This book was my second assignment for losing that NFL wager with George R. R. Martin. And as much as I hate losing a bet like this, I have to give props to GRRM for at least selecting good titles for me to read. Other than Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth (Canada, USA, Europe), I've enjoyed my "punishments" thus far.
Bill Willingham's Peter & Max is set in the universe of the award-winning comic book Fables. It's not a graphic novel, however. It is indeed a prose novel, the very first ever published by Vertigo/DC Comics. Although it's a stand-alone work, I feel that fans of the comic book will probably get more out of their reading experience. Newcomers to the world of Fables can easily follow the tale from start to finish, mind you. Yet I reckon that we might miss some of the nuances found throughout the book.
Centuries ago in the depths of the Black Forest, Peter Piper and his older brother Max encountered forces that changed them both forever. Their ordeals will set them against one another, with magic and music serving as the backdrop for this tale of revenge. Peter has always known that Max would eventually find him, and he must once and for all stand up against his brother's malicious magical powers.
Though not a graphic novel, Peter & Max features some beautiful ink illustrations by Fables artist Steve Leialoha. Some of the drawings truly bring scenes to life, creating an imagery which adds another dimension to the reading experience.
The worldbuilding is probably the most interesting facet of this novel. Fabletown is concealed by powerful spells in the middle of the Upper West Side of New York City. Over the millennia, the Fables, magical people fleeing the Adversary from their Homelands, came to settle with others of their kind on Earth. Hence, in Fabletown you'll find Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Bigby Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, and many more. Those Fables who can't pass as human now live at the Farm, another refuge in Upstate New York. I'm persuaded that they delve into this aspect with more depth in the comic book, but it was kind of neat to read about many of our childhood's fairy tales reinvented like this.
There are a few portions of the book were the pace gets bogged down a bit, but overall the rhythm of Peter & Max is quite satisfactory. The story alternates between what occurs in "real time" and scenes from the past showing how the Piper brothers became estranged.
The characterization can be a bit uneven. For instance, there are brilliant moments such as Peter's relationship with his handicapped wife at the beginning of the novel. The entire set-up is particularly well-done. Unfortunately, Max is nowhere near as fully realized as his younger brother, and as a character he doesn't get the same credibility. And the fact that he's not quite genuine influences the quality of the tale as the story heads toward a confrontation between Peter and Max. Personally, I found most "real time" sequences to be quite enjoyable, but the flashbacks were a bit hit or miss.
Overall, Peter & Max was a fun read, regardless of its few shortcomings. The book starts off pretty strongly; so much so that I entertained high hopes for a grand finale. The sluggish pace of the middle parts and a somewhat predictible ending sort of put a damper on things, though. Still, in the epilogue Willingham shows, as he did early on, that he possesses a deft human touch that can be heartwarming.
If you are looking for a lighter and different read, Bill Willingham's Peter & Max could be just what the doctor ordered. And now, I'm curious to read the comic book to see how it compares with the prose novel. . .
The final verdict: 7.25/10