Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We've been traveling a lot this month, first to North Carolina (as mentioned in my wedding planning blog), then a couple of trips to California. So I haven't been able to post as often as I'd like. Once Lura starts work again next week, I'll have more time on my hands needing filling, which means more regular blogging.

So in the time since my last post, I've read a couple of books. The first, Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham is thematically tied to the last book I read, James Owen's The Shadow Dragons, in a couple of ways. For one, it's a prose work by a creator I first discovered through his comic book work. His current big claim to fame is Fables, a series bringing together characters from fables and folklore across various cultures, refugees from their war-torn homelands, now living together in a small neighborhood in New York. Peter & Max is a prose novel, but still part of the Fables series.

Like The Shadow Dragons, Peter & Max draws together a bunch of different folk tales into one cohesive story. The book tells the story of the Piper brothers, Peter (of Pumpkin and Pickled Pepper Eating fame) and Max (the Pied Piper of Hamelin), from childhood to the present day. It's a tale of bitter sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, and Willingham effectively shows how the characters grow and develop from their humble beginnings as part of a family of traveling entertainers. The historical flashbacks alternate with the present day, as we see the resolution to their centuries-old conflict.

I love how Willingham takes the stories we all know and adds real depth and human emotion, fleshing them out. Here, we see how events come together to help foster a psychopath. We see how gentle Peter is forced to adapt to the harsh circumstances with which he is confronted. Despite its origins in a comic book series, this story is perhaps best told as a novel, allowing for a storytelling style that gets right into the characters' heads.

While the comic series deals with the ongoing relationships and political situations within the Fables community, the story of Peter and Max takes place on the sidelines. This helps make this novel completely accessible to new readers. Willingham gives enough background information to understand the setting, but this could easily be someone's first visit to this world.

The writing is clear and precise, focusing more on telling the story than fancy literary tricks. Willingham's voice still comes through clearly, with his characteristic dry wit. According to his blog, he is working on a new novel already, and also has several short stories appearing in various anthologies. That's good news; I like his comics work just fine, but, based on this example, more prose from him will also be something to get excited about.

And while this is notable for being the first prose Fables novel, I don't want to forget the illustrations (and short comics-format epilogue) by regular series inker Steve Leialoha. I've been a fan of his for even longer than I've followed Bill Willingham, and it's nice to see him doing the full art for this book.

I also read the latest Gabriel Hunt novel, Hunt at World's End. I talked a little about the Gabriel Hunt series in a previous entry. Nicholas Kaufman wrote this installment, but I'm not familiar with his work, so I can't pick out his individual style. Like the previous Hunt novels, it's a fast-paced action-adventure story with a supernatural MacGuffin at the heart of it. As always--similar to the Indiana Jones movies--the supernatural element is secondary to the action, so they're not really fantasy novels.

I don't have a lot to add to what I said about the last book. After three books, the Gabriel Hunt formula is becoming pretty apparent: Hunt and a beautiful companion race against a larger-than-life villain to uncover some mysterious and powerful ancient artifact. They're well-written, entertaining diversions, but they're not particularly deep in terms of theme or character, and beyond the surface details, there's not a lot of variety among the stories.

Arguably, the Doc Savage novels that helped inspire this series are pretty formulaic as well. And there's something to be said for knowing what to expect from genre fiction, because sometimes you want the comfort of the familiar.

Since the next Hunt novel isn't due out until next spring, I'm planning on continuing to read them. But if the frequency were to ever increase, I would hope the variety of stories would increase as well.

And now, I'm in the middle of Midwinter by Matthew Sturges. (He's another comics writer turned novelist, and a longtime collaborator with Bill Willingham. No coincidence I'm reading this so soon after Peter & Max.) It's been described as "The Dirty Dozen with Elves," and I'm enjoying it a lot so far. More about that once I've finished.

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