I've been reading BIll Willingham for years, ever since he started putting out the second volume of his comic book series The Elementals back in the late 80's. Since that time he's created and written all the issues of Fables for Vertigo; with 12 Eisner wins, a Hugo nomination and a couple of awards from YALSA's best graphic novels for Young Adults Fables has been one of the more critically successful comic book series of the last decade. Willingham now steps into the world of straight prose with his first novel, a charming fantasy set in his Fables world titled Peter & Max.
For the uninitiated, the Fables series takes characters from fairy tales, folklore and other open properties and– referring to them all as "Fables" – forces them out of their Homeland, a mystical realm that sits parallel to our own. Peter & Max begins in modern Fabletown, a magical village hidden in New York City where many of the immortal Fables now live. Peter Piper---the same Peter who picked a peck of pickled peppers and challenged the great wolf---is warned that his older and very evil brother Max, aka the Pied Piper, has been causing major problems out in the world. Peter heads for Hamelin, Germany to challenge his brother and put a stop to Max's dark ways for good.
Readers then get a series of flashbacks that take things back to medieval times and set the stage for the final conflict. Fiercely jealous when their father gives the Piper family heirloom, a magical flute named Frost, to the younger Peter Max murders his own father and seeks out dark magical secrets to someday take Frost for his own. After wandering for months in the Black Forest Max meets a powerful witch who gives him his own magical flute, which he quickly dubs Fire. Max learns to use the powers of Fire, first using it to enact the his legendary theft of the children of Hamelin and later to spread disease, chaos and fear everywhere he travels. We also get some snippets of Peter's early life as a thief, as well as his marriage to the trained assassin Bo Peep. Yes, I said trained assassin Bo Peep. The flashbacks feed into a nice, albeit somewhat short, final clash between the brothers.
Fantasy readers new to Fables will get a nice a taste of Willingham’s rich and satisfying world while fans of the comic series will find themselves treated to cameo appearances by popular characters like Bigby (aka the Big Bad Wolf), the Beast and Peter’s wife, Bo Peep. Artist Steve Leialoha (Fables, New Mutants) contributes several black-and-white drawings that very smartly enhance the fairy tale feeling of story.
Unfortunately, the early chapters of the novel have some big problems. Readers are given a brief historical tour of Fabletown as Rose Red tracks down Peter Piper to tell him about his brother. These long sections sit mired within a quagmire of exposition explaining the extensive background of Willingham’s inventive world; all written in a faux-Brothers Grimm style they weigh down the early pages of the book and might scare away readers who need to be grabbed right away. While many of the details given are necessary, they would have worked more effectively had they been sprinkled and used throughout the wider narrative. Readers willing to dig past this slow section, though, will find an action-packed fantasy built around two absolutely captivating characters.