Author: Bill Willingham with illustrations by Mark Buckingham
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Publication date: September 13th 2011 (First published 2001)
Hardcover: 336 pages
Down the Mysterly River is the children’s book debut of Bill Willingham, the creator of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel series Fables. Complete with illustrations by Fables artist Mark Buckingham, it is a spirited, highly original tale of adventure, suspense, and everlasting friendship.
Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.
Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: We both picked up signed copies at BEA
Why did we read this book: We are both HUGE fans of Bill Willingham and when we learned he would be signing at BEA, we totally squeed and lined up to get our precioussss signed copies.
Ana: Bill Willingham is the writer of the comic book series Fables which has been going strong for years and although I have not read every single volume of the comics, I did read quite a few and enjoyed what I read a great lot. When I learned about Down The Mysterly River which is his first incursion into MG writing, it was all I could do not to drool all over myself. Needless to say, expectations were high and in truth, for the most part, they were met. The ending was not quite au par with the rest of the book but overall Down the Mysterly River is a solid old-fashioned adventure for kids and adults.
Thea: Of all the monthlies that I have read in the past, Fables (and Jack of Fables) has emerged as the only series that I keep up with on a regular, consistent basis. I love Bill Willingham’s knack for writing, his effortless worldbuilding, and his kickass characters (including strong heroines that are made of awesomesauce). His talent extends beyond the visual medium of comics, as both Ana and I loved Peter and Max, Mr. Willingham’s Fables prose novel. Thus, I was similarly ecstatic (and drooly) when I learned of Down the Mysterly River and that the illustrious Bill Willingham would be signing at BEA. And, I have to concur with Ana – for the most part, Down the Mysterly River does not disappoint. Chock full of adventure and mystery, with unlikely friendships forged and enemies made, Down the Mysterly River is a lovely stand alone novel. I do have to agree with Ana that the ending was disappointing in the extreme for me, but sometimes it’s not about the ending – I enjoyed the journey with these characters so much that a shoddy explanation doesn’t outweigh my enjoyment. (This is totally like the tumultuous years with LOST, or Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, when I think about it.)
On the Plot:
Ana: Max ‘the Wolf’ finds himself walking alone in the middle of a forest with no memory of how he came to be there. Since he is wearing his Boy Scout uniform, he easily assumes – given his proclivity to solve mysteries – he had been on a scouting trip and got somehow separated from his group.
When he comes across equally amnesiac talking animals – first a warrior-badger called Banderbrock and then MacTavish the Monster, a barn cat with megalomaniac tendencies – he realises he might need to revise his theory as he must be either dreaming or dead. But before he can get to the bottom of this mystery, they come under attack by a group of Cutters, out to get any new arrivals and cut away and re-shape their personalities according to their credo, by using their fantastic Blue Swords.
The ragtag band needs to stick together if they have any chance of survival and along with Walden, an affable bear, they must go down The Mysterly River to find the answers they seek.
(Down the Mysterly River was first published back in 2001 and is now being re-released after some reworking and with new illustrations by Fables artist Mark Buckingham. Although it is not clear the extent of the changes, as far as we are aware, this is the same book.)
Down the Mysterly River opens really well, with one of my favourite tropes: with the hero suffering loss of memory, trying to figure out what in the world is happening to him. Mind you, this is a favourite trope not because of the memory loss per se but because of how that affects the narrative by making Max the Wolf’s point of view unreliable – and that is one of my favourite types of narrative. We are never quite sure as to which extent we can rely on Max’s knowledge of the world and that is definitely part of the fun of this story, at least it was for me.
Beyond that, this book is a wonderful mixture of old-fashioned adventure and mystery, with a group of reluctant allies getting to together to fight in a united front against a common enemy. It has cool action sequences, amazing scenes between the characters, moments that are sad, moments that are hilarious and for about 2/3 of the book, this was well on its way to be comes a favourite of 2011. It was almost magical.
But then there came the final act. And then I learned what was really going on. And do you know how the unreliable narrative is one of my favourite types of narratives? Well, the revelations in the end of the book transform this book into one of my least favourite types of story. I won’t spoil as this is definitely a matter of personal preference. However, personal preferences aside, there is the matter of HOW the ending came about.
All of a sudden, in its final pages, the book became less of a story and more of a pamphlet when for about 30 pages or so there comes one very long-winded , info-dumpy, speech when all the mysteries were explained to Max by another character they meet. It substituted magic with something else which I would call…preaching. This had a completely different tone from the rest of the book. The ending felt far too rushed, it felt too much like a cop-out and although it didn’t really ruin the entire book for me, it certainly adds to this overall feeling of dissatisfaction. Just to reiterate the dissatisfaction doesn’t stem from the actual content of ending (which granted, I wasn’t crazy about) but because of how it was info-dumped in the story.
It just….didn’t sit well with me at all.
