Book Review: Down The Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

Book Review: Down The Mysterly River by Bill Willingham; illustrated by Mark Buckingham

Down the Mysterly River is the first children’s book written by storyteller extraordinaire Bill Willingham, the man we can thank for the beyond-words-awesomeness of the Fables comic book series. Joined by illustrator Mark Buckingham, Bill Willingham has created an adventure story that’s also meta-fiction about the world of story creators, their creations, and the naysayers who try to make creative works conform to “modern” ideas of what’s in and what’s out, what’s fashionable in fiction, and what’s too old-school to be tolerated.

The story begins with Max the Wolf:

Max the Wolf was a wolf in exactly the same way that foothills are made up of real feet and a tiger shark is part tiger, which is to say, not at all.

Max is a twelve-year-old Boy Scout of the Wolf Patrol pack, who is always prepared… but is still discombobulated when he wakes up in a strange land with no idea how he got there. Besides his Boy Scout skills, Max is a gifted detective, and so he sets about solving the mystery of where he is, and more importantly, why he’s there in the first place. Max soon encounters three strange traveling companions: Banderbrock the warrior badger, Walden the brown bear, and McTavish the Monster, who is not an actual monster but rather a fiercely feral barn cat. Strangest of all is the fact that these animals can talk to Max. None of them can explain it, and none of them has any memory of how they landed in this particular place.

There’s no time to ponder, because the chase is on! A mysterious group of cloaked fighters, known as the Blue Cutters, is on their tail, and this menacing bunch means business. Their goal is to catch any and all new arrivals and to “cut” them with their powerful blue swords, so as to give them a more pleasing and appropriate shape. Once cut, the new version is unrecognizable to all, and in fact, believes him or herself to always have been as he or she is now. Naturally, Max and his gang want to avoid the Blue Cutters at all costs, and so set out to seek shelter far down the Mysterly River, where they’ve heard a sanctuary for their kind can be found.

Because I’m a Fables fan, I had to grab this book and give it a try. I originally thought it would be a fun read-aloud to share with my 10-year-old, but after reading it in fits and starts, he lost interest and *cough* gave me permission to finish it on my own. As a result, my reaction to this book has two parts:

First, as a book for children, I’m  not sure that I’d consider it a total success. The adventure scenes are exciting and sometimes even frightening, and the writing is funny and engaging. My son liked a lot of it — but the overarching “meta” context eventually became too much for my son, who gave me a blank stare and a big “huh” whenever we came across clues about this aspect of the book. I think he might have ended up liking it quite a bit if he’d stuck with it, but in point of fact, he just got tired of it after a while. I think Down the Mysterly River might be a better choice for slightly older kids. While it’s listed as recommended for ages 10 and up, I think older and more experienced readers might get the bigger story more easily and appreciate it at the higher level, not just as an adventure tale.

My second reaction, though, is that for me, I had a great time reading this book. The cleverness of the dialogue, the funny twists of phrasing, the unique characters — all combine to make a story that’s fun to read, and smart enough to engage adult readers who enjoy fantasy settings, wide brushstrokes of the improbable, and a sly commentary on writers, editors, critics, and the book world at large.

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