Fair warning: This review of Bill Willingham’s Down the Mysterly River will contain a bit of a spoiler. I usually try to avoid them, but in my mind the “spoiler” is telegraphed so clearly and so early (so much so, I’m not even sure it’s meant to be a surprise) that revealing it doesn’t do much harm. So don’t read past the second paragraph if you would prefer to avoid the spoiler. Down the Mysterly River opens with a young boy scout, Max the Wolf, waking up in a strange wood with no memory of how he got there. Using what he calls his “Five Most Important Rules of Detection” that stood him in good stead in earlier adventures such as the Mystery of the Gruesome Grizzly, Max tries to figure out where he is and how he got there. Things turn quickly stranger and darker, however, when he comes across a talking badger — a warrior named Branderbock who recalls his own death and theorizes he and Max are in the afterlife.
The two are eventually joined by McTavish the Monster, a feral barn cat described as “thirty pounds of pure meanness, spit, and bile”; and a gentle black bear named Walden who had once served as Sheriff of the Grand Green before waking, like Max, to find himself here in what they learn is The Heroes Wood. All of them, for unknown reasons, are being pursued by a group known as the Blue Cutters, named for their magical blue swords which they can use to “cut” and reshape those they hunt into “better” creatures. Max and his companions head for a local oracle and then, based on what they learn from the oracle, they make for one of the several wizard-run sanctuaries in this world, pursued the entire way by the Blue Cutters. They also have encounters with a mysterious traveler known as the Eggman, face a dragon, and lose one of their own to the Cutter. Eventually, what they discover in the sanctuary will call into question all they know of themselves.
Now to the spoiler. What they learn in the sanctuary, and what Max has already somewhat deduced shortly before they arrive there, is that the four of them are fictional characters who appeared in different works by different authors and whose time as characters has come to an end. As I said, I don’t think this qualifies as much of a spoiler, as I think Willingham is pretty upfront about this early on. It doesn’t take much of reading Max’s internal thoughts or dialogue to place him very clearly in the mode of an Encyclopedia Brown or Hardy Boy, the way his adventures are numerous and capitalized and seem a bit unworldly for a 12-year-old boy scout, as in The Mystery of the Cautious Kidnappers when he and his friend “Taffy Clark had been taken as far as Canada’s remote Northwest Territories before he could effect their escape.” Other clues are his overly eloquent speech pattern and his lack of early memories. When he meets a talking badger who died facing dragons, a gentle bear who lived in the Grand Green and was constantly dealing with the trickster cougar Rake in a series of adventures, and a barn cat whose owner was a man named McDonald, well, the clues are falling fast and furious at this point. With this revelation, whether it comes very early or at the very end when it’s all laid out directly, the mysterious Eggman, the Cutters, and the Wizard Swift who heads the sanctuary all take on a metafictional light, as does their very Wizard-of-Oz like quest.
So how does the book work? On the surface level, it’s a solid adventure story, if a bit simple. There are a variety of adventures: run-ins with the Cutters, a dragon, a boat ride over some rapids. They come and go relatively quickly and I wouldn’t have minded a more full involvement in any of them. The fight scenes are truly graphic — though these animals talk, they still fight like animals, and so if you can imagine a badger’s jaws clamping onto the face of a woman and not letting go despite all her efforts, you have a sense of just how savage some of these scenes are. There are also a few deaths. The gruesomeness of the fight scenes combined with the deaths may give one pause in offering this book to a very young reader.
The characters vary in their impact. Max, because he is in that “all good boy detective” mode, is a bit pale, though the first death does have the effect of deepening his character. But all in all, I didn’t feel much for him as a character. The Cutters never really rise beyond cardboard villains, though they had the potential to be more complex and I would have liked to have seen that explored. There is a hint toward the end that any possible sequels might choose to do just that. By far, for me, the two best characters were Branderbock and McTavish and the best part of the novel was their sparring banter back and forth, such as this little scene:
“You think so?” McTavish said. “I’ve killed enough kinds of everything to populate a bigger afterlife than this land could hold. On my worst day, blind in both eyes, with three broken legs, busted teeth, and a bad case of runny-butt from eating too much rotting carrion, I could still beat a pretty-boy like you all the while sparing enough attention to compose love songs for each of my three dozen mistresses.”
“So you say,” Branderbock said, “and yet I can’t help but notice that you’re doing a lot of prancing and hissing, but no actual fighting. Would it help if I take a nap while you see if you can work up your courage to actually do something?”
This is Willingham at his best, and when these two characters interact the book comes to sparkling life. I just wish the rest of the book had some of this sparkle or depth. Willingham is a graphic novelist, best known for his Fables series. And here I’ll confess my general “meh” reaction to graphic novels. While there are exceptions, I tend to find the form lacking in the richness of language or character that I personally respond to in writing, and so my typical reaction once I finish one is “that was nice.” And that’s how I felt about Down the Mysterly River; it was “nice” but had the potential to be more than that. It was satisfying the way a grilled cheese sandwich is, enjoyable even, but I almost always would have liked something a bit more to it — a few more layers of flavor. The style, the characters, the metafictional aspects were all just a bit too simple or too flat for me. Granted, Down the Mysterly River is a children’s novel and so those readers won’t have quite the same reaction. I think many will find it enjoyable and so I do recommend it for that audience. They’ll enjoy the adventure aspect and the metafictional facet will, for many, be their first experience with exploring creativity in that fashion. Its crossover appeal to adult audiences is less likely. Recommended for young readers.