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Peter And Max: A Fables Novel Review

A book came out this week.  An actual novel (of sorts).  It’s a Fables novel, written by Willingham himself with illustrations throughout by Steve Leialoha.

The novel takes place in our same beloved Fables universe with appearances by our same beloved Fables characters but stars and brings the spotlight on two relatively new characters who we’ve only seen once, and heard mentioned once.  The book stars it’s titled characters Peter and Max, more specifically Peter Piper and his older brother Max Piper (who will later be known as the Pied Piper for a time).  The plot of the book hops back and forth between “present day” (a few months before the Great War) and flashbacks of younger peter and max in the homelands, from children all the way up until after they’ve left the homelands and come to New York in 1918.

I really greatly enjoyed this book.  I would say I loved it, there is SOMETHING holding my back from textually fellating the book with praise though, and i’ll get to that in a minute but I wanted to point out that I do greatly enjoy this.   The characterization and interactions between all of the characters is spot on it’s obvious how long Willingham has been writing all of these people, or thinking about then, he knows how Bigby should sound pre or post amnesty, he knows how Beast should sound and he knows where and what they should be doing.  That’s really the meat and potatoes of the book, excellent characters and excellent interactions between those characters.  The illustrations are gorgeous.  I never knew Leialoha before this and I feel like I’ve been missing out.  When it’s accompanying a flashback the art is clean and elegant, something you’d find in the higher quality original printings of some of these classic fairy tales.  When it’s in the present day, well, the art is just fucking clean and elegant.

Now I said this book is not perfect, there is some problem with it, so i’ll try to articulate what that is.  The first thing that pops into my mind is that the book feels light.  As far as plot goes, it’s absolutely a simple and straight forward plot Peter is trying to find his evil older brother Max and “end” his threat once and for all.  The present chapters are the lightest ones in the book mostly just serving as stop gaps “Peter gets on a plane”, “Peter drives on the autobahn”, etc. etc.  The weight of the book is produced in flashbacks, building Peter and Max into the men they will become for their final show down at the end of the book.  And those parts are entirely excellent, I absolutely feel like I know who those characters are, it’s just the resolution to most of, if not all of the conflicts in the book are a little simple and handed over too easily.

Along with that it was a quick read.  I’m interested to know how the book feels for someone who doesn’t read the comic, as I’m not sure the concept is totally explained in the opening portion of the book, but then again I could be wrong. The last numbered page is 368, with a little 8-page sequential epilogue after that, and all said it probably only took me about 3 and a half hours to read through, which definitely added to the feeling that it was light.  So, that’s it for the spoiler-free general thoughts on the book, now i’m going to get into the details.

SPOILERS.

This is still a really fucking good book.  Peter is the good-natured charismatic rogue that the Fables universe was lacking.  Not the ever scheming ne’erdowell Jack, or the overly seductive prince charming.  Peter’s a good kid who loves his family, playing his pipe, and a certain little girl in the Peep family who tends her sheep which everyone calls ‘Bo.  Max is his older and jealous brother, Peter gets all the praise for his musical talents, so much so that their father even gives HIM the magical family heirloom Frost, which allows it’s owner to play a little tune and use the pipe to force Danger to “pass him by” 3 times, and 3 times only, until it is passed down to the next son in the Piper family.  This action leads Max further down his path of jealousy and eventually evil and corruption.  Pretty simple and straight forward, huh?

Anyways, early one the families (The Pipers and the Peeps) come under capture by the Empire (army of the adversary), under the cloack of night escape into the black forest and are killed, scattered, and ripped from their lives.  Eventually Peter finds his way to Hamelin, becomes a theif, finds and  marries his believed Bo Peep, flees Hamelin, runs into his brother Max, flees the homelands, and lives in waiting until news of Max arrives again forcing him to go find him and settle things once and for all.  Max, kills some people, lives in the forest, gets his own evil magical pipe from Frau Totenkinder, kills some more people, kills some rats, kid naps and sacrifices some children, attacks his brother, creates Spanish influenza, and then faces his brother in the final show down.

The entire book is built around the fact that Peter and Max are gonna fight.  They’re going to have some sort of epic pipe show down and end things once and for all.  And that happens.  Sort of.

