7 Rated Books Book Reviews Joint Review

Joint Review: Peter and Max by Bill Willingham

Title: Peter and Max – A Fables Novel

Author: Bill Willingham (writer) / Steve Leialoha (illustrator)

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Vertigo
Publication Date: October 2009
Hardcover: 400 pages

This story stars Peter Piper and his incorrigible brother Max in a tale about jealousy, betrayal and revenge. Set in two distinct time periods, prepare to travel back to medieval times and learn the tragic back-story of the Piper family, a medieval-era family of traveling minstrels. Then, jump into the present to follow a tale of espionage as Peter Piper slowly hunts down his evil brother for a heinous crime, pitting Peter’s talents as a master thief against Max’s dark magical powers.

Based on the long-running and award-winning comic book series FABLES, PETER AND MAX is its own tale. Readers don’t have to be familiar with the comics to fully enjoy and understand this book.

Stand alone or series: This is a stand alone novel which is part of the Fables’ comics universe.

How did we get this book: Bought

Why did we get this book: Because we absolutely ADORE Fables.


First Thoughts and Impressions:

Ana: Ah, Fables. How I love thee. I have to thank my esteemed Smuggler half for introducing me to the comics, because they are absolutely brilliant. I love fairytale retellings anyway, but Bill Willingham goes a bit further than that by not only retelling but reimagining and spinning the tales by making them his own. Peter and Max is another example of this and in spite of a few caveats, I really loved reading it.

Thea: It should probably come as no surprise that I am also a huge Fables fan – even with the slight dropoff after defeating The Adversary, this is STILL one of the finest monthly comics out there. So, when we learned that a strictly prose – well, dominantly prose – novel was coming out set in the Fables universe, of course Ana and I scooped up Peter and Max with alacrity (although we were somewhat slower in actually getting it reviewed). And, I am delighted to say that in the realm of prose fiction, Bill Willingham still manages to kick ass. Though there are a few uneven sections (probably better told with the graphic combination of art and writing), Peter and Max delivers, and is as darkly enchanting as its comic-form sibling.

On the Plot:

Ana: Peter and Max tells the story of two siblings, Peter and Max Piper, sons of a travelling family of minstrels and it alternates between past and present narrating how the two eventually become enemies. In present day, Peter and his wife Bo Peep are residents of Fabletown, living their quiet lives apart from the rest of the Fables due to Bo’s condition (a terrible spell who crippled her legs) when one day, Peter is informed that his evil brother Max has surfaced in the world and he sets out to find and finally face him off.

In the past, back in the homelands, we see Peter and Max’s childhood traveling around and playing with their mother and father, and their friendship with the Peep family, especially the link between young Peter and their youngest daughter Bo who vows to marry Peter one day. Peter is the gifted younger brother who inherits Frost, a magical flute and a family heirloom which Max fully expected to have for himself. The petty jealousy and sibling rivalry spirals out of control after the Adversary’s invasion of the homelands when the Pipers and the Peeps flee through the Black Forest where they are all separated. Max ends up with a pipe of his own and eventually becomes the infamous Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Plot-wise, Peter and Max is genius. It combines two children’s nursery rhymes, Peter Piper’s (who does eat pickled peppers) and Bo Peep’s (who does lose her sheep) with the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin flawlessly and brilliantly. The back and forth between past and present is done really well, and it builds up tension perfectly until the final showdown (although that face off is slightly anticlimactic in its execution). The details that Bill Willingham infuses the story with are also very clever from the fairytale romance between Bo and Peter, other characters appearances such as Frau Totenkinder’s or the fact that Frost’s has the ability to avert danger but can that only be used three times in its owner’s life. It is all very fairytale-ish both in writing and in format reminding me of old tales but of the very dark variety.

I cannot fault the plot of this book, I was enraptured by it and devoured the book in one sitting.

