted descriptive sentences. At BEA, I asked Willingham about the difference between writing a prose novel and a comic script, and he pointed towards exposition. The book’s beginning clearly shows where Willingham struggled with this: his early descriptions tended to flow more like visual notation for an artist rather than descriptions of ongoing action. However, the text remains functional and his skilled characterization is able to overcome the exposition’s choppiness. And as the book’s plot accelerates, the flow improves and Willingham loses the stilted declarative style that predominated early on. By the book’s mid-point, sentences and paragraphs are flowing smoothly.
The other weakness that stood out to me in the writing was an occasional tendency to over-write. Honestly, I see this as less of a failure on the part of Willingham’s writing as on the part of his editor’s line-editing: good MG/YA editors should know to look out for this and trim it out of the book before it ever goes into production. Yes, this is a book for children. But kids are more perceptive than we stodgy grown-ups like to give them credit for. Even ten year-olds don’t need to have a rhetorical question defined and explained for them: if they don’t know the word, then they’ll pick it up in context. I found this tendency most jarring when it occurred at the end of certain chapters, throwing off the rhythm and dramatic resonance of the chapter’s conclusion. Next time, I would hope such extraneous and unnecessary sentences were just cut: part of what makes great MG fiction great is that it challenges the reader. And kids are especially sensitive to condescension in their reading.
Despite these weaknesses, I found Down the Mysterly River to be a fun adventure. The answers to Max’s mystery were robust, and the characterization and story arcs that Willingham takes us down are immensely satisfying.
For parents who may be concerned about the violence: it’s handled well, and if you have concerns about it, read the book yourself first, and then decide if your kid is ready for it. There’s no universal rule. I found that the violence was tasteful and well-executed. At nine or ten I know that I would’ve enjoyed the book. Whether the same holds true for your kid, well, that’s your call. Grown-up fans of Willingham’s comic book writing will probably enjoy it, provided that they remember that it is not a Fables book. Comic book retailers – who I’ve heard had trouble selling Willingham’s earlier prose novel in the Fables universe – may find that Down the Mysterly River is a great transition book for kids who read books like Owly and might now be ready for more grown-up fare.
I really enjoyed Willingham’s first foray into his own prose fiction, and I hope to see more books like this from him.