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Peter & Max: Fairy Tales Gone Dark

Updated on August 17, 2010

I generally dislike adaptations of a story into a different medium, as it usually produces a relatively shallow product. However, I was pleasantly surprised by "Peter & Max," a novel set in the world of Bill Willingham's "Fables" comics series, which I have talked about in a previous review. 

It may have been helped along by the fact that Willingham himself wrote the novel, and also that, for the most part, it dealt with Fables who hadn't appeared in the comic. the plot alternates between the relative present (I think by the time the book had come out the Fables had defeated the Adversary, while this is most definitely set before the war) and the history of its principle characters back in the Homelands. As with the comic series, Willingham is able to take even the silliest of fairy tales and nursery rhymes (in the case of this story, Peter Piper, Little Bo Peep, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin) and inject into them a sense of gravitas. The bits set in the past read like a very dark high fantasy novel, and I loved them.

The bits set in the present are slightly less good, mostly because Willingham seems to have devoted more time and energy to the past bits. The only place where this becomes a serious problem was that it caused the climax of the story to seem a bit rushed, as it essentially came out of nowhere. When the climax was revealed, however, upon further thought I realized that there had been setup, so incredibly subtle I hadn't even realized I was getting it (which is odd for me, as I can usually spot a Chekov's Gun a mile off).

The plot deals with Peter and Max Piper, two brothers who grow up in a family of traveling musicians in the Fables Homeland of the Hesse (basically a fantasy version of Germany). Visiting their friends the Peep family, who are minor landed gentry, both families' lives  are suddenly shattered when they find themselves enslaved by the forces of the Adversary, the villainous conqueror responsible for the Fables' presence in our world. Both families manage to escape, but are separated in the Black Forest. To make matters worse, Max and Peter's father had previously decided to bequeath onto Peter, the younger son, a magical flute named Frost, the heirloom of the family. Consumed with jealousy, something goes wrong in Max's head, and he becomes consumed with taking back the magical flute he views as his own birthright. The rest of the novel concerns their struggle back and forth over Frost, and what results from it. 

Max is an  excellent villain, because he is so utterly loathsome. Utterly self-centered, over the course of the story this develops into a sense of smug self-confidence that makes you keep reading if only to see how Peter will eventually defeat him. Peter himself is a pretty good hero, reliable and clever. In the present sections of the story, he's been beaten down by the world, but he still perseveres. I was rooting for him all through the story.

The book also gives us interesting versions of some of the more standard "Fables" characters, particularly Bigby Wolf and Frau Totenkinder. Those two were especially of interest, as we get to see them both when they were much more villainous. Bigby especially is terrifying when Peter accidentally happens upon him, and the book reveals some rather interesting things about Frau Totenkinder that her appearance in the comics may not immediately reveal. It was great seeing these two characters before they reformed and became good guys.

All in all, this was a good novel. It was both an epic fantasy adventure and a good addition to the world of "Fables," full of interesting characters both from the series at large and original, including a wonderful hero and villain. If you are a Fables fan, you must read it, and if you aren't, this could easily convert you. definitely check it out if you stumble upon it.    

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