Brom re-imagines Peter Pan, with a hint of the original Gothic flavor and a host of new touches. Is he trying to fix what isn’t broken, or putting a fresh spin on a stale story?
This is an older review of mine, extremely well done for the time. I’ve been meaning to touch it up for years now, but the most that I’ve done so far was to update a slightly out of place allusion with a more fitting one. When I read and reviewed The Child Thief, I was still new to novel reviews, having done more film reviews than novels at that point (though I was on the road to changing that). I’d still like to remaster this review, but I feel like I may need to read some more Peter Pan lore and another Brom book to really give this book a fair swing.
Peter was a boy born to a normal mother and an unusual father, at a time when abnormality in an infant could get one killed. Somehow, he survived long enough to fight for his own survival, but the damage was done – Peter would forever be alone, unique, despite the family he would desperately try to build around him. But he was never lacking in mortal enemies…
Nick is a young man living in the slums of Brooklyn, the victim of a drug lord that’s taken over his home and from there much of his life. He takes some drastic action, has more bad luck, and needs to get away – fast. He’s saved by a faerie boy who takes him to another place. But this place isn’t the safe haven Nick was told it would be. Not anymore…
What hooks me most about Child Thief is the style of writing. I’m a big fan of the in-depth character studies, the ones that will give you every emotion, thought, and tidbit of history trivia of every character they touch. My favorite authors with this style are Stephen King, Karen Traviss, Clive Barker and, after Child Thief, Brom. I love the way this book is written, and if the rest of his work is like this, I will definitely be seeking more of his work out. It’s the story told by an artist who can tell an epic just by splashing a bit of paint in a character’s eyes. I haven’t seen much of his art, but again, if Child Thief is any indication, this is how he pans out.
The narrative is told mostly in two parts, that of Nick, and that of Peter. There are other voices, but they’re telling different parts of Peter’s and Nick’s stories. As with many stories told in two different parts, Child Thief falls victim to (or takes advantage of) convenient parallel stories. Each relevant part of Peter’s story just happened to occur in the correct sequence that it’s revealed to us, in sequential order, in the same order that it’s needed to avoid boring exposition in Nick’s story. Of course, there is some exposition, but not only is it told in an inspiring and subjective way, it’s also countered by the opposite side’s point of view describing the exact same point. It definitely did a good job, and this gives me an in to explain one of the great strengths of this novel.
One of the most basic literary techniques, probably older than literature itself, is to dehumanize the antagonist. This allows wanton destruction of the enemy to be cheered by those who would normally mourn the loss of life. Child Thief does this, to a point. The Flesh Eaters are no longer human, they’ve become monsters, they kill wantonly and eat the flesh of the dead, their skin is blackened and they have claws, etc. But then, it throws you for a loop. It shows you the human side. The Flesh Eaters, UIfger, Peter, the Witch…they all have their human side, and they all have their side of the story. Just like no character is perfect – everybody has their flaws, to the point that it’s up to the reader who is truly the protagonist and who isn’t. This isn’t a perfect grey novel, however, as there are definite villains. Ulfger, for example, despite his occasionally noble goals, does not commit a single act that is anything less than tyrannical. Certain Flesh-Eaters are villainous enough to potentially place Brom in the company of such authors as either Stan Nicholls or Clive Barker, depending on how deep the rabbit hole goes. Suffice it say that the villainous Captain is more Peter’s grey area counterpart than either of them believe, contrary to popular Disney lore.
The plot works nicely around these characters, allowing the characters to control it but moving drastically. The structure of the story is akin to Highlander. Rather than experiencing the story from beginning to end, Peter’s story details what might be Act Two of a five act play, introducing the first great changes to Avalon, while Nick in at the start of Act Five, centuries after the war with the Flesh Eaters has dragged on. The entire story is building to a climax the whole time, and Nick shows up just in time to watch the climax unfolding. As in the Fifth Act of any great work, the fantasy world of Avalon will never be the same again, and as the novel closes we’re left to imagine what will happen next.
That’s not to say there’s not a whole story. Nick’s story, for example, includes his meeting Sekeu, who would fill the role of a mentor, as well as Cricket, the closest thing this book has to love interest, not to mention the rival in Leroy, and of course his ongoing conflict with Peter. Unfortunately, there’s no real climax relating to any of these personal relationships – the climax focuses more on the overarching plots and casts Nick aside much the way Chewbacca was cast aside by the Yuuzhan Vong.
Mixed in with the characters and the plot is the setting. As fantasy settings go (excluding science fantasy), there are a few well known ones. There is the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien, which not only redefined the meaning of “elf“, but also set the precedent that would go on to create the fantasy settings of Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and countless others. Then comes the fantasy setting of Harry Potter, which is a more recent blend of the mythology of dozens of cultures taken relatively more directly from the source material. There’s a little bit of Tolkien in Rowling’s setting (the example that comes easiest to mind is the trolls in the first book), but most of it is admirably precise to the original myths. After this, you usually get a wide variety of spin-offs of either of the above, either for familiarity or research reasons, or smaller, more exclusive settings that don’t really buy into a more general mythology (such as novels about vampires or the like). Second and third least common, you get completely original fantasy worlds based on absolutely nothing at all, and more exotic, often non-Euclidean fantasy worlds that have branched off from the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Finally, you get the fantasy settings that would stand up with Tolkien and Rowling if only enough people were aware of them. Child Thief is one of these (Stan Nicholls’s Orcs trilogy is another). These are the ones that separate the humans from the fantasy, and build upward from there, using the same source material that both of the aforementioned well-known authors had. In the case of Child Thief, the only thing I recognized as “borrowed” from a more modern setting is the Tolkienesque elves which are introduced farther into the novel. The trolls, the pixies, the witch and her daughters, all of this seems unique… and yet familiar. It just touches on enough cultures to tell us this is nowhere near the medieval culture of the fantasy we’re familiar with. It brings out a different feeling, one that works perfectly with the story of Peter Pan and the Devils.
Child Thief mixes these elements of character, plot and setting the way an expert illustrator mixes his paints. Almost all of the characters are relatable, and all of them are memorable. The plot is high energy, but difficult to get lost in, flowing like a waterfull until the big plunge. I heartily recommend this book to any fantasy enthusiast, and even the odd social scientist. This new look at Peter Pan is worth it.