Thea: Down the Mysterly River begins with an intriguing premise – a boy named Max the Wolf (although he’s not a real wolf, as everyone points out) befriends the fierce warrior badger Banderbrock, and together try to solve the mystery of their lost memories and strange new environment whilst evading deadly pursuers.[1. I now realize that this is the exact same setup for one of my favorite movies of 2010, Predators. But you know, middle grade style.] Along the way they meet McTavish, a smarmy and confident feral cat, and Walden the Bear, as they try to evade a vicious group of hunters called The Cutters, who follow the group in relentless pursuit with their wickedly sharp and cruel blue blades. Right off the bat, Down the Mysterly River is a blend of all the things I love in a story: a friendship between a band of unlikely characters, a mystery, and a dangerous adventure and pursuit. Top this off with Bill Willingham’s storytelling panache, with deceptively simple, straightforward prose, and I am one very happy reader. Take, for example, this small section describing how the Mysterly River got its name amongst the traveling friends:
“A river that big has to have a name,” Max said, looking at McTavish.
“So?” McTavish said.
“Well, you’ve been here the longest. Did you happen to hear if it was called anything? Or more important, if it leads to anywhere civilized?”
“It’s a mysterly to me,” McTavish said.
“Mysterly?” Banderbrock said.
“Yes,” McTavish said.”As in something unknown, or mysterlious. What’s so funny all of a sudden with you two?”
But beyond the mechanics, I also loved the conceptualization of this strange new world to which our heroes have been transported, and I was on my toes with the mystery of the Cutters, who they are and what they wanted from our band of friends.
Unfortunately, I have to agree with Ana in that when we finally learn exactly who the Cutters are and why Max and friends are in the Heroes Wood, the overall explanation is decidedly disappointing. While I’m sure that people will disagree with the actual concept behind the book and the effectiveness of that explanation for everything (this comes down to personal preference, as Ana says), I have to agree that the manner in which the book’s ending is explained to the characters is info-dumpy and frustrating. There’s a great Wizard of Oz type of vibe, but it quickly devolves into more of Neo talking to The Architect and getting point-blank answers a la The Matrix Reloaded. That said, while the big reveal twist ending just didn’t work for me, that is not enough to diminish the awesomeness that is the majority of this otherwise fantastic story.[2. I should also note that this criticism of the ending does not apply to the epilogue, which I think is pitch perfect and a beautiful way to end this story.]
On the Characters:
Ana: Lovable: here is one word I hardly ever use when writing a review but the characters in this book were so lovable I can hardly think of a better word. Max the Wolf was at that defining moment: not really a boy, not yet a man and as such his arc involved trying to navigate those waters – especially when dealing with the consequences of life and death decisions which he had to make on his own, as he was after all, the brains of this operation. Mature, steadfast, loyal, Max was perhaps too good to be true but incredibly sympathetic and well, lovable. I couldn’t resist him. As I couldn’t resist McTavish the Monster who was by far, my favourite character of the bunch. He has this attitude, this temper that is just like…well, so feline. He cracked me up so up.
As for the villains, the Cutters, it wasn’t really clear to me why they felt they needed to do all this cutting beyond “there are people in the world that can’t accept differences” and some of the characters sounded as though they could be great villains but their point of view was not truly explored in depth. However the mere threat of what they could do to a person/character was suitably terrifying: just to imagine Max the Wolf losing all of what made him such a great boy-hero gave me the heebie jeebies – so I guess in that sense, the villains served their purpose.
My main complaint about the characters is just an overall note to say that there is a distinct lack of female characters in this story especially on the heroes’ side. Bummer.
Thea: Lovable is a perfect adjective to describe the ragtag group of heroes in this tale, from the perceptive Max to the good-natured Walden. Max is very much the noble boy-detective and the quintessential boy scout, ready to help his friends and brave enough to take on the Cutters and do some very hard things when the time calls for it. My personal favorites were both Banderbrock and McTavish – Banderbrock for his fierceness, and McTavish for the comic relief (though he is quite the fighter as well).
On the Cutters end, I do wish these characters could have been given more personal/individual motivation. We meet one cutter in particular that is very interesting – Lady Diana, one of the most skilled Cutters, hot on the trail of the group – but while her dedication is fascinating, I never really felt the underlying motivation that propelled her or her ilk. And, even with the final explanation given at the end of the story, I just couldn’t buy into it. I do like the concept of the cutters and their wicked blades – but I wish there was just a bit more to flesh these characters out.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: Down the Mysterly River uncannily managed to combine in one single book both one of my favourite AND one of my least-liked tropes. Overall, this is a solid story that I enjoyed reading for the most part.
Thea: Regardless of how I feel about the ending (and yes, I agree with Ana that it is one of my least favorite tropes in terms of story explanation and mystery solving), I loved the journey of Down the Mysterly River. Recommended for all.
“And how do we get down there with you?” McTavish asked. “Or is it just how you plan to escape, leaving us to fend for ourselves?”
“I’ll ignore the implied insult for a moment,” Max said, “because I’m sure we’re the very friends you’ve ever had, and you don’t know how it’s supposed to work yet. You two can get down because I will already be there to catch you.”
“That’s your plan?” Banderbrock asked.
“Not a chance,” McTavish said. “You’d miss, or drop me.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Max said.
“How can I be sure?” McTavish said.
“Because in this time, in this place, all we have is each other,” Max said, “I’d never let you down, which is a statement with literal implications in this case.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Bradenbrock said. “It has the added advantage of desperation.”
Ana: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations
Thea: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations (though tipping towards a 7)
Buy the Book:
Ebook available for kindle