cover image Down the Mysterly River

Down the Mysterly River

Bill Willingham, illus. by Mark Buckingham. Tor/Starscape, $15.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7653-2792-5

Eisner-winning comics creator Willingham (the Fables series) makes his middle-grade debut with an action-packed and often touching novel (published in a different form by Willingham's Clockwork Storybook collective in 2001) that explores the nature of characters and authorship. Twelve-year-old Max, a Boy Scout and self-professed detective, finds himself in a strange forest with no idea how he got there. He soon meets a group of talking animals who are equally confused about their provenance, including a badger named Banderbrock, a gentle bear named Walden, and the mean cat McTavish. They encounter mysterious hunters called the Blue Cutters, who use their blades to literally cut into the history of creatures, rearranging their pasts to suit the Cutters' desires. Willingham roles out his themes slowly, only fully spelling them out in the final scene, but they don't interfere with the rollicking story, nasty (but fully realized) villains, and heroic camaraderie. Likewise, although references from The Princess Bride to Edgar Rice Burroughs abound, they're smoothly integrated, never letting readers suspect they might be missing a joke. The end result is a stellar example of a novel working both as an adventure tale and as metafiction. Ages 10%E2%80%93up. (Sept.)