Bill Willingham is best known for his acclaimed comic book series Fables, the story of a band of fairy tale characters living in the real world after the world they came from is overtaken by an evil force. It’s an adventure tale, a war story and a romance all in one, but it’s also a story about the nature of stories, about creations and how they become bigger than their creators.
Down the Mysterly River, Willingham’s new novel for children, is a variation on the same theme. On the surface it’s a boyhood adventure tale filled with talking animals and sinister adults and sentient trees. But beneath all that, wrapped in this idyllic childhood romp, is another story about stories.
Max is an adventurous boy who loves solving mysteries, but when he wanders too far in the woods and into an unfamiliar landscape, he finds himself in the midst of a case he can’t solve. Things get even stranger when he meets a talking badger, a talking cat and a talking bear, and finds himself pursued by sinister humans called Blue Cutters, who have swords that do far more than simply cut flesh. They cut out parts of people, memories, qualities, feelings. They edit people like editors do characters, and they want to change something about Max.
The book is essentially a road story, as Max and his new friends travel down a river that Max himself has named the “Mysterly,” as they try to find answers with the Cutters in hot pursuit. As the tale builds, Willingham makes it clear that he’s not just telling an amusing tale for children. He’s meditating on the magic of stories, the magic of making something out of nothing.
But the tale itself is what propels the exploration of ideas as living, breathing things. Down the Mysterly River maintains a leisurely but compelling pace, fueled by its characters and their bemused, energetic dialogue.
Willingham’s comic book roots make him a distinctly visual storyteller, and – with the help of gorgeous illustrations by his longtime collaborate Mark Buckingham – Down the Mysterly River is a distinctly visual book. It seems to crawl out of the pages at you like a fairy tale all its own, and that’s more than good writing. That’s a little bit of a magic.
A child might pick up Down the Mysterly River and find an enthralling adventure to get lost in. Adults might pick it up and find a layered contemplation of fantasy and imagination. But everyone who picks it up will find a story they can’t put down.
Down the Mysterly River is available in bookstores now.