Frost, Peter’s pipe, is the most defensive magic pipe ever.  It’s only ability is 3 shots of “let danger pass me by” and that’s exactly what it does.  The first time Peter uses this is Peter and his run in with Bigby, well before he’s out beloved sheriff back in his BIG BAD Wolf days.  Leaving us with the tale of Peter and Wolf.  That’s one of my favorite things, the incorporation things I never even thought of.  A boy named Peter who plays a flute to get rid of a wolf, OF COURSE Peter Piper has to be the same Peter from Peter in the wolf.  And it’s a great little retelling of the scene, Peter plays his flute commanding it to make Danger pass him by and flee far far away, and that’s exactly what it does.  Doing this saves Peter, and the then accompanying Bo Peep, allowing her time to escape from Bigby.  This ALSO saves him from Max, who at the time is following him trying to kill him.  We also however get the first glimpse into the draw back of the pipe.  Danger passes HIM by, but leaves Bo Peep to run into Max.  She does okay and gets away.  But it’s an interesting note and idea that’s set up, and unfortunately it’s a consequences that doesn’t really get it’s due.  Later on when Peter uses the pipe for the 3rd time he lets danger pass him by, but it goes right to Bo, leaving her burnt and crippled from the waist down.  It’s a cool idea that the magic is very specific and it has to be used in specific ways otherwise there are going to be consequences but it doesn’t get followed up on.  Again, it’s light.  We see Peter and Bo after that incident and they’re kind of shells comparatively.  They’re shown living a ways off from the Farm in a little cottage by themselves and even said to have kind of been living just waiting for Max to come back and having to deal with it.  And that’s really the shame.  It’s great potential for even MORE character development and plot points of their lives, but it’s just kind of let go.

There’s no reason the book couldn’t have been longer.  It’s a quick read and there was a lot of other story to be told.  Max really seems to have more of a complete journey, mostly just because he gets the benefit of the “mysterious evil” card.  When his story blips on and off the radar it can, and is, just written away as “he was off learning more evil with Fire his evil pipe”.  And it works, because he always comes back more deranged and evil.  He creates Spanish Influenza!  And worse, he doesn’t create it to torture the mundy’s he creates it for alternate torture to the fables, who are seemingly immune to it, but in fact it turns out to actually be the reason all of the Fables are sterile (until Frau Totenkinder cures Bigby and Snow of it later).

Bo Peep is great, she’s a freakin assassin!  Along the same vein of his treatment of Cinderella he turns a normal dainty fables damsel into a total badass.  But we don’t get to see her as a bad ass at all.   We get a one-line explanation from her that she was found and given to an assassins guild and trained to be one.  And then we see her get one mission that leads her into Peter’s arms, then see her be a bit clever and tell Peter to hide her in a pumpkin (again! So inclusive, Peter is the Peter who’s wife lives in a pumpkin, heh), then she gets burnt by Max and just is regulated to angry cripple.  And that’s a shame.  As a child she’s a great character, when she’s reintroduced as an assassin she’s brilliant and clever.  But he just isn’t there enough.  Not nearly.

The showdown to me was anticlimactic.  By this point we know Peter has used Frost all 3 times, and Max has grown ridiculously powerful with Fire, to the point where he’s even staved off an ALL OUT assault from Frau Totenkinder herself in her place of power (which is ridiculously impressive).  They meet in Hamelin, have no real discussion about things behind Max doing a bit of evil monologueing.  Max plays Peter like a puppet, Peter shows he isn’t the slow boy he and Bo Peep joke he used to be, and outsmarts his brother.  One quick blow from a reasonably clever guy and it’s over.  Peter grabs his stuff, Fire and leaves.  And that’s kind of it.  No epic pipe battle.  No heart wrenching drama between two brothers.  Just good guy kills bad guy after spending hundreds of years living in fear.  it’s a clever conclusion, I give it that.  The seeds are set for it very early on, in a way that doesn’t make it to obvious.  At one point Peter is reading a detective novel on a plain, and curses himself for not figuring it out given that all the clues were there, and I kind of felt the same way.  The clues for how Peter is going to beat max are there, but damned if they aren’t inserted in a ridiculously sly way.  and damned if it doesn’t just seem TOO SIMPLE.  But it makes sense, and it’s well written, so in the end it works.

The epilogue deals with what Peter, Bo, and Clara the fire breathing dragon/bird do during the Great War, and honestly is cool, but unnecessary.  It’s supposed to act a a deep little epilogue about the price of innocence and war etc etc, but eh.  It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. And I would have rather had an extra 8 pages of writing, or story-centric illustrations in the book.

It’s a fantastic book, and for 23 bucks, it’s a nice little hardcover with aesthetically pleasing uneven pages that add to the experience of reading it.  I don’t regret buying it at all for a second, I just wish there was more.  The tone of it leads me to think that we won’t be seeing an arc for Peter or Bo in the comic any time soon, which is a shame because I really want more time with these characters.  Especially post-Peter and Max, or in the homelands before their run in with Max.  I don’t think we’ll get it but the book leaves me hungry for more, which is one of the marks of a great book I suppose.  Although, I think another mark of a great book is that it leaves you full and satisfied.  But hey, I enjoyed it all the way through, that’s enough.

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