To this point, the only way I’ve known Bill Willingham’s work was through his Fables series of graphic novels, and I’ve only read the first two of those. Down the Mysterly River came highly recommended from a friend who’s read the entire Fables series and is a huge fan of Willingham. I blew through it and, much like the last book I reviewed, was slightly miffed throughout because I thought I was reading some highly derivative work. Once again, I was wrong. Once again, that twist at the end is key, and it changes the whole game.
From the Goodreads summary:
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…
As I read, I was immediately drawn in by Willingham’s sense of place, but also the sense of disorientation and despair that Max feels upon finding himself in an unknown wood populated by talking animals and chased down by crazy people with blue swords. Banderbrock, Walden, and even McTavish endeared themselves to me from the outset, each very interesting. And yet, as I progressed, I felt as though I’d seen some of these characters before. Not necessarily these exact characters, but these seemed to be echoes of characters I’d read before: the name Max the Wolf, I think, is an allusion to Max from Where the Wild Things Are, but if he was combined with Encyclopedia Brown. He has rules for detection, he solves and names his mysteries, and he doesn’t really talk like a kid. Similarly, Banderbrock reminds me of Trufflehunter from Prince Caspian, Walden of Winnie the Pooh if he were a policeman, and McTavish of O’Malley the Alley Cat from The Aristocats and the cat from The Secret of NIMH. Those are all fine allusions, really, but I wasn’t blown away by them.
The pursuit was exciting and danger-filled, and the mystery of where they are and why they’re there was also engrossing, but I still wasn’t absolutely enthralled. That is, until the last 1/4 of the book. Then it got real. I can’t tell you much more than that, because the surprise is delightful and so, so satisfying. It’s touching and intriguing, easily leading into sequels. Everything came together perfectly.
This is one that 6th graders could easily read, though there is a surprising bit of blood, mainly from McTavish the scrappy cat who likes to fight, as well as one scene with a blue cutter. However, it’s not overly graphic—more of a solid PG rating. I really enjoyed it, and the end made me appreciate everything that came before it much more.