Thea: I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ana. Part of the sheer brilliance of the Fables series is in the ways that Bill Willingham finds to integrate familiar nursery rhyme fables into his dark, epic saga. This has become a popular trope as of late – what with Urban Fantasists, Paranormal Romanticists, etc taking iconic mythological figures and plopping them into modern times – but Bill Willingham’s take on fables, living amongst Mundys, fighting against a truly terrifying foe, and (most dangerously and importantly of all) trying to coexist with each other, is a class above the rest. In Peter and Max, Willingham takes a few lesser nursery rhymes – Bo Peep, Peter Piper, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin – and twists a heartwrenching story of sibling rivalry, betrayal, love, and magic across centuries.

Since Ana’s already covered the basics, I will just add a few specific points of interest. I loved the integration of these three fables together – how Bo really loses her sheep (it’s not pretty), how Peter eats the pickled peppers (and also hides his wife in a pumpkin shell later), and how most delightfully depraved of all, the Pied Piper Max leads the rats and children out of Hamelin for his own dark purposes. More than the simple nursery rhymes, however, Mr. Willingham also creates a backstory that fuels Max and Peter’s rivalry in the form of Frost, a magical pipe from a slain foe, that is both a magical gift and a curse for all the Piper family members that wield it. There’s a war story in the background, a court of thieves and assassins, another magical flute named Fire, and a background of bloody revenge. (I don’t want to get into too many specifics, lest I spoil some of the story’s reveals!)

As a reader of the comics, I think the thing that impressed me most about Peter and Max, however, was a different side to some of our favorite “heroic” fables. Since all fables were granted general amnesty for past villainous acts once they sign the Fabletown charter, we’ve seen all of these characters work together toward a common goal. Bigby Wolf is seen as a hero, as is Frau Totenkinder and assorted other reformed villains…but in Peter and Max, we see how truly terrible some of these characters were back in the homeland. And…it’s a pretty cool, sobering contrast.

Finally, I think we should at least address Steve Leialoha’s artwork – which is kind of in the style of Dave McKean’s work in Coraline (the book, not P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation) and The Graveyard Book. What can I say except, bravo? Although I think I prefer Mark Buckingham’s representations ever-so-slightly, Leialoha’s work is gorgeous and fitting for Peter and Max – slightly disney-cartoonish, but with a darker, ink-heavy edge.

On the Characters:

Ana: Now, this is where I take a step back to say that as much as I loved the plot of the novel, something was missing. Whereas plot and setting are brilliantly done in a very clever way, the author never really fully, explores the characters in depth. Let’s face it, the original takes are basically short narratives, that TELL rather than SHOW a story. I love them, of course, growing up as I did, listening to grandpa reading them to. The reason is why retellings speak to me in such a wonderful way is because most of the retellings I have read explore and take character’s motivation further, deeper than the originals. It is a great opportunity for authors to play with themes and stories and sometimes make them even better.

Yes, a Retelling but really, for it to work it should also be a Re-showing and I feel that Bill Willingham passed on this opportunity here. For example, Max’s turn from troubled teenage to EVIIIIIIL Villain, quite jarringly, happened without cause in the space of a few lines. Similarly in the grand finale, there was nothing from an emotional point of view to make it grander and more impacting. Also, once the families are separated, peter becomes a thief and basically forgets about his mother for example. What in the world happened to her?

That is not to say that some of the characters don’t have depth – I particularly liked Bo, for example, becoming an assassin (you have to read it) and how she uses her condition to try and dissuade Peter from going after his brother. It is ugly and it is dark but also very human, I though (which is strange to say, since these characters are not really human).

Thea: I’m a little torn here too. I have to agree with Ana in that Max’s transformation from petty jealousy to EVIL MONSTER was a bit abrupt (this takes place over approximately a paragraph of text) – reminding me of the somewhat anticlimactic reveal of Anakin crossing over to embrace the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith. I would have loved it if the transformation was more subtle, told over a longer time period. This was the one time that I felt Mr. Willingham’s writing was limited by its lack of supporting art to help tell the story. Whereas this shorter time frame could have been more convincing with the incredibly gifted Steve Leialoha completing full panels to accompany the story, instead it felt slightly jarring and unbelievable in the brevity and totality of Max’s transformation.

The other quibble I have with regards to characterization concerns Peter himself – who is a tad bit Too Good. You know what I mean? He’s a loving younger brother, a patient husband, the best flute player in all of the land, etc, etc. In contrast, Bo -with her very human manipulations, as Ana mentions – feels much more real and concrete a character.

But then…there’s also Max. Abrupt transformation aside, Max is pretty damn awesome, and his corruption basically makes the book. One of my favorite scenes is when Max stumbles across an elderly couple in the woods and forces them to do his bidding. All the while, Max’s pettiness and sense of over-importance characterizes his narrative, and later when he has to rely only on himself…well, it’s great stuff. I loved it, plain and simple.

Final Thoughts, Observation and Rating:

Ana: I really enjoyed, heck, I can say that I did love Peter and Max but I feel that I could have adored it. In comics format, the story might have worked splendidly because you would have the aid of the images to convey more feeling but this first foray into prose format was missing that extra awesomesauce to make it a Keeper.

Thea: While I agree with Ana, and I do think that certain parts of the story in particular could have benefited from full-fledged accompanying artwork, for the vast majority of the book Peter and Max stands strong on its own. Mr. Willingham’s storytelling abilities are in top form here, and this is a book that should be devoured by any Fables fan or newbie alike.*

*On a continuity note, this book fits in shortly before Fabletown’s attack on The Adversary – and Peter and Bo both play a role in the war by the end of the book. You’ll see.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

For most of his long years Peter Piper wanted
nothing more than to live a life of peace and safety in some
remote cozy cottage, married to his childhood sweetheart,
who grew into the only woman he could ever love. Which is pretty
much what happened. But there were complications along the way,
as there often are, because few love stories are allowed to be just that
and nothing else.


Our tale, the one that couldn’t quite remain a simple love story,
begins then in Fabletown and almost immediately moves up to the
Farm. It happens because a witch learned something that she told to
a beast, who phoned a wolf, who in turn called his wife’s twin
sister, who never was a princess but perhaps should have been.

And here are two samples of Steve Leialoha’s art (by the way, how great is that name – Lei + Aloha? Someone likes Hawaii!):

L: Peter & Bo; R: Max and Fire


Ana: 7 – Very Good

Thea: 7 -Very Good

Reading Next: Fat Vampire by Adam Rex

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  • celi.a
    July 9, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    If we can indulge in a little ‘what if?’-ing…Do you ladies think you’d have had different reactions (ratings, especially) to this book if you had never read the FABLES graphic novels? Would you have felt the lack of pictures at certain points in the story-telling, or just not noticed?

    Because I still haven’t read a FABLES comic, and I adored Peter & Max. I didn’t have moments where I wished for something more visual…mostly I think because I’ve never seen it. But then again, some of your complaints were about character development in written form…so perhaps you would have come at it the same way? Just a question that popped into my head as I read your review.

  • Ana
    July 10, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Hi Celi.a!

    That IS a good question. My main problem with the novel was character development, so I still believe I would have felt the same without reading the Comics.

    But don’t get me wrong, I loved it too and just wished for that “something” more that would have made it truly awesome for me. This feeling by the way, didn’t happen until the part where they meet in the end. I was expecting more, I was expecting a lot more after everything and Peter didn’t blink an eye then. Up until tha moment, I was sure Peter and Max was going to be an “8”.

    Sorry if this is convoluted, I just woke up 😀

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    July 16, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I loved this book, too, but I’m a Fables fan so I feel a bit biased. 😉 I had the chance to meet Steve Leialoha (haha shamefully I read it as “leia loha” 😉 ) at WonderCon this year and he’s very kind!

  • The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » On the Smugglers’ Radar
    February 12, 2011 at 12:02 am

    […] Next up, check out this AWESOME reissued cover for Peter and Max, a standalone novel by Bill Willingham and illustrated by Steve Leialoha, set in the Fables universe (we did a joint review of the book HERE): […